Out of the Slush Pile and onto the Shelves

Recently while speaking on a panel at a writer’s conference, I couldn’t help but notice that all during my presentation, a young woman glared at me from the front row. After the panel was over, the woman came up to me, introduced herself and said, “I sent you a story for the anthology you were putting together last spring. Why didn’t you publish it?” I looked at her and sighed. Could I tell her the truth–that I had no idea why I didn’t publish her story because frankly I didn’t remember it–and add insult to injury? I decided I could not, and mumbled, as kindly as I could, some general words about the fine art of editing an anthology; that often a book takes on a different shape than the editor originally expected, and that her story hadn’t fit in to the collection as a whole. “Hmph!” The budding author growled before she stomped off, leaving me shaking my head and vowing once again never to attend another writer’s conference.

Why did I decline the offer of this young woman’s story? (I try to avoid using the word “reject;” when a writer sends me a story, it is an offer than I sometimes accept and sometimes decline.) Of course the quality of the work is the most important factor in my decision, but there are other factors as well.

A professional presentation is not enough to guarantee a manuscript’s acceptance, but as my grandmother would say, “it couldn’t hurt.” More importantly, an unprofessional presentation can–and frequently does–hurt a writer’s chances of seeing his or her work in print. What do I mean by “unprofessional presentation”? Following is a list of the twenty top ways to keep your manuscript from receiving a fair reading from an editor.

  1. Your manuscript is not on the topic. (I once edited a collection of poetry about Jewish grandmothers written by Jewish granddaughters, and received a sheaf of poems by a Jewish man about his grandfather, along with a cover letter that scolded me for being sexist and prejudiced).
  2. Your manuscript is handwritten, or printed in some exotic font that is supposed to look handwritten.
  3. Your manuscript is printed with such faded ink it is clear you have not changed your typewriter ribbon or daisy wheel or ink jet for a very long time.
  4. Your manuscript is single-spaced, or has very wide margins or very narrow margins. (Double-spacing, with one inch margins all around is the general rule).
  5. Your manuscript is printed on hot pink or orange paper that looks like it would glow in the dark.
  6. Your manuscript is printed on the back of an article about the dangers of styrofoam and comes with a note explaining that you care passionately about the environment, so all the paper you use is recycled.
  7. You have not followed instructions (for example, my guidelines set the maximum length for a story at 25 pages; your story is 35 pages, or 55 or 103).
  8. Your cover letter gives me information that I have no need to know, such as your height, weight, astrological sign, shoe size, or the fact that you know someone who knows someone who knows someone whom I went to college with over two decades ago.
  9. Your cover letter reveals a lack of confidence. (“The enclosed story isn’t really any good, but if you would take the time to edit it, I’d be happy to try again.”)
  10. Your cover letter reveals a lack of modesty. (“The enclosed story is a masterpiece; all my friends say so, and I look forward to seeing it in print.)
  11. You send me a gift (a bribe?) such as a bookmark, photo or pen.
  12. Your manuscript arrives postage due.
  13. Your manuscript arrives with no SASE (self-addressed stamped envelope).
  14. Your manuscript arrives with an SASE marked “for reply only.” Often I may like a story, essay or poem, but feel that it’s just not there yet. If the manuscript comes with an SASE that has enough postage on it for the manuscript’s return, I will mark up the work and send it back with a note encouraging the author to do some rewriting and then send it back to me. If the manuscript comes with an SASE marked “for reply only,” more often than not, the reply will be “no.”
  15. The manuscript arrives with coffee or ketchup stains all over it, or is so heavily doused with perfume (usually patchouli) that it causes me to have an allergy attack.
  16. The manuscript arrives after my deadline.
  17. You phone me the day after my deadline and ask if I’ve read your story yet.
  18. You phone me after you receive my letter declining your story and call me a string of words that are unprintable here.
  19. You have your girlfriend or boyfriend phone me to plead your case and tell me how much it would mean to you to have your work published.
  20. You shoot me dirty looks at writer’s conferences.

Of course there are exceptions to the above rules. I am a sucker for a good story, and like most editors, I do get a thrill from finding the diamond in the slush pile, and having the honor and privilege of helping a writer get his or her first manuscript into print. And no matter what the presentation, I have to admit, I do read everything I receive. However, sending a handwritten story in a soiled envelope that reeks of cigarette smoke and arrives postage due after deadline, is akin to showing up at a job interview in torn jeans and a dirty sweatshirt on the eighth day of your seven-day deodorant. If you so obviously don’t give a damn, why should I? Remember, an editor always receives many, many more manuscripts than he or she can publish, so give your work its best shot by presenting it as professionally as possible. After all, you don’t want your first impression to also be your last.

© 1998 Lesléa Newman