What Do Editors Want?
discussion with Jim Harrington
and Bewildering Stories
Jim Harrington, a veteran contributor to Bewildering Stories and an editor of Apollo’s Lyre, has created a blog, Six Questions, which publishes a series of interviews with editors of online magazines and, hopefully, others. We wholeheartedly support Jim’s objective: to help new writers. Here’s our contribution to the discussion.
Thank you for your questions about editorial procedures and criteria. I’ve received feedback from three other members of the Bewildering Stories Review Board. I’ll combine the responses and conclude each section with my own comments, as Managing Editor.
1. What are the top three things you look for in a story and why?
Our responses fall into three main groups:
Good grammar and spelling, as well as reasonable punctuation. A carefully polished prose style is also necessary; we often see sloppy writing spoil a good story.
Characters and settings:
Psychologically believable, three-dimensional characters; plot intrigue; vivid settings depicted and evoked in concrete details.
Ethos — the work as communication:
I want enchantment; that is, a story that pulls me along. And a protagonist or set of characters I care about; if I don’t care about them, I won’t care about anything else in the story.
[Managing Editor] Two science fiction grandmasters from the mid-20th century may seem quaint now, but their techniques reward study. Gordon R. Dickson’s stories can hardly be called “enchanting,” but he has exceptional strength at the level of the sentence: he uses it to propel the reader forward.
Isaac Asimov was a self-avowed agoraphobe and had to struggle to create any settings at all, never mind vivid ones. Yet he genuinely liked his characters, and that endearing quality alone would account for his lasting popularity.
2. What are the top three reasons a story is rejected, other than not fitting into your answers to question #1 and why?
Run-on sentences, sentence fragments, ambiguous or non-existent pronoun references, chaotic punctuation, inconsistencies in internal plot logic; failing to give characters names.
Trite, mechanical plotting; clunky or clichéd dialogue; one-dimensional, “stick figure” characters; hackneyed plots; graphic sex or violence; gratuitous foul language. Also: transparent propaganda or preaching and disparaging individuals or groups simply for who they are.
[Managing Editor] Speaking of ambiguity, we once received a submission in which a sentence must have set a record of some sort: it contained four personal pronouns, each referring to a different person. I had no idea who was doing what.
As for novelty, of course we’re interested in it, but never for its own sake. Any writer is best advised to learn from the past. Four thousand years or more of world literature is an inestimable treasure.
“Propaganda” is a slippery concept, because a special target audience does not preclude good writing. I’ll roll out the heavy artillery by way of example: the Bible is, for the most part, a monument of literary genius in prose, poetry and drama. The Gospels, in particular, were written for a special audience. Yet they have always been unique genres, and they feature characters, settings and action that were not only new but revolutionary in the literature of Antiquity.
3. What common mistakes do you encounter that turn you off to a story?
Info-dumps that could and should be either dramatized or omitted. Description or superfluous detail that is added for its own sake and could be omitted without changing the story substantially. Unnecessary and confusing twists and turns in the plot.
Whatever pulls the reader out of the story. It could be sheer carelessness, like confusing “your” and “you’re” or “there,” “their” and “they’re.” Or it could be something big, like making a mistake in a matter of common knowledge.
[Managing editor] We could put the question another way: “What causes you to lose interest in a story?” As our Review Editors say, the fault could be small or large. When I find myself losing interest, I try to pinpoint the cause and bring it to the writer’s attention.
As editors we try to catch small errors such as confusion of the homophones “their” and “there.” But that’s really the writers’ job, and anything extra we do is a favor to them.
Our preview notices, which are the equivalent of galley proofs, encourage the authors to copy our pages for their records after an issue officially goes on line. The reason is that our versions are almost always more correct than the authors’ originals.
Our readers really appreciate our editorial work; they get distracted when language calls attention to its mechanical nature. I’ll summarize it crudely: as a rule of thumb, three strikes and the author is out. If readers see an error in grammar, punctuation or spelling, they’ll consider it careless. Two errors will be taken as discourteous. Three, and the readers become mightily annoyed and will have probably been distracted too often to continue reading.
We’re acutely aware that readers have a much shorter attention span when reading on line than when reading print on paper. That’s why we apply rigorously our rules about page lengths and paragraphing.
Our authors do not have the luxury of writing like Dickens, Balzac, Tolstoy, or even Thomas Mann. That may be a pity, but the medium does not allow it. We have to keep the readers on the virtual page, and that means long info-dumps are out, no matter how precious they may be to the author personally.
4. Do you provide comments when you reject a story?
Many editors and agents don’t comment, because it invites an angry, defensive response from some writers. And yet we normally share our internal back and forth about the story and provide comments from our review reader and two editors. We often make specific suggestions that, if followed, might cause us to take another look at the work.
[Managing Editor] We have an ironclad rule: we never say merely “It didn’t grab me.” If we don’t accept a submission or if we ask for a rewrite, we say why.
We understand why other editors would say little or nothing, and we’re sympathetic to their plight. But Bewildering Stories has always prided itself on its educational mission. Editorial feedback — whether in critiques, the Challenges, The Critics’ Corner or The Reading Room — is part of our institutional character.
5. I read a comment by one editor who said she keeps a blacklist of authors who respond to a rejection in a less than professional manner. I’m sure you know what I mean. What do you want authors to know about the stories you reject and how authors should respond? Along this same idea, do you mind if authors reply with polite questions about the comments they receive?
Authors ought to know that it’s not personal. It’s best to park your ego at the door. Our take on a story is just that: two or three pairs of objective eyes, grist for the author’s mill.
Praise is pleasant, but it’s from criticism that an author can learn and improve his craft. I have no interest in debating points with an author, and I’m not interested in his “defense” of the story. The work speaks for itself.
Writers have been firing off angry letters at editors and other writers ever since a stylus was first taken to papyrus, hide, or clay brick. It’s part of who we are and what we do. Unless someone is a serious repeat offender, I think a blacklist is unnecessary. We practice free speech, after all. And I have no problems with polite questions about rejections. How else are people supposed to learn?
[Managing Editor] I thought “enemies lists” went out with Richard Nixon. We have no time for grudges and can’t be bothered with them. In fact, we don’t really care who writes what: it’s the submission itself that interests us.
If anything, we’re the ones who’ve been the object of “blacklists.” The vast majority of our contributors are delightful people whom we’d love to meet in person. Thankfully, only a handful have ranged from insecure to delusional.
For example, not long ago we returned a submission that had so many errors in grammar and punctuation that it was nearly incomprehensible and, in any case, unreadable. And we pointed out examples. We received a hostile reply saying that the writer’s friends and teachers had read his work and liked it. That would be funny if it weren’t so sad: those friends and teachers must have written the guy off as a hopeless case and were trying to get rid of him. We don’t do that.
6. What one question on this topic do you wish I’d asked that I didn’t? And how would you answer it?
What tools are necessary to quality writing? Comprehensive dictionaries, thesauruses and style books — and not just what you can find online. And read. A lot.
[Managing Editor] When I was a student, I never seriously thought that a degree in language and literature would ever be of any practical use. Now I find it indispensable; I use it constantly, every day.
Can one become a writer without a degree in literature? Of course. By analogy, to be a skilled and creative carpenter, you don’t need a professional license, but you do need tools, experience, and good models. The same goes for writing. It’s as much craft as it is art.
Copyright © 2009 by Bewildering Stories
Don Webb, managing editor