As I’ve long feared, my sins are catching up with me. Stripped of metaphor, what this means is that submissions have increased, and changes to our editorial feedback are required.
I’ve long worked by three rules:
- Rapid response.
- Feedback to all authors who want it.
- I read all stories to the end.
Alas, there are simply too many submissions to keep all this up. In response, I’m starting to break some of my rules, starting with the last.
The plain fact is that there are some stories (not a lot, but an appreciable portion) that I know from the start I will not accept – the writing is poor, the concept indiscernible, the characters flat (all in my opinion, of course). Nonetheless, regardless of length, I read these stories all the way to the end. The purpose of this exercise is to be able to provide what limited feedback I can to the author. I’m not sure how useful that is, and it all takes quite a long time – a precious resource.
As of today, then, I’m changing the rules and reducing them to two:
- Rapid response.
- Feedback to authors who want it in cases where I feel it will be useful.
What does that mean in practice? It means I’ll feel free to give up stories that I have no hope for. I’ll offer three ranges of feedback:
- None – for those who don’t want any, or where I don’t have anything useful to say.
- Focus point – one or two (literally) words on where I think the author should focus first. For example, ‘engagement’, ‘prose’, ‘structure’, ‘concept’. I’m not sure how useful this will be in practice, but at least it’s something – a signpost to what one editor things is the priority problem.
- Brief – the same blunt, brief feedback I’ve provided to date. Some find this useful; I’m sure some don’t.
On paper, it’s not a huge difference, but morally, it’s substantial. I won’t have the crushing guilt of commitment that prevents me from leaving unreadable stories unread. I can reduce the time I spend commenting on stories that are a long way from eligible. And I can stop struggling with the relatively few stories that I don’t see an opening for without being able to articulate quite why. Most important, it gives me flexibility. Rather than iron-bound rules for all stories, I can shift my approach to fit circumstances without feeling I’ve betrayed a promise (that likely doesn’t matter to anyone but me).
While I’m at it, I’m making some other changes. I’m dropping the prose score. While it’s useful to me, virtually everyone got a ‘3’ – workmanlike but not outstanding prose. Very few got a ‘2’ – needs substantial work – or a ‘4’ – very strong, poetic prose. Almost no one got a ‘1’ – a long way from being eligible or ‘5’ – outstanding, near-perfect prose. In practice, the range was extremely narrow.
I’m also dropping the ‘where I knew the story wouldn’t work for me’ range. In practice, again, most were marked ‘end’, because a strong ending can pull almost any story back into range. While I often used the range as intended, I sometimes used this marker in coordination with the prose score as a signaling device rather than in its literal sense. For stories I don’t read all the way, I may still give the page on which I stopped.
These changes have been brewing for a while, but a) I’ve been reluctant to change what I felt were important principles, and b) it’s simply been hard to find time to organize the shift – because I’ve been overwhelmed with reading stories…
I know that to some of you, our feedback has been useful (and I’m sure that to others it’s been irrelevant). I don’t anticipate a sea change here – more like a slight shift in the wind. Hopefully, though, it will allow me to bring back something I offered in the first year, and that was both more fun for me and I think more valuable to authors – overview feedback (my opinion on strengths and weaknesses over several stories).
I’ll be introducing the process change over the next few days, so keep your eyes open.