Nothing to fear but fear itself? Not so, if you are a writer who hopes to publish!

In one of my MFA courses, we’ve been studying literary journals and the stories they publish. We were fortunate to have a copy of a story that had been selected for publication with the journal’s Editor’s marks. We also read a Poets and Writers article, “The X Files: Confessions of a Cranky Lit-Mag Editor,” by Peter Selgin (2006). As a writer who submits work to literary magazines, I have a new appreciation for some old truisms, like “hook your reader.”

I sent out some stories right before we went through the edited manuscript (that is a post-acceptance, pre-publication draft). The lesson of the evening was to cut the fat from your prose. This editor’s philosophy is to remove any flabby words so that clarity, meaning, and action carry the story. She says, “Trim so meaning reverberates between the lines.” And for days after, I worried that the stories I had just sent out were “flabby.”

Please, no!

I consoled myself by thinking that if the stories land in the right editor’s hands, she will forgive a little flab. After all, the story we studied had been selected for publication before the editor worked with the author. Editors exist not only to seal our stories’ fate, but also to work with us writers in a mutually beneficial relationship.

Then I read the Peter Selgin article. In the time it once took him to ride a train home from the city, he made twenty-five rejections and only three acceptances. Selgin says, “We can’t afford to read every syllable of the submissions we get. Or else we do so to the detriment of some other part of the process—like fine-tuning those stories that we do accept.”

I understand his rationale. I get the time-crunch. I really do. And, when my work is accepted somewhere, I want an editor who makes time to work with me. But I’d be lying if I said I didn’t cringe at the thought of an editor not making it off the first page. Perhaps not even off the first sentence. Selgin, after all, assumes the first sentence is the author’s “best foot forward” and correspondingly sets his expectations for the piece.

My fear is now compounded. Have I sufficiently trimmed the flab out of my stories? And is my first sentence golden?

Although it is an editor’s job to work with authors to prepare manuscripts for publication, it is a writer’s job to need the least work possible. By the time a story is accepted for publication, editorial turnaround is tight—things need to get to the printer. A story with a flaw, more than a little flab to trim, won’t make it.

I think of it as a matter of global versus local issues. Global issues require revision, like clarity, character development, and logic. Local issues require line edits, like word choice, repetition, and trimming the flab. If a story has a global issue, no matter how well written, it’s dead. There just isn’t time to make those kinds of changes between acceptance and print.

Of course, I have always known that openings need to “hook a reader,” and a story has to not only be clean and tightly crafted, but also has to have style. We all know that. We also know how small our chances are of getting published when our story sits in a slush pile with hundreds of others. According to Selgin, Alimentum receives over 300 submissions a month, and that was in 2006 when the article was written. So while studying the edited manuscript and reading Selgin, part of me thought of course, and part of me thought uh-oh. Have I been doing enough work before submitting to withstand a screening process like Selgin’s?

The other fact we all know but hate to think about is that screening is subjective. Editors have bad moods, headaches, periods of inattentiveness, etc. I’ve been in enough writers’ groups and classes to be aware of this myself. Sometimes I have felt differently about a story on its second read than I did on its first. Not often, but sometimes. At some literary journals, multiple readers screen submissions before being rejected, but not all, and I would guess not most. Selgin admits that screening is subjective, which is why his partner reads anything he does not reject before acceptance. That’s right, their submissions only get a second look if they are not rejected in the first screening.

I do not think there is a right or wrong way to screen. Editorial decisions about how to handle submissions are made based on available resources and the goals of the publication. As a writer, it is useful to know that a story might not be out of the envelope for more than a minute before it’s rejected. So the question becomes, what can I do to keep the editor reading?

First, make sure the first sentence is kick-ass. Nothing less will do. Second, trim the flab. Third, look at mastheads before submitting. A masthead will list editors, editorial boards, and readers. Getting a sense for how large the editorial staff is will give a sense of how many hands a story might pass through. More people sharing the work could mean a full first reading and more than one reader before a rejection slip is signed. I like to think anyone who reads my story will love it immediately. I have collected enough rejection slips to know that is not the case. And I have often felt differently about a piece than one or more of my peers, so I know how valuable a second opinion can be.

Be afraid? Perhaps not, but be careful. When you finally trust your first sentence to launch the story, your images are sculpted of lean prose, and you’ve targeted specific journals, send it out. Cross your fingers or forget about it. Either way, the editor will one day open your envelope, and your prose had better be strong enough to move her—even on a bad day.

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