The other side of the desk


For some months now I’ve been looking at the submission of stories from both sides of the desk. I’m managing editor at Aurora Wolf and one of two submissions editors at Pressboard Shanty.

“Editor” in this case is synonymous with “slush pile reader”. When a story is submitted to Aurora Wolf, I’m the one who reads it and decides if we should accept or decline. At Pressboard Shanty there are two of us charged with reading the slush pile and passing stories on to other staff members for final decisions.

I see a lot of stuff that looks like first draft material, stories that, even though the author says they’ve been vetted, still have errors that shouldn’t have made it past basic proofreading. I’m not talking about the mysteries of the semicolon here; I’m talking about doubled words, missing quotation marks, poor spelling (or things like “your” for “you’re”), sentences that lack verbs, errors like that. If I hit too many of them in a couple of pages, I’ll decline the story right there.

As a writer, I noticed that many ‘zines include in their guidelines an admonition to use good grammar and to proofread your work. This, I thought, was a given; apparently it isn’t.

I read for the Ontario Arts Council in May. Many of the entries competing for $12,000 grants were rife with this kind of simple error. For that amount of money, it seems worthwhile to learn the basics, or have your manuscript vetted by someone who knows them.

While neither Aurora Wolf nor Pressboard Shanty pays that kind of money, if you’re competing for a spot in a publication the same thing applies. You need to use your skill, or someone else’s, to smooth out those little bumps that pop your editor out of the story.

When I was a beginning writer I thought that writing was easy. You line up the words in your head and march them down the pen, right? As for the story, the King of Hearts said it best in Alice in Wonderland: “Start at the beginning, go on until the end and then stop.” Finding the beginning is a tricky bit, though, and so is knowing the ending. The order of everything in between is, as well, when you come to think of it. Okay, the whole damn thing is not nearly as simple as it looks.

Even now I spend a lot of time cutting, rewriting, rearranging.  It gets easier with practice, but it still must be done, because here’s the thing: you have a picture in your head, and you have to put that picture into the reader’s head, smoothly and clearly.

If you’re planning to submit to a slush pile I’m reading, get a good book on grammar and one on punctuation. Get a thesaurus and a  dictionary. Learn the basics. If you have the vaguest shadow of a doubt about a word, a punctuation point, a verb, look it up.  I do.

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