How to Evaluate Your Short Story Like an Editor: Part 1

Learn how the executive editor of The Dread Machine, Tina Alberino (also known as Alin Walker) evaluates submissions.

Every member of our editorial team has a process for quickly sifting through their unsolicited submissions, also known as the “slush pile.” This article is the first in a three-part series authored by our editors. (We all read and acquire stories for The Dread Machine and other publications.) In these articles, you’ll learn how we evaluate incoming submissions, so you can compare our methods and learn how to analyze your short story like an editor.

A few things you should know first:

  • We utilize a “blind” submission review process. This means we do not know who authored the stories we’re reading. We don’t even read cover letters until after we’ve decided to accept a submission or send a personal rejection.
  • Our slush readers rank stories on a scale from 1 to 10, and we require a minimum of three reader reviews before we make a determination on a submission. Most submissions fall into the 5 to 7 range and are sent form rejections. Those that rank 8 and up are sent to us (Monica, Tim, and I) for serious consideration. Stories that rank 9 and above are almost always accepted.
  • Stories that rank highly are exceptionally rare. Our readers only award “perfect tens” to stories that rank among the best stories they have ever read in their entire life. That’s a high bar, so many of our readers only give a single ten per year.
  • We are one of the few markets open to submissions year-round that also allow simultaneous submissions. We read a lot of stories. Because of the volume of submissions we receive, we don’t have the time to read beyond the point where it becomes clear a submission is not for us. (Writers, before you launch into a Twitter tangent, please be aware that you are not entitled to a full read from anyone, nor are you owed personal feedback that you aren’t paying for. Wade through the slush with us before casting judgment.)
  • Our way isn’t the only way. We are certainly not speaking for all editors or readers. Even within the same organization, we do things differently. As far as we know, there is no “right” way.

The Beginning

You have three paragraphs. No more, but sometimes less. Your first fifteen or twenty sentences should be compelling enough to keep me reading. If I don’t care by the end of your third paragraph, will our subscribers? Don’t make readers “suffer through” your first page to get to the good stuff.

Let me know who your character is and what conflict they’re facing as soon as possible. Make me love them a little. Make me care about the outcome.

Form a snapshot of your first scene in your mind. Who is in it? What are they doing? Where are they? What lurks at the edge of the frame? Put that snapshot into three paragraphs, and force those sentences to work overtime.

The Second Page

If you get me past the first three paragraphs, you’ve earned my attention through the second page. Can you hold it together? Can you keep the plot moving so I feel like I’m progressing deeper into your world? Is the writing beautiful or interesting enough to keep me captivated?

Here’s where it becomes hard to give specific advice, since stories vary so greatly in content and structure, but generally, your theme should begin to emerge. I should start to feel solidly oriented. Your character (or characters) should matter to me more as I experience their journey, and the threat they face or obstacle they must overcome should start becoming clear.

The Middle

Few submissions get to this point, because maintaining momentum can be tricky. Don’t be tempted to burn the goodwill you earned from me on a self-indulgent infodump or a self-righteous lecture (no, this does not deepen your theme). By this point in your story, I’m willing to tolerate a little meandering, a tiny bit of wobbliness, a smidge of boredom, a dash of sloppy or lazy prose–but not for long.

Keep me through the middle and I will stay with you until The End.

Any writer who holds my attention through the middle will have earned my attention through the rest of the story. That’s a fact, Jack.

The End

If I’ve made it through the middle–the part of your story where most other submissions dissolve between my fingers–I will uncover your identifying information and read your cover letter. I will make it a priority to learn your name and see which publications your work has appeared in, if any. You will most likely receive a Twitter follow and a personal rejection from me, even if the ending falls flat or fails to deliver in a way that leads to an acceptance.

Obviously, I can’t tell you how to craft the perfect ending, and even if I could, my opinion about what I believe constitutes “the perfect ending” is entirely subjective.

Everyone’s “perfect ending” is different, and you’ll never please us all.

Endings that are authentic to the story please me. It must make sense for the characters and the narrative. It doesn’t have to leave the story fully resolved, but I do need to feel a sense of closure.

What emotions and thoughts do you want your readers to leave your story with? What loose ends do you want to tie up, and which would you rather leave dangling? Be intentional, and don’t rely on cheap twists that insult my intelligence or make me regret the time I invested in your world.

I want to feel like you thought carefully about how to conclude this journey. I want to feel like you valued and respected both your characters and me as your reader.

That said, don’t stress too much. Great editors will recognize the potential in your submission even if you botch the ending a bit. (In those instances, we send rewrite requests or offer a conditional acceptance contingent on us reaching a mutually agreeable final draft.)

If I’m reading your ending at all, it’s because I’ve recognized that you’re worth paying attention to, that you’re capable of producing something entertaining and meaningful. So, if you get that form rejection with a few extra lines from me, please know that your story reached me and that I appreciated it.

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