How to Evaluate Your Story Like an Editor: Part 3

Did you know that most publications have a process for quickly evaluating submissions? If not, you'll definitely want to read this series written by our editors.

Greetings! It’s me, Monica! I’m Acquiring Editor at The Dread Machine, which means I’m the middle-person between our first readers (aka, slush readers) and our Executive Editor, Tina. I review pieces constantly to determine whether they meet The Dread Machine’s publication standards. 

When new submissions come in, my first priority is making sure they’ve been properly anonymized in accordance with The Dread Machine’s submission guidelines (and, for poetry submissions, whether each submission contains only one poem). If submissions don’t make it pass this stage, we send the author a notification that their story did not adhere to our submission formatting rules and offer the author a chance to reformat their submission and resubmit it.

Next, I verify that all submissions have been assigned to slush readers. If a submission sits for too long without being read, our submission management system pushes it back into an unclaimed pool, which means I need to either review it or assign it to a different slush reader who does have time to read it. We try to turn submissions around to authors as quickly as possible, because I know what it’s like to languish for months waiting for an editor to decide whether they like your writing. And trust me, I’m very good at dramatically languishing!

Once slush readers review stories, they rank them on a scale of 1 to 10, with 10 being “strongly recommend for publication” and 1 being “do not publish.” Stories that violate our submission guidelines are ranked 1. If a submission is not properly anonymized, I notify the author and give them a chance to re-submit. All other submissions, I review and also give a ranking. I send stories with an aggregate rating of 7 or higher to Tina for a final Yes/No verdict. Sometimes, I request second opinions from slush readers to make sure my personal biases and tastes aren’t leading me to make an unfair assessment of a story’s merit (more about this later).

So, how can you increase your odds of receiving a “strongly recommend for publication” ranking? Write a story that is authentic to your experiences. Tell the stories that give us insight into the places, people, and stories that shaped YOU as a person.

We receive hundreds of stories every month, and (based on what I’ve seen) they tend to fall into a three categories:

  1. Poorly-written (e.g., disorganized, incoherent, inconsistent characterization, a plot that is more train-of-thought ramble than story, needs significant developmental and line-level edits, etc.)
  2. Average writing (e.g., good worldbuilding, promising plot, too much exposition, lack of dynamic characters, insufficient tension or dread, probably needs to start a few pages later than it actually does, predictable ending, could be easily mistaken for another story in our slush pile, needs developmental edits and copyediting)
  3. Great writing (e.g., unique narrative voice that sucks us in—we HAVE to know how the story ends—and unsettles us in all the right ways; deft worldbuilding interwoven with engaging characters that make us invest emotionally in the outcome of the story; needs only minor edits).

When I read submissions, I’m looking for great writing. This means I’m trying to objectively separate the story’s content from the author’s skill and determine whether the author has demonstrated—regardless of content—a mastery of storytelling skill that captivates me as a reader. I have a silent list in my head of tropes that annoy me as a reader, but I’m able to separate my gut reactions to them from my assessment of a writer’s mastery of language.

Want proof? Werewolves are a VERY hard sell for me, and yet The Dread Machine has published werewolf stories while I’ve been Acquiring Editor because I try to be keenly aware of my personal biases. After I read a story, I ask myself which of my personal biases may be affecting the rating I want to give it.

If there is any chance that a bias may be affecting my rating (rather than an objective assessment of the author’s skill at drawing me into the story they’ve created), I go back and read the story again. And again. And again. And again, until I’m sure that the rating I will actually give the story reflects the extent to which the story is well-written and inspires dread. Sometimes I’m able to do this in a day, sometimes it takes me a week (or more) because I want to make sure my brain is in the right space to give the story a fair chance. Sometimes this means that your story might sit with me for longer than average before I finally decide whether to pass it to Tina or send a rejection notice—for which I, as an impatient author, apologize, because I feel your pain.

Sometimes, I will review an author’s cover letter during this evaluation process because I know sometimes, I can’t shake my marco teórico (theoretical framework—aka, the lens through which I view the world). THIS is when it’s super helpful if you mention in your cover letter whether you’re BIPOC, LGBTQ+, from a marginalized population, from a non-English-speaking background, and/or whether your submission is a translation.

Translated submissions can be dismissed by slush readers and non-translators as bad writing, but if there is even a slight chance a story might be a translation, I review the cover letter before I make a decision on whether to forward or decline it.

Additionally, I identify as queer, but I still find LGBTQ+ information in cover letters helpful because I recognize that my experiences as a queer person are not universal. I find other self-identification information in cover letters helpful, because I’m keenly aware that as a white AF estadounidense, I have not faced the same setbacks and challenges as billions of other people, and I want to amplify marginalized and overlooked voices.

Whew. That was a bit of a tangent, but I like people to understand where I’m coming from and what’s running through my mind when I review their stories. I hope this helps!

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