How to Evaluate Your Short Story Like an Editor: Part 2

Learn how The Dread Machine's managing editor, Tim Burkhardt, reads and evaluates incoming submissions.

Hi there, it’s Tim, one of your (usually) friendly editors at The Dread Machine, and I’m here to share my method for evaluating submissions for the slush pile. This is not meant to frustrate or discourage you (it might), rather to let you know my thought process as I read submissions. Not everyone uses the exact same methods: Monica and Tina have their own vetting procedures, as I’m sure do the rest of the TDM slushmuckers. Hopefully, by reading each of our posts and learning what we are each looking for you will get a better idea of how your submission will be received by us, and by other slush readers in the publishing world.

First off, keep in mind that slush readers are usually volunteers, low-paid contractors, or overworked editors who have a lot of bigger tasks on their calendars. Finding new content and new authors is crucial to the success of a literary magazine, but it isn’t the only thing that has to happen to keep things moving. Add to that the fact that even a small publication like The Dread Machine gets around 100 submissions a week. That can mean we have to collectively read over 500k words a week to keep the pile-size small.

“How is that possible?” you might ask. “What is your secret?”

My secret is, I don’t read your entire story unless I am captivated by it. I know that sounds awful, but I don’t know a better way to get through the submissions, and some stories are clearly not what I’m looking for from the outset.

When I start reading a story from the slush pile, I rarely even start at the first page. People will tell you that beginnings and endings are all everyone remembers, so focus on making a solid start and a memorable ending, but I’m here to tell you that a good hook and meaningful closure are only half the battle. 

I tend to start reading a submitted story in the middle, and I give it only three pages to captivate me. If I’m not carried through to the fourth page by the strength of the writing alone, I don’t care what the inciting incident was, or how it turns out for the protagonist. If I’m not interested, I’m moving on. I’ve got a stack of stories to get through. It’s not until I find something that captivates me or at least piques my interest that I feel compelled to go back to the beginning and see how the events started.

I don’t mean to be discouraging here. The knowledge that slush readers like me aren’t even reading your whole story might make the whole process seem subjective and pointless, and the odds of getting selected too great. Unfortunately, the process IS subjective, and not just from slushmucker to slushmucker; it all also hinges on the reader’s mental state, and how many other tasks they have on their plate. I try to keep this in mind, and sometimes I send a story to another slush reader, or set aside it aside to reread later if I feel like my mood is affecting my judgement.

When I read, stories go into four piles:

  1. The Rejection Bin. If it is offensive, derivative, typo-laden, or clearly needs more editorial passes than is worth our time I send it to the trash without hesitation. I have a lot of stories to read. I’ll forgive a few errors but I’m really looking for clean copy. 
  1. The Read Again Pile. These are stories that have something in them I like, but feel like I need to read them more thoroughly to understand what makes it a good fit. Sometimes I end up liking it enough to send up the chain of command, and other times I realize that while I like aspects of the story, there’s a reason why I wasn’t immediately captivated.
  1. The Benefit of the Doubt Pile. I am a cisgendered, middle-aged, white American male. Sometimes I read a story that focuses on an aspect of life or the world, or tells a story in a way where I don’t feel qualified to make a value judgement on the writing without more information and the opinions of my fellow editors. Some stories have plot structures I’m not used to as a person raised in the western tradition of storytelling. In circumstances like these, I will send them on to one of the head editors with a note explaining my initial reaction to the piece and any concerns I have about it before acknowledging that I might just not be the target audience for the story. We then seek out a consensus from our editing staff and sensitivity readers before making a decision.
  1. The Promoted Pile. It’s rare, but sometimes I find a story that grabs me right away, makes me turn back to the first page and read the entire thing from start to finish in one sitting, laughing or crying the entire way through the piece. I love it when this happens. It is the whole reason I read slush and makes the rest of the work sifting through the pile worthwhile. These I will send directly to the head editors and try to get them to listen as I read it out loud. These are the stories I fight for and want to see published most of all.

Once I’m finished this sorting process, I focus on rereading my Read Again Pile, this time slower and with an eye out for structural issues and other things that might need to be rewritten or at least touched up. If the story keeps my interest carries me all the way from start to finish without breaking my suspension of disbelief on the reread, I give it a high score, make comments about what I like and if there’s anything I don’t like, and then I pass it on to one of the other editors for a second opinion.

Good luck with your submissions; I hope this was helpful!

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