What I Look For as an Editor

Spring 2010 MastMost readers, at some point, have read a novel (or memoir, or short story, or autobiography etc.) and wondered how it was ever published. The fact of the matter is someone—usually an acquisitions editor—saw something of value in the writing. And while it can be discouraging for an amateur writer to stumble across published works that are of a lesser quality than they can produce, it should be encouraging.

Know this—as a writer, there is an editor out there, somewhere, that wants to publish you. I should know. I am an editor, and I do want to publish writers, especially unpublished authors looking to break into the market and build résumé .

Occasionally, upon meeting me, someone who is tragically bored (usually after our conversation has lulled to an uncomfortable silence) will ask me why I chose to be an editor. Opportunities like this are too easy to pass up, so I go for the easy joke: I was tired of my work being rejected, so I decided to be the rejecter for a change. It’s a lousy joke, and couldn’t be further from the truth.

The real reason I became an editor is to give writers a chance. What I didn’t anticipate was the way it would change my perspective on the publishing world. I now realize that editors don’t exist to crush aspiring writer’s dreams. They exist to be a part of watching someone’s dreams come true. But, they have an obligation as well—to publish the best of what they see. Often times that means saying “no” to other submissions.

Rather than bore you with more “tips on what editors look for,” which are often copied from each other and not always accurate to begin with (since writing and editing are so subjective anyway), I’ll tell you simply what I look for as a fiction editor.

The first thing I look for is a good first line (especially since we don’t publish anything over 1,000 words). The beginning’s got to make me immediately appreciate the quality of writing. I want to know from the get go that I’m reading something produced by the hands of a master. Specifically, I like something unusual and memorable. I’ll blog more on this later on.

I like something to be on the line—something important. It doesn’t need to be life or death (I find that rather cliché, to say the least). But something important to the character must be at stake—it can be his/her pride, marriage, family, self-respect, self-worth, etc. It must feel as if tragedy can happen at any moment, whether or not it actually does. For more on this, see my previous blog entry on tension.

Throughout the work, I like to see a healthy dose of imagery and figurative language—a unique perspective on the world. Not only do I want to experience the fiction through all five senses, I want the fiction to make unimaginable things imaginable. For more on this, see my previous blog entry on language.

One thing I DON’T want to see is clichés. Have I used them? Yeah. Does that make it okay? Nope. Kill them where you can. Don’t be afraid to put them down in a first draft, just note their locations and revise  them later.

Another thing I’m not a fan of: gimmicks. Please don’t think that the gimmick of your writing is strong enough to get it published. A rotten orange in new box still smells rancid. I’m sure I’ll eventually blog about this as well. You can be sure I’ll take Dan Brown to task on it (am I the only one who didn’t like Da Vinci Code? Anyone?).

Lastly, I like a good ending, something that makes me feel like I spent my time wisely. There are a wide range of ways to do this. Specifically, though, I like something that seems to pull a piece together, that brings all the different elements of the fiction together. This is not to say that it “ties up loose ends,” only that I felt like the author had control of the work from beginning to end. Every important detail comes back to play a part in the end. As Chekov would say, the gun on the mantle in Act II goes off in the final act. Extra points if it hits someone or something important. For more on this, see my blog on endings.

If you’re interested in some great fiction (and poetry, art, non-fiction, etc.), be sure to check out The Citron Review—the online literary journal I edit.

1 Comment on What I Look For as an Editor

  1. This was super helpful! I like that it was really specific rather than vague.
    The part about tension and having something to lose helped a lot. I had it in my story, I just didn’t realize what that was and that I needed to emphasize that.
    This entry helped me realize more how to develop my story. I was having some struggles, I didn’t want my brand new story to be over already. I was struggling with taking my story from beginning to middle, but I really feel like this helped me figure out how to do that better.
    This helped a lot!
    I’m excited to write the next part of my story because it was something I didn’t think was allowed until I thought of how cool it’d be, lol! I can’t wait to write it!

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