Sunday, January 23, 2011

True Confessions of a Slush Reader

Whenever I feel like a good dose of self-torture I submit a story to a magazine and get a blistering rejection. A few months ago, I hit upon a better strategy. Why not join the dark side and become one of the rejecters instead? In other words, a slush reader, one of the drudges who shifts through a magazine’s submission pile.

(I figured it would be easy to nab a position. I was willing to read for free. Actually publishing is filled with so many people desperate for experience I had to send out resumes and cover letters.)

When I began I made a solemn vow to read each piece with an exquisite care and tenderness. After all, I knew exactly what it’s like to spend a month holed up in the library typing, to beg everyone you know for feedback and then to revise and revise before submitting, to submit, and then to wait and wait and wait and wait only to receive a form rejection six months later.

I was going to be a different type of slush reader. I was going to be kind.

Owl is kind

That lasted until the third piece I read. Then sheer cynicism took over.

I slush read for a magazine that publishes memoirs. In other words, we receive submissions from people who take themselves very seriously. Most submitters fall into one of two categories.

(1)   Writing professors
All of them seem to hate their students. All of them seem to have the same childhoods. All of them seem to hate their lives. After reading their writing it’s easy to see why. When your ambitions exceed your talent you’re doomed to hate everything.

(2)   Trauma Victims
There are so many pieces about car accidents, accidental murders, murderous loves, and loving abuse that I began to wonder if writers were a particularly hardy stock. Then I realized it’s the other way around, trauma probably breeds writers as a form of therapy. Unfortunately, it doesn’t breed very good writers.

Kind. Um, yeah kind went out the window. It’s not that I read bad writing, writing that’s so awful it has its own sort of dignity, it’s that I read a lot of writing that passes for good writing at face value. Smoothly written, the structure holds together, but for one reason or another it fails to charm, fails to move in any worthwhile way. An almost-piece. Pieces that should have worked, but didn’t, and are somehow sadder because they are so close and yet so far away from what they need to be.

There are so many almost-pieces that their sadness overwhelms me, perhaps more so because I am a habitual producer of almost-pieces, and I begin to read each submission looking for a reason to reject, and then I'd get terribly sad and angry about rejecting. Here are seven sins that turn me into a hater.

(1)   If you can’t be arsed to follow the formatting rules, I hate.
It’s like forgetting to zip your fly when you’re wearing an Armani suit.

(2)   If you don’t proof read, I hate.
Like forgetting to zip your fly and going commando.

(3)   If you use incongruous similes or metaphors, I hate.
Don’t be the person who finished a description of having sex with ‘my socks slipped off of me like butter sliding off of toast.’ The similes and the metaphors should add richness and texture to the piece, building on the subject matter at hand, or they should be canned.

(4)   If you write about names not people, I hate.
I’m glad you have fifty billion friends and decided to reference all of them in your poem. Guess what? I don’t know who K.J. and Aunt Jackie and Marigold and Marshmallow-mallow are. I’m not going to care unless you make me care by describing their quirks. Otherwise, axe ‘em.

(5)   If you write a fantastic piece that ends with a dull thud, I hate.
Ending a sensitive essay on a cancer diagnosis that explores the nature of mortality with ‘Yeah, Buddha was right, life sucks,’ is like murdering a brilliant child. Take the time to craft the ending your pieces deserve.

(6)   If you write a fantastic piece that starts with a limp hook, I hate but slightly less.
It’s actually a pleasant surprise to find a piece picking up after a weak beginning, but the first paragraph sets up the reader’s expectations. It’s easier to forgive a weak second paragraph after a bombshell first paragraph, then to recover from a terrible first paragraph and recognize that the second paragraph is a bombshell.

(7)   If you write a fantastic piece that that has no relevance to me, I hate.
Unless a story is lush with escapism and has the works—Rock Candy Mountain, Heaven deep fried on a popsicle stick, angels on high etc.—most people read to feel connected to someone else. That means a story about your life can’t be about your life, it has to be about themes and events people can relate to. Breaking up with Susan can’t be just about breaking up with Susan. Honestly, I’d rather call up one of my friends and have a good gossip. Breaking Up with Susan is actually another story, a story that everyone can understand, the story of loving and losing. Better yet, convince me I broke up with Susan.

Occasionally there are one or two pieces that are spellbinding, pieces that make me forget they are ‘writing’ and ‘writing’ is difficult, the product of laborious hours. These slide off of the page and into my mind  effortlessly. These are the instantaneous acceptances, the reminder that yes, this ridiculous reading business is worth every minute.

If you can write a piece that makes my heart flip over in my chest, that un-peels the world so I can see the raw pulp that lies underneath, if you can work magic with pen and paper, for God’s sake, write.   (And if you can’t, practice until you can. Practice, they say, is transformative.) Ignore all the nay-sayers, the people who’d tell you writers are bankrupt people, morally corrupt, unnecessary. Write, write, write. The world needs you.


  1. All of them seem to have the same childhoods.

    This made me laugh. I had an image of a young person, maybe, oh, thirteen or fourteen or so, thinking "I think ... I think I'm turning into a writing professor"

    It's like a werewolf only WORSE.

    Heaven deep fried on a popsicle stick,


    Breaking up with Susan can’t be just about breaking up with Susan. Honestly, I’d rather call up one of my friends and have a good gossip. Breaking Up with Susan is actually another story, a story that everyone can understand, the story of loving and losing. Better yet, convince me I broke up with Susan.

    This I'm going to print out and tape to the front of my computer.

  2. Thanks for this Owl, I might actually have a story for you, just need to polish it up. :)

  3. Haha, great post! It's interesting how different reading slush for memoirs is or actually, the fact that slush reading is different for every magazine because of the type of people who submit to that magazine. I remember tons and tons of professors who submitted to the Massachusetts Review while there are def. fewer professors who submit to the spec. fiction lit mag that I'm interning for. But like the editor at my current press says, say yes if you'd be willing to buy it. And it's true that there are so many almost stories (including my own, I'm sure) but in the end, I wouldn't buy it for a magazine that I was editing.

  4. @asakiyume
    I think you've hit on something. That's actually how it happens for the overwhelming majority, and when the call is felt, their soul starts dripping out of their fingertips until all that's left is a dry husk.

    Ooh stories! Happy writing and good luck. :)

    Yeah! I'd love to do slush reading for more magazines just so I could get my paws (erm, wings) into other genres. Which...btw, know of anyone who wants a slush reader?

    What surprises me is sometimes you just have to pick the best almost-story--that there's a shocking lack of full stories.

  5. That picture is cracking me up. They're all good, really.

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  7. @malaikhanh
    Thanks! I'm insecure about the photographs, so it's nice to hear.

  8. I've never heard of slush readers! Sounds lik a mixed blessing for sure but I'd love to slush for a sci-fi magazine-- bet that could get maddening after awhile too. Plus, I'd be too tempted to edit with a red pencil!

    This is so interesting and clever! I'm going to link to your post-- one of my co-bloggers just posted about writing-- from the discussion that ensued, I think readers will enjoy and find it informative.

  9. @Lesa
    I think most magazines have them otherwise editors would never get through all their submissions. I'm sure a sci-fi magazine would love to have you. Awhile ago, Strange Horizons was looking for slush readers.

    Thanks! I'm really flattered.

  10. I always research when I learn about something new--- ran across a site called Slush Pile Hell-- Have you heard of it? So funny:

    The Owl post will be up in a few minutes!

  11. Great post. Informative and funny. =)

  12. I used to be an editorial assistant and I thought that reading all the submissions would be one of the best parts of the job. Instead, that mountain of bad (and worse yet, mediocre) writing started to make me hate reading. That was not. Going. To. Happen. So I had to quit. Still work with books, but I get to pick what I read, adn I read books that have been edited, copyedited, proofread, and bound. Funny the things you take for granted until they're gone! Good luck.

  13. I can't write. :-/

    Enjoyed this, though, and learnt a new word in the bargain. :D

    P.S. Popping over from Lesa's at Baja Greenawalt's...

  14. As a new member I've been reading lots of blogs via the Book Blogs ning site, but this has to be the funniest, truest and best-written post I've found so far. (And no, I have no manuscript for your pile!!)

  15. a bone deep smile here. the writing you describe has to come from the same place doesn't it? anything else "looks" hard. god knows it feels hard. i'm growing curious if one could just write from joy instead of constant struggle and what would come of it. trash and joy would almost be enough :P

  16. Hahaha lol...

    I see how the game is quite irritating for us who are dying to publish our writings.
    We see that so far.. those people are just not so honest and sincere in writing.... they're holding grudge towards writing itself, and maybe practically stop writing... blah...

    you right... you write... keep on writing!

  17. @Chelle

    @Carin S.
    You get to work with books,! What do you get to do? How do you get into it? (*hoping for tips*) To be honest, I wouldn’t be slush reading if it weren’t for my writerly aspirations. The piles of bad writing are fantastic lessons on How-Not-To-Write, but they aren’t motivation to read!

    Can anyone? No, seriously? One of my all time favorite professors told me to distrust

  18. @Deborah
    Awww, thanks so much, you made my day.


    bone deep--I love that phrase. I constantly struggle with the writing with joy vs. pain. Because typically the pieces I write with joy are better, the struggle shows in the pieces I struggled to write. But often times I need to struggle to get to the joy!

    It's difficult. It's really difficult because there are so many people out there and some of them are writing for the love of it, and some of them aren't, but some of the ones who aren't are good--better than the ones who do write for the love of it--but then occasionally you'll get the person who writes for the love of it and is good and you realize that no other kind of writing matters...
    I think I'm just throwing words at the screen. But it's hard to write and to read and to love them both and to do it with integrity.

  19. So you wrote a comment on my story at My first thought was, that's nice, another comment on the story. Then I actually clicked on your website. I read your biography, and your blog down to here.

    Now my thought is: "Alright! Owl likes my writing!"

    P.S. I too was a slush reader once

  20. @Brandon Stanton

    Thanks! I'm really flattered. Your blog post articulated a lot of things I've felt but never really had the courage/clarity to voice--thank you so much for writing it!

  21. Where are you from? We should be friends. I decided this when the future flicked owl off.

  22. @Brandon Stanton

    I am from an East Coast city that is not New York. Which...maybe is a good thing because whenever I've gone to New York I've lived in perpetual fear of getting run over by (a) angry cabs, (b) women in highhighhigh heels, (c) men with strange beards.

    But this should not keep us from being friends! We shall indeed be friends.

    *gesture of friendship*