How to avoid the slushpile

Discussion in 'Writing Resources' started by Brian Turner, Jan 2, 2006.

    Brian Turner

    Brian Turner Brian G. Turner Staff Member

    Nov 23, 2002
    Sweeping Back the Slushpile: a First Reader's Primer

    As Told To Kent Brewster (Reprinted with kind permission from

    Note: This relates specifically to short story submissions, though many of the criteria also applied to novel writers

    Welcome to the first reader's desk here at Pusillanimous Prevarications. PP's ninety-year tradition of quick, efficient slushpile response now rests squarely on your shoulders. Are you scared yet? You will be....

    First, some simple math: you'll be looking at 800 to 1,000 unsolicited manuscripts each month, 40 or 50 a day, and we print one magazine every two months. The marketing department wants recognizable names on the front cover, so we can publish an absolute maximum of four unsolicited pieces per issue. So don't even think about letting more than one per week get past you to the editor. Furthermore, since reading slush consists of approximately ten per cent of your duties, you'll need to get through those manuscripts in half an hour to an hour per day.

    How is this possible? Simple. Don't read the manuscript.

    Yes, that's right. Don't read the manuscript. Most of your slush will bear marks of unprofessionalism that will indicate total unsuitability for our needs, many visible to the trained eye before you even open the envelope. You're armed with our Standard Rejection Form, saying that the enclosed manuscript "does not meet our current needs." Use it if any of the following conditions are true:

    Is the envelope smaller than an 8 1/2" by 11" piece of paper? Reject it. Remember Budrys' Law: nothing good ever came folded in half, or, horrors, in thirds.

    Is the envelope taped shut? Send it back. Have you ever in your life received an empty envelope in the mail? This one's paranoid and will be in your face with query letters in a week.

    Does the author claim membership in SFWA or HWA on the outside of the envelope? Boing. This guy's a desperate egomaniac.

    Are there any cute graphics--stamped, drawn, or included on any stickers--anywhere? Any decorative seals? Political associations? Environmental concerns? Bounce it; you don't want to deal with this person, since he's dumb enough to try to foist his political views or artistic tastes on an editor.

    Open the envelope. Use a sharp letter opener. Never stick your finger into an unopened envelope; you don't know what sort of evil surprise lurks inside. If there's a stamped, self-addressed envelope (SASE) in there and any of the conditions in the list above are true, stuff Form Number One into the SASE along with the front page of the manuscript--nobody ever sends enough postage or a big enough envelope for the whole manuscript, so don't worry about it--and seal it shut. Do not lick a strange envelope for the same reason you don't blindly stick your finger in one: you don't know where it's been.

    If there's no SASE, dump the entire package into the recycling bin. Do the same if there's metered postage on the SASE; the post office won't take it after the date that's on the tape.

    If there's a postcard included, tear it up and reject the manuscript. The author is questioning your ability to reject his manuscript in anything less than record time; you'll show him!

    If you still haven't rejected it by now, you're going to have to take the manuscript out of the envelope. But relax; most will include one of the following glaring errors, relieving you from the responsibility of actually having to read the manuscript:

    Is there a paper clip holding the manuscript together? If not, reject it. This goes double for staples, twist-ties, wire-o binding, and any other method. If there is a paper clip, remove it and proceed to the next step. Under no circumstances should you ever return a paper clip with a submission, even if there's enough postage and a big enough envelope.

    Is the ink less than darkest black? Or does this appear to be a photocopy, no matter how good? Bounce it; the author's either too cheap to buy a new ribbon or toner cartridge or--worse--is submitting this manuscript to several markets at once.

    Is the author using a pseudonym? Reject the manuscript. How could it possibly be any good if he doesn't want his name on it?

    Is there any copyright information whatsoever on the manuscript? This guy's a paranoid rookie who thinks you're going to steal his work; send it back and save yourself the heartache.

    Does any font except ten-character-per-inch Courier--the kind that looks like a typewriter produced it--appear anywhere in the manuscript? Reject it; he's trying to ruin your eyes. Same goes for anything less than pathologically correct formatting: keep a ruler handy to measure those margins!

    Does an exact word count appear at the top of the page? Hoo-boy. This one thinks each and every one of his stinking little words must be present and accounted for when you cut your check. Boingeroo.

    Was the author dumb enough to admit he's an "associate" or "affiliate" member of SFWA or HWA? Bounce it. Also bounce any that just say "member, SFWA/HWA" and not "Active Member."

    If you haven't bounced the manuscript by the time you've reached this point, fear not. You still haven't looked at the cover letter. Cover letters are where a surprisingly large number of the authors who do manage to produce a professionally-formatted manuscript and mail it to you without slipping up reveal their true colors. Here's where you're going to nail anyone who encloses a cover letter that says anything more or less than "Dear Editor: Here's [name of story], about [approximate count] words. Kindly consider it for publication within Pusillanimous Prevarications. I enclose a stamped, self-addressed envelope for your response; please recycle the manuscript when you are finished with it."
    Red flags to watch for in cover letters:

    Is there a plot summary, High Concept--"It's like Star Wars meets Interview with the Vampire"--or other sales pitch for the story? Reject it; the author thinks it's too weak to stand on its own merits, saving you the trouble of deciding.

    Does the author include more than three publishing credits or any credits whatsoever in any market that pays less than a nickel a word? Or is there a complete resumé attached, with work, educational, and professional credits? Bounce it; this guy's applying for a job, not trying to sell you a story.

    How about personal information or political affiliation? Was the author inspired to write the story by the plight of the homeless, his experiences in the Persian Gulf, or out of a need to finally "get the demons out"? Shudder. Run away, fast.

    Does the cover letter kiss the editor's ass? Send it back. Your editor has a big enough ego as it is.

    Finally, does the cover letter creep you out personally in any way, shape, or form? Is there any hint of desperation or personal trauma in the writer's tone? These are the ones we really want to avoid; disgruntled postal workers have nothing on frustrated writers when it comes time to break out the AK-47 and go a-hunting. Very important: do not yield to the temptation of personalizing the reject notes you send to these poor unfortunates. Any crumb of reinforcement you throw them will result in a redoubling of their efforts; we want them to go away, quietly and forever.

    Now put every manuscript that makes it this far into a separate pile; if you're doing your job, there shouldn't be more than five or six a day. Once you've rejected everything else, come back here and continue.

    At this point you're going to have to take a big swig of coffee and actually start reading. First, though, make sure you've got an ample supply of Form Number Two, the one that says "Although this submission does not meet our current needs, we see promise in your writing and would encourage you to send your next."

    Got 'em? Good. Now ... empty your mind and begin.

    As soon as you see anything, no matter how trivial, that causes your attention to wander from the prose, stop. Drop in a Form Number Two and go on to the next envelope. This shouldn't take more than a minute apiece; when you're done, your desk should be clean.

    On rare occasions--once or twice a week--you'll make it all the way through a manuscript without losing track. These and only these go to the editor, and God help you if they suck.

    Yes, yes. We know. This seems like a cruel, heartless process. That's because it is a cruel, heartless process. Think of it as evolution in action, nothing more than nature, red of tooth and claw, taking its course. The slushpile is a giant herd of antelope, sweeping gracefully across the Gombian plains. If it isn't held in check, it'll strip the tender African soil bare. And you, my friend, are the lion. If you see an antelope with a limp, take him out.

    Remember, it could be worse. You could be the editor. He's the one who actually has to buy this stuff.
    Patrick Mahon

    Patrick Mahon Would-be author

    Feb 15, 2006

    Thanks! This is really useful for making clear the reality behind what, to the authors, must just seem terribly unfair.

    And it's very funny too!
    Wayne Blackhurst

    Wayne Blackhurst New Member

    May 9, 2006
    Very funny and sarcastic. I like! Especially the AK-47! Dear me, what a mental image: Hell have no fury than a writer scorned! Wonderful....
    Monkey Man

    Monkey Man The Wild One

    Aug 24, 2006
    It was funny and informative....but more than that, it made me realise...write so that your kids can read something you have done, after you die...if you expect to get published - and you're not famous, know someone in publishing, a reporter. a bimbo model, a bimbo actor or actress with sex tales to tell - think again...we're all just dreamers....
    Ice Queen

    Ice Queen "It's dot com."

    Jan 7, 2002
    Yes, I have. Recently it was UPS that got the package to the destination, totally devoid of contents. :rolleyes:

    If this is real, I'd love this job. Where else could I be this jerky every day?
    Stephen J Bennett

    Stephen J Bennett Mr Enigma

    Jan 11, 2007
    Great fun – but if this razor-sharp filtering method is the best way to sort out the wheat from the chaff, how come most books published hardly sell any copies and are therefore failures in the business sense – and publishers, lest we forget are businesses first and foremost.

    Maybe, once in a while, an editor, agent or publisher needs to run with one of the manuscripts that they would normally throw away in the first pile. I often wonder if the success rate of the book trade would be exactly the same if publishers did away with the ‘filter people’ and just randomly chose a submitted manuscript.

    Publishing is similar to other artistic practices like film and music; the success hit rate is extremely low with a few extraordinarily good sellers supporting the industry. If a surgeon had the same failure rate as publishers, hardly anyone would leave the hospital alive.

    (I can't post similes at the moment, so take my grin as read)



    SpaceShip Outta sight

    Sep 15, 2006
    Hi Stephen - welcome to the Chronics (love the grin!)

    A friend of mine went for some work experience at Bloomsburys and she sneaked the 4-page work sheets out to me, including the slush pile. Yep - it's all true - then again, fancy leaving the career of some future brilliant writer in the hands of a work experience bod!

    So why do we bother to send them our stuff?

    Because we are all eternal optimists eh?
    Stephen J Bennett

    Stephen J Bennett Mr Enigma

    Jan 11, 2007
    Thanks SpaceShip.

    Optimists indeed! But what other way is there to live?

    (Grin, Smile witha wink and rolling eyes- can't wait for my 11th post. It's like writing without a full stop!)

    Lovely puppy. Is he yours?

    Best wishes

    Last edited: Jan 12, 2007
    Daniel Hetberg

    Daniel Hetberg Reader of Books

    Jan 24, 2007
    Hey all.

    While I see the necessity of harsh weeding from the numbers, and I appreciate any honest account of the process, there are a couple criteria that struck me as odd.

    So, why paper clips? I can see the point that no one who has dozens of manuscripts on his desk any given day would want loose paper collections, but why no staples etc.? So they can snatch the first page of the manuscript to send back without tearing an edge off it? And why "Under no circumstances should you ever return a paper clip", precious precious paper clips?

    The point about darkest black ink rubbed me the wrong way. Especially the point "does this appear to be a photocopy, no matter how good?". The conclusion that the writer sent his stuff to other places is a truism, which sane person would send manuscripts to only one publisher?

    And who the hell WANTS to read Courier? I read a lot, and I sort of like good, readable fonts, but why would anybody want to read Courier exclusively?

    And the bit about the margins just seems randomly anal.

    Just wondering.... I'm grateful for any answers or other opinions.

    Oh, and this seems to be from a single publishing company. Also appears to me terribly similar of the methods used by personnel managers to weed out applications, and my experience is that many people will tell you many different things regarding what knockout criteria they apply before even reading your stuff, apart from the obvious stuff like spelling errors and such.
    Anybody got an idea how universal these criteria are/seem to be?

    Culhwch Knight of the Republic Staff Member

    Feb 4, 2005
    I agree on the subject of Courier. That one seems strange. I know for screenplays it is the norm, but I have never heard that it is required for short story or novel submissions, only that a clean, readable font - ie Times New Roman or Ariel - be used. In fact, I think I'd go batty if I had to read an entire novel in Courier.

    Locksmith I also mend shoes

    Jun 30, 2005
    I went to a course on "More efficient working practices". The trainer claimed that Times New Roman 12 point was proven to be the easiest font to read (the thrust being that if you get a long document to read, you change the font to TNR12 and print it out).

    Daniel, I think it's intended to be tongue in cheek, although there are some harsh realities there. So don't take it too seriously.

    However, I guess there is a universal truth there that the rules are the rules. "Ours is not to reason why", etc. The publishers have their criteria and there's a bunch of publicly available articles out there on how to format your manuscript for a publisher (and most publishers have their criteria on their website). Why do they act this way? I don't honestly know. Perhaps hundreds of thousands of manuscripts have taught them that anyone who fails to come across as well-prepared and meticulous in the presentation of their manuscript may well fall below these standards in their writing.

    I agree with your point on personnel managers. Think of sending your manuscript as turning up for an interview. You prepare yourself for possible questions, polish your shoes, stick on a tie and turn up promptly. You do that because it's what people expect in terms of presentation from interviewees. A scruffy, badly prepared candidate is likely to be less successful in interview.
    Dean F. Wilson

    Dean F. Wilson The Call of Agon

    Nov 30, 2006
    The use of Courier is all about "looking professional". I don't like the font, but I've encountered a lot of places that want it, as it tends to be the "standard manuscript format", based on the old typewriter font. Give me Times New Roman any day!


    Faster_than_flying Louise

    Feb 10, 2007
    2 questions from that article that I didn't understand:

    - was that a 'yes do send an SAE' (though the article mentioned SASE instead) or a no?

    - And am I not supposed to have a small plot summary in the covering letter?

    Thankies! And that was a great article.
    Brian Turner

    Brian Turner Brian G. Turner Staff Member

    Nov 23, 2002
    The point about Courier is that it's an industry standard.

    As for paper clips - stapled documents in volume = repeatedly snagged fingers. Again, industry standard to use paper clips - it's safer for the editor in volume.

    The point about ink I think is simply one of contrast - if it's not properly printed and therefore harder to read than normal, you're creating an excuse to be rejected - which IMO is precisely what no one should be doing.

    The original article is tongue-in-cheek to some degree - that's a big part of the appeal.

    But the points raised are very valid - and it's very important to have an idea of industry expectations of what constitutes professionalism before attempting to walk that path.

    2c. :)
    Teresa Edgerton

    Teresa Edgerton Goblin Princess Staff Member

    Nov 1, 2004
    When it comes to things like darker ink being easier on the eye, keep in mind that editors (and their first readers) go through hundreds of submissions in a month. Why should they subject themselves to headaches and tired eyes just so that we can save money on ink? Why would they want to work with anyone who is unwilling to extend them that basic courtesy?

    And we've had the discussion a dozen times already: Most editors do not like to receive simultaneous submissions. If they find out that is what you are doing, that's another reason for not wanting to work with you. So, yes, many sane writers do send out to one publisher at a time. In fact, I've never heard a successful writer admit to doing otherwise. Of course, the fact that I've not heard about a thing certainly doesn't mean that it has never happened. I'll just point out that the practice of sending out simultaneous submissions seems to find the most favor with those doomed to remain unpublished.

    As I understand it, manuscript format (those anal retentive margins, and the 12 point Courier) that conforms to industry standards is helpful when it comes time to figure out exactly how long a manuscript is. This may be a hold-over from a time when everything was done on typewriters rather than computers, but I think I've heard it said that word processing programs are unreliable and inconsistant in that regard, so no matter what your computer says, they still have to estimate the word count themselves.

    But here is the bottom line:

    In my limited experience as a small press magazine editor, and my much greater experience doing workshops and critiques, the attitude that the standards and conventions of publishing are idiotic and that only an idiot would follow them can come through in many, many other ways, from a poorly written manuscript to an unwillingness to cooperate during the revisions process. I wouldn't be surprised if very experienced editors can detect that attitude just by sniffing at a manscript. (OK, slight exaggeration there. Let's just say that they can pick up on it very quickly.) Once they sense it, they anticipate problems down the line, and their desire to go on reading that particular manuscript drops to somewhere near zero.

    Anyone who is determined to be published by one of the larger publishing houses or by a magazine with a respectable circulation, will do whatever it takes. If they won't, an editor has a whole deskful of manuscripts, many of them equally good, sent in by people who will.
    Last edited: Feb 11, 2007
    Daniel Hetberg

    Daniel Hetberg Reader of Books

    Jan 24, 2007
    Maybe my post came across the wrong way. I believed that there are (or may be) reasons for the requirements mentioned in the article, I was just asking "why?".

    Of course, the ink should be darkest black, it's better on the eyes, no questions about that. But why no darkest black photocopy? Ok, so that you can be 10 grams surer he didn't send his manuscript elsewhere at the same time. But even if you send your stuff to one publisher at a time, you will still likely send it to several tens of publishers until one might take it (or not). The logic that something is bad, because the writer was "too cheap" to print it out 50 or how many times on a desktop printer is flawed.

    Ok, so courier and the very precise margins are industry standard, to be able to guess the word count, fair enough. Why is the word count so important? Does a couple hundred more or less (from word processor estimate) make that much of a difference?

    Please, again, understand I'm not asking because I think it's stupid, and will never adhere to such rules, I'm just trying to make sense of them.

    edit: Maybe I should let this rest. Blind obedience might be better in this case, seeing it is tongue-in-cheek and all that. Thanks for the well-meaning answers.
    Teresa Edgerton

    Teresa Edgerton Goblin Princess Staff Member

    Nov 1, 2004
    I've never actually heard of a publisher turning down a photocopy, unless it was a poor one. I've sent out many a photocopied manuscript in my time. (Back in the days when we were all using typewriters, it was expected.) But of course it has to be printed with dark ink in the first place, to make a good copy.

    As for estimating the word count, a few thousand words don't matter when they buy a book, but once that same manuscript starts going through the production process they do need to know, so they can figure out the book design, the approximate page count, and all the rest of it.

    (It's different with short fiction that you sell to a magazine. There, an exact word count can mean the difference between a sale and no sale, because they only have so many column inches to fill per issue.)

    So often, when new writers grow impatient with the publishing process, it's because they don't look past the moment when a manuscript is sold. The editor, naturally, has to think in those terms all of the time.

    theDamonfreak Kingdom? No. World? Yes.

    Mar 29, 2007
    HAH! That made me laugh, even though I am an antelope. Granted, not a wheedling, whining short-story-to-a-magazine antelope, but a novel antelope to an agent/publisher lion.

    Yowch, evolution hurts. True, though. Every bit.

    Thanks for the basic layout of the cover letter, that is one thing I have been wrestling over for a while, drafting over and over and over again. And then just once more.

    Much help and laughs.

    Lith Oops

    Feb 1, 2007
    Just a small, belated point on Courier- it is a "monospace" type, which means that w's and i's take up the same amount of space, making it much easier for word-counting purposes. Most typefaces readjust the width between the letters to make it read easier, resulting in an i that counts as a half and a w as a one-and-a-half, etc.

    timelord4 The never on time lord

    Jun 19, 2007
    They use Courier font because it is evenly spaced from one letter to the next (exactly) and each letter takes up the same space (exactly). Helps with the printer as well as the editor. And helps overcome mistakes like the 'n' 'm' for the poor sighted. A lot of publishers/agents now accept New Times Roman font size 12, double spaced. And some of them don't require you to double tap after each full stop. Little changes.

    However, it would not be a very understanding agent who would expect you not to submit to more than one agent at a time. In fact that's stupid. Of course you do. That said, you should ALWAYS let the agent know you have made multiple submissions. In this industry they all know each other and they ALL talk.

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