Ask An Editor

As a writer, you have questions. It’s in your nature, so why fight it? Here are some of the most frequent questions posed to editors!

How do I get published?

This is definitely the number one question I hear as an editor, and there’s no simple answer, so strap in. If you’re not choosy about where you want to be published, it’s pretty easy these days. There are more literary magazines than I’ll ever be able to count, and each one has its own standards and methods of selecting work. Frankly, I’ve seen work I considered unpublishable grace the pages of quite a few digital lit mags, so if you can slap together a moderately cohesive story and email it to the right place, you could be a published author in no time!

There’s a similar trajectory for self-published books, which has given them a less than savory reputation, despite a handful of passionate, talented writers who utilize the format to avoid book industry runarounds. If you can finish a book, you can publish it cheap, but there’s no telling whether anyone will actually buy or read the thing.

Now, if you want to write a book that a reputable publishing house will release, or a story that a notable magazine will print, you’re going to have more work ahead of you. You will likely spend more time editing than you did writing the first draft, and then there’s the process of bringing in beta readers and editors, then querying publishers or submitting to magazines. Amanda has written an extremely helpful post that lines out the basic steps that you will take on your journey:

Eleven Steps to Becoming a Published Author by Amanda Wayne

Once you have a manuscript that can ascend to the echelon of major publication, you can also try to secure an agent. Agents are a writer’s best bet for bypassing book industry gatekeepers and placing your manuscript into the right hands. They usually take around a 15% fee, but if they can lock you into a deal with a major publisher, it’s usually worth it. Querying agents is a subject for another post entirely, and fortunately Catherine has run down some of the details here:

The Big Book Proposal Part One by Catherine Foster

What’s the deal with “show, don’t tell?”

Which do you enjoy reading more: a fast-paced crime caper, or the instruction manual for your television? This is “show, don’t tell” at its most basic. Telling is essentially listing the mundane details that most readers already understand, or don’t care about, where as showing puts the reader into the action, informs the feel of the scene, and lets them fill in the blanks with their imaginations. Like any other piece of writing advice, this is a suggestion, not a hard rule. While there are many specific instances in which you will need to break down and lay out some exposition, more often than not, your writing will be more effective if you let your characters show your readers what they’re up to.

Do I really need an editor? Can’t anyone be an editor?


via GIPHY

I get it, some folks think anyone who can operate spell check on their word processor can be an editor. While that might technically be true, a good editor does so much more than line up your grammar, fix typos, and correct spelling errors. Depending on when we are brought into a project, we may help with character development, plotting, overall flow, and sometimes brainstorming if an idea isn’t working and solutions are hard to find. We embed ourselves in the tone of each piece and, like literary chameleons, adopt the author’s voice, ensuring our edits will not stand out from the surrounding text. Essentially, we’re here for you. Whatever your project calls for, editors have the skills to work with you and make it the best it can be!

What’s the most common problem editors see in writing?

Beyond the usual grammar nitpicking, there are many other elements we’re on the lookout for, but I think passive voice is probably the most common. To be fair, it’s not always an issue, which makes it tricky! But what is it? Passive voice occurs when you make the object of an action the subject of the sentence, rather than the performer of said action. Suppose your character is playing soccer. Writing “the ball was kicked by Josh” is passive. Read that out loud. It sounds a little clumsy, doesn’t it? “Josh kicked the ball” is more direct and natural. This is a frequent problem when writing in past tense, so stay vigilant and watch out for objects leading the action!

Here are a few more common issues to watch for:
Adverb overuse
Tense shifts
Word choice and repetition

How long does editing take? How much does it cost?

This varies from editor to editor, but we make it easy. Right on our homepage, you’ll find our hourly rates for projects over 2,500 words, and hour per word rates for anything up to 2,500 words. The latter also comes with a two week guarantee, and we will work with you and set a deadline for longer projects before we begin!

In addition, these posts by Catherine are extremely helpful if you’re looking for more in-depth exploration of some of the topics I covered above:

What Kind of Editor Is Right For You? By Catherine Foster 

Can You Afford A High Quality Editor? (The Answer Might Surprise You) by Catherine Foster

Have questions we didn’t answer? Drop them in the comments and we’ll address them in a future post!

THE AXE: How Do I Make the Cut With Literary Journal Submissions? by Josh Smith

One of the best ways for writers to establish themselves in the literary world is to have their work appear in journals, but where to begin? Catherine’s post on cover letters is packed with insight, so you’ll definitely want to give that a read! I’ll be expanding on a few of the other points she made and discussing additional elements that journal editors focus on when it comes down to making the big decision to accept or reject.

While there are thousands upon thousands of literary magazines out there, I am specifically addressing how we swing the axe at the journal I edit for, Loud Zoo. I know, I know, it’s not the New Yorker, and of course a feature in our little magazine isn’t a springboard onto the Best Sellers list, but it’s the venue I can speak for with regards to its inner workings, and much of this information can be recontextualized and applied to other publications.

Edit! Edit! Edit!!! While this seems obvious, we see a lot of work that is simply not ready for a public forum. Even experimental works that subvert the rules and are meant to read looser and more conversationally need to be edited as much as any other story or they will feel half-cooked, and the experiment will surely fail. In addition to working out the grammatical, punctuational, and other technical problems, editing also helps you fully develop the characters involved and the story you are trying to tell. Do you have someone whom you can trust to give honest feedback on your works in progress? Those people are invaluable. We used to go all in and give complete content edits to submissions we felt were lacking but were worth the effort, but these days we don’t have the time.

Read the guidelines. No, really. So many pieces we reject simply don’t fit the requirements of the submission call or the scope of the magazine. As Catherine noted in her post, we know most people don’t have the time to read every issue of every magazine, but we try to make our intentions with this journal as clear as possible on the website. Loud Zoo strives for social change, and while every piece we accept isn’t necessarily a cobblestone on the road to revolution, we don’t have much interest in purely escapist works. Nothing against escapism, but there are plenty of other outlets for it.

Don’t be a bigot. While I didn’t intend to discuss morality when I sat down to write this, bias tends to show up on the page whether we realize it or not, and a piece with potential can make us want to catapult our computers into the abyss at the turn of a phrase. This is not about censoring people with opposing views (what kind of ideology is ignorance, anyway?), it’s recognizing that as a writer, your words have meaning, and in this day and age that comes with the responsibility to have a basic understanding of and respect for your fellow humans. We are open to sexist, racist, ableist, homophobic, Islamophobic, bigoted, etc… characters and situations, with the caveat that you utilize them as opportunities to enlighten, rather than simply glorify or stereotype. There are always writers who think that shock is their key to the kingdom, but it is a transparent device unless it brings to light information that profoundly affects both your characters and your readers.

Dear male writers, women are people! Women are not just scenery or props for your male characters to do things for/at/with/to. It’s asinine that there is even cause to mention this and the previous point in 2017, but here we are. We reject so much work with hollow female characters that are described in immaculate physical detail, but have absolutely no depth or agency. Can you write fictional women who are not realistic? Of course! But unless you are working a complex or satirical angle that allows readers to gain something from the situation, you’re simply perpetuating inaccurate and harmful representations that our magazine will not partake in.

Satire isn’t for everyone. In fact, it’s incredibly difficult to write, and even more difficult to write properly. We love well-done satirical works, but we don’t see many of them at all. If you are heading down this road, make sure you have a clear intention from the start, and that the final effect of the piece reflects that goal.

We see your clichés, and we’re not interested. So many stories rely on overused themes, arcs, and tropes, and while it is possible, it’s not likely to work something fantastic out of those molds. Nine times out of ten, the work comes off as contrived. If you’re only writing a certain genre or subject because you think it’s more likely to sell, truth is, it’s more likely to suck. That said, tropes are fun to subvert, and you can get fantastic results by taking something familiar and jettisoning it off into the unexpected. Whatever path you choose, be true to yourself and have faith in your readers. Seriously, readers are THE BEST. Take them by the hand, and they’ll follow you through the wilds!

Send notifications if your work is accepted elsewhere. Like most journals, we don’t publish reprints (again, read the guidelines!), and Googling every piece that comes through wastes time we could be giving to other submissions. We have sent an astronomical number of rejections based simply on the fact that the writer did not send a notification that their piece was accepted elsewhere. Confused about what constitutes a previous publication? It varies from journal to journal, but any time a work is made available to the public, that is a publication. See, it’s right there in the word! That means blogs, message boards, and even Facebook posts count as publications by our standards. If you shared something on a blog or on social media and want to try getting it published elsewhere, I highly recommend deleting it before you submit. We recently rejected a piece because it had already been published in four—YES, FOUR—other magazines! Next time you wonder why it takes so long for an editor to respond to your submission, remember these folks. Also, sometimes when you send us one of these wonderful acceptance notes, in addition to our eternal gratitude, we’ll be so bummed that we missed out on your piece that we’ll ask you for another!
Additionally, don’t revise a previously published work, change the title, and try to pass it off as new. This makes us think you should have spent more time editing in the first place, and it isn’t a loophole to bypass the previous publication guideline. There are several journals that actively publish reprints, so all is not lost if you have a story out there that didn’t get a fair shake.

I’ve given plenty of examples of how NOT to get published, but by now you’re probably wondering if there are more proactive ways to improve your odds. Honestly, this is the hardest part about trying to explain our magazine: what we are looking for and what we hope to achieve. We didn’t start this thing so we could run with the pack, so if there’s a piece you don’t think would fly in a more traditional litmag, it might fit with us. We are not interested in sequestering genre fiction from literary fiction. For us, it doesn’t matter if your work has space ships, dragons, and ghosts, as long as the result is a moving tale that gives us insight on something we didn’t realize we were missing out on. This is not the case with many other journals, so always be aware of each market’s specific restrictions. We’re primarily reaching for that spark that makes readers really connect with your words. Start with a concept that stirs you, keeps you up at night, and write it from the heart. If there are social or political connotations, explore them. Give us a tangible emotional impact, package it with deep truths, new ideas, and uncommon perspectives, edit it, then edit it again, and then maybe a couple more times, and you’re likely to wind up with something many editors can enjoy.

Of course there are exceptions to every rule, and I’m sure there are outlets who are seeking the exact things we want nothing to do with, so again—choose your submission destinations wisely. Like so much in life, advice like this is not absolute. Find what works for you and build from there, but never stop improving your craft, never stop growing (both as a writer and as a person), and always persist!