Ask the Editor is a resource for our readers and writers in which we review and respond to popular questions about our journal, essay writing, submissions, and literary potpourri type stuff. Have a question you’d like to see answered here? Send it to edg dot longridgeeditors dot com. Chosen questions will be kept anonymous.
Here is a question that is often on most writers’ minds: Is there a common reason you reject submissions?
Q: Like most journals, you probably reject more submissions than you publish. What’s the biggest mistake people make?
A: It’s true, we take 10% or less of the submissions we receive. I deliberately use the term “decline” vs. “reject” because it’s more accurate. There are two basic categories for our declines. The first is mathematical and straightforward. The second is nuanced and often complicated.
Category One is made up of essays that do not conform to what we request. They are over the word count, off-mission, or fiction. Those declines are especially frustrating when the writing is good — and Longridge Review attracts a lot of talented writers.
These particular mistakes happen, I believe, because people often have some writing they’d like to have find a forever home, and these pieces are sent out to various places rather than crafted specifically for us. There is not one thing wrong with that in general, I am sure it’s quite common, but it can lead to wasted time all around because the work just doesn’t fit what we do.
Occasionally, it’s obvious that the writer is penning a longer work about his or her life, something more in the memoir form. It would be great if those of us who write creative nonfiction could just cut and paste the right word counts out of our manuscripts and Ta! Da! have a great essay. But it really doesn’t work like that. Sometimes you can craft something forward, such as a collection of essays into a book, but even that is a creation that is more than the sum of its parts, and difficult to do.
Category Two is harder to explain than the first set of mistakes. It can be an essay of the right word count, optimum punctuation and grammar, even some breathtaking sentences, and still not work. These narratives can be broken down into three general types:
- The Recounting Narrative — It’s surprisingly common for us to receive pieces of writing that read as if the writer is scrolling through his or her brain and writing down whatever is recalled. Declining a piece like this is not a judgement on the value of the memory. It is usually because the narrative has no discernible structure. Why are you telling us this? is what goes through the reader’s mind. What does this have to do with me? Where is this going?
- The Not-Taking-It to-The-Pain Narrative — If you know The Princess Bride book or film, you know “to the pain” is a classic phrase the hero uses to intimidate the villain, promising not to kill him but to leave him alive and eternally suffering. Cheerful, right? (It’s actually a very funny scene in total.) You do not have to suffer eternally to write a good essay, but you know what? You do have to suffer a little bit. Often that pain is something the writing itself can exorcise from a troubled past. But a writer does have to get to it, to touch it, to own it. We can tell when an essay is dancing around what really hurts, trust me. Your readers can, too. Often we writers are the last to know. Which leads me to . . .
- The It’s-All-About-Me Narrative — Writer Brian Doyle said that bad personal essays are about the writer. Good personal essays are about the rest of us. What does that mean? you ask. How can I write about you if I don’t even know you? You can’t write about me, but you can connect your life with mine, with that of any other human being. That’s why this is art. That’s why this is important. That’s why your writing matters to the world. Not because you necessarily are instructing others, but because you are giving them the gift of the “a-ha” moment. When a reader can see him- or herself in your essay, even if it’s the most foreign thing literally speaking, that’s the win. That’s why we write. That’s why we read. An unexpected example for me in Issue 11 was Cars: An Unrequited Love Story. I’ve never been a teenage boy. Never had feelings for an automobile. I laughed a lot during this essay, and have read it several times. I realized it’s not about cars. It’s not about Scott Peterson; I mean, it is, but it’s about more than that. It’s about young ideals, about hopes and dreams, about sacrificing and working to bring something into your life that you really want, and coping with the aftermath when it doesn’t quite roll out like you hoped it would. It’s about growing up, and we’ve all done that.
“Get to the point,” he answered immediately, when I asked what advice he can offer newer writers. “I usually have a speech I make to my students. “Cut to the chase. Tell a tale. All things are stories; romance, work, education, religion and stories are how we most commonly and easily eat information, eat the world; so the storyteller has enormous power and pop if the story is naked. The best tales are direct and unadorned.”– Brian Doyle