What does it mean for a piece of writing to be “good?”
In school, there are rubrics, criteria a student can refer to in order to make sure they will do well on their paper. Sure, the language on the rubrics can be a little vague— but ultimately, so long as the student puts in a certain amount of effort, aptly illustrates their point, and polishes their writing, their essay will at least be “good enough” to receive a satisfactory score.
But what about a manuscript? A piece of writing that does not strive to meet expectations so much as exceed them? How does a writer make their work stand out to an editor? An agent? As an aspiring writer, I have been mulling over these questions for awhile.
Different writers will give you different pieces of advice, of course. But to consider this from the author’s perspective is one thing, to see it as an editor is another entirely. Though I am only the first of many readers to look over submissions at Autumn House Press, my initial yea or nay is taken into consideration by staff when they decide whether or not to give something a second read-through.
Initially, I gave lots of manuscripts the green light. “It has potential!” I would say, or “these characters seem promising!” In those early screenings, potential and promising both seemed “good enough” to merit a second read. I couldn’t help but view the manuscript through a writer’s perspective, imagining how much heart and soul had been poured into every word.
After about a month of doing this, however, I realized potential wasn’t “good enough.” As my perspective has shifted from writer to editor, I’ve come to realize that what a writer might find interesting, a reader will find distracting. What a writer might find ‘creative,’ an editor might find difficult to sell.
Lately, I’ve found myself thinking more along the lines of Autumn House’s publication history. Is this similar to what Autumn House has published? Would their audience appreciate it?
Just a few days ago I read a memoir that felt very much like metafiction. In it, the author calls out her audience and makes fun of her own writing. I immediately fell in love with it. (Anyone who knows me will know I am a metafiction fiend)
From a reader’s perspective, I loved it immensely. But as an intern at Autumn House? I realized the narrative was probably too melodramatic for the press.
Though I still expressed my profound love for the manuscript in my commentary, I also voiced those concerns. The manuscript was “good” –– better than good–– but I wasn’t entirely sure it met Autumn House’s “good enough.”
This new process of reviewing fiction is an extremely useful shift for me, especially as someone who hopes to be on the other side of this process someday. There are an insane amount of talented writers out there. “Good enough” relies not just on the value of their manuscript, but also on how it compares to other submissions.
Exceeding expectations is great but meeting them is maybe just as important. There may not be a clear-cut rubric for submissions, but there is usually a mission statement from the press, and a publishing record. Things that highlight what the press is looking for.
Sometimes, it pays off to write something wildly innovative. But, that being said, just as in academia, research is important. The first part of impressing an editor (or in this case, a very passionate, thumbs-up-happy intern) is to submit a story that follows the press’s invisible rubric.
I’ve had both the pleasure and displeasure of seeing what comes after that process. This week, I created the “rejection” template for writers who didn’t make the cut. (My heart broke a little when I sent it in to the Editor-in-Chief) I also, however, got to see the responses from writers who did make it. I couldn’t help but smile when one writer wrote back that he referred to the acceptance when he was going through difficult times.
There’s a lot of rejection in the publishing industry. And yet, the fact that acceptance is so rare makes it so much more valuable–– for both the reader and the editor.