Monday, April 12, 2010

Stepping Into The Editor's Shoes

Gather together ten of your oldest (and still unsold) manuscripts (or as many of them as you can). Print them out and put them in a pile in front of you. On the cover sheet, cross out your name and put a different writer's name on each manuscript. (If you can't come up with ten names, borrow some author's names from your bookshelf!)

Go and get a cup of tea, or a stiffer drink if you prefer, and make yourself comfortable.

You are now the editor of Manuscript Monthly, a magazine devoted to the sort of material that you enjoy writing. (It doesn't matter whether it's fiction or non-fiction.) In front of you are ten manuscripts from freelance writers, desperate to be published in your magazine. You have three slots in your magazine still to fill, which is why you've turned to the freelance submitted work. As the editor, your job is to assess the manuscripts and pick the three best pieces to fill those vacant slots.

I've spent the past weekend judging the entries in the Flash 500 competition, and later this month will be judging the entries in the article category of the National Association of Writers' Groups' competition. As a judge, like an editor, I'm looking for good submissions. I want:

  • A manuscript that grabs my attention, with a great opening line and an enthralling opening paragraph.
  • A manuscript that keeps my attention throughout the piece.
  • A manuscript that is easy to read.
  • A manuscript that is error free and uses good grammar.
  • A manuscript that concludes with a satisfying ending and leaves me feeling that I have not wasted the past ten minutes of my life reading it.
Over the years, I've judged many competitions and a few years ago I had one entry that hadn't double-spaced their text and used font size 8, proudly declaring that all 989 words were on a single sheet! I couldn't read it! I tried, but with over a hundred other manuscripts in the pile I gave up on the second paragraph because my eyes were hurting!

Only when you have a pile of material in front of you, do you really appreciate the need for that attention-grabbing opening sentence and the entertaining first paragraph that sets up the whole reason for your article or short story.

So, when you've settled yourself in your chair, pick up your first manuscript and start reading. Assess whether it is suitable for publication in Manuscript Monthly. Is the text easy to read? Does the opening sentence and paragraph grab your attention? Does the manuscript entertain you all the way through and draw a satisfactory conclusion at the end? Were there any spelling or grammar mistakes that spoiled your reading?

When you've finished reading all ten manuscripts, take a time check. How long did that take? (Bear in mind the editor or competition judge who may have twenty times the number of manuscripts to read.) Were you able to identify three manuscripts from your pile that really excited you? Were there any mistakes you spotted?

If this exercise has helped you to identify errors with your work, then now's the time to rectify them and find new markets for these pieces. Concentrate on the three best pieces that you've selected out of your ten, but when you've done that, look at ways to improve the remaining seven manuscripts too.

Standing in the editor's shoes can throw new light on an old manuscript. And it's fun too. According to the Hollywood blockbuster, the Devil (editor) wears Prada, after all!

Good luck. (And don't trip over in those high heels!)