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Notes From the Slush Pile

I’ve been working for The Kenyon Review either as a student associate or as an intern for four years now, and I’ve read thousands of submissions in that time. I can tell you right off the bat, if you want to be thought of well in the office, there are a few easy rules. Please keep in mind this list is not exhaustive.

1. Read the submission guidelines.

You ought to do this for every literary journal to which you submit. Some take simultaneous submissions; some do not (we do not). It is in your best interest to know which is which. Further, the guidelines will tell you when the reading period is–also important if you don’t want to waste time and postage. You may find our guidelines here.

2. Include an SASE.

I cannot stress this enough. There is nothing I hate more in the world than sending back an unsolicited manuscript that didn’t include one, especially since (unless you are blind, in prison, or very techologically inept) there is no reason why you should be sending us a manuscript in the first place if you’ve read our submission guidelines (see #1). The most frustrating part of it is not actually the extra work of copying out an author’s address on another envelope, although that is a little annoying. What kills me about it is that we are spending money on postage we could be using to, say, pay our contributors a little more. We get about 2-3 letters without SASEs a week during the summer and more during the school year. All of those $.39 stamps add up, and as a rule, money is tight at any literary magazine. Please, please, please include an SASE with any unsolicited manuscript. It is just good manners.

3. Read the magazine.

Even if it is only one issue you read, you’ll still get a good grasp of what it is the magazine wants. Take The Kenyon Review, for example. For the last two years, I’ve been returning manuscripts from one very stubborn man in Cincinnati who doesn’t like to read the submission guidelines I generally enclose with a note reminding him we do not read in the summer. Obviously he has never read the magazine or he wouldn’t be sending us religious treatises. While I think the call for more interfaith networking in Cincinnati is certainly admirable, it is not the sort of thing we generally publish. One perusal of the magazine would have made that clear. Though this step is some work, I think it ends up being beneficial to a writer in the end: if you know a magazine’s audience, and you know your own audience, you’re more likely to make a match and less likely to waste time and postage. Besides, it’s important as a writer to be a reader as well, at least in my opinion.

4. Clean copy! Clean copy! Clean copy!

Typos in your cover letter will bias your reader against you before she even gets to the manuscript. Take your time with your presentation–if you take yourself seriously, we will take you seriously as well. My personal rule, as a reader, is that if I discover more than four errors in a single paragraph or stanza, I will stop reading and reject the work automatically. If the author didn’t take the time to proofread, I think that he is not serious about submitting, and my time is better spent with someone who is.

5. Keep the cover letter simple.

We don’t need your biography–we’ll ask you for that if we accept you. A list of your publications is nice, but not, strictly speaking, necessary. We’ve published first-time authors and MFA graduates alike; the work is what determines whether or not we want you. We are reading the cover letter mostly to discover whether or not your submission is simultaneous and if you are someone we might know already.

Of course, if you decide to deviate from simplicity, humor is your friend, and will make your reader more kindly inclined toward you. If you’re very funny, you may end up in our hall of fame.

6. Do not write about your dog.

I’m sure your dog is very nice. I have nothing against your dog. I happened to grow up with dogs, and am quite fond of them as a rule. That being said, I do not want to read about how wonderful your dog is. Most of the charm of an animal story comes from actually meeting the animal and watching it behave (this is why, I think, Cesar Millan is so wildly successful–although being handsome probably doesn’t hurt), which is why anecdotes about your badly-behaved dog are funny to relatives and friends. There are, obviously, exceptions to this rule, but seriously. Do not write about your dog. Even if you include a picture.

7. Or your cat.

Again, I love cats and own one myself (she’s put up with my nonsense since I was five). And pets are wonderful, it’s true. But they work best in supporting roles, not as main characters.

8. Being experimental is not enough to get you published.

Don’t get me wrong, I am completely in favor of experimentation in art; it’s what keeps things fresh. But if you are writing experimental pieces, you cannot ignore your reader when you do it. So you’ve written a new form of poetry. Fantastic. Is it readable or does it just look good on the page? Using line breaks creatively doesn’t help if the content is an afterthought. Ideally, there should be some sort of interaction between the creative rule-breaking and the content of the piece itself. Think of Lolita–it’s a showoff work with an experimental style, but the experiment is in service of the piece–Humbert Humbert seduces the unwary reader just as he seduces Lolita, and just as expertly. That the experiment in the form underlines the content of the piece is what makes the experiment work.

9. Start strong.

Imagine: one bleary-eyed student is trudging through her assigned reading in the slush pile. She has been through at least ten submissions before getting to yours. She is tired and possibly cranky. If you want to get her attention, start strong and keep her engaged. It’s a lot harder than it sounds, for sure: take-offs and landings are far and away the most difficult parts. Keep the action in the moment–don’t give backstory on a character before the reader cares about the character. Use language with authority, and place the hook early. As my teacher, Fred Kluge, is fond of putting it, you are making a claim on the leisure time and the money of disinterested others. Turn them into interested others as quickly as possible.

10. Do not be upset if we return your piece quickly.

If you read our submission guidelines and followed them, we read your piece. So you got it back in two weeks? That means our readers are on top of the slush pile, and that’s good. Back before we switched to the electronic system, manuscripts took months to read because there was more handling involved, and it was often difficult to get readers into the office to look at them during busy parts of the semester (or during breaks). This was terrible for us and terrible for the authors–if we held a manuscript months before rejecting it, that wasted time the author could have used to submit the piece elsewhere. Now, things go much faster, which is great news for authors. Do not be alarmed: we still send your manuscript through two readers before it goes anywhere else–whether it be back to you or across the desk of an editor.

The slush pile is both deeply tiring and–when you find that gem–incredibly rewarding. That’s why we keep it going–because every once in a while, there’s a manuscript by a total unknown from Utah or somewhere that knocks everyone’s socks clean off, and that one manuscript makes all the work worthwhile. Keep the manuscripts coming, guys. We’ll keep reading. But please, if you’re sending a paper submission, do not forget your SASE.