What Do (Fiction) Editors Really Want?

12/18/2019

My personal journey into short story writing began after I retired from full-time work and was looking for something to absorb pent-up creative energy. I had a lot of experience with academic and nonfiction writing and a lifelong interest in reading literary fiction, but I didn’t know where or how to start—much less what fiction editors want.

Fortunately, I live within commuting distance of a large university-based writing program (UCLA Extension Writers’ Program), and over a two-year period I was able to progress from very introductory workshops to intermediate ones, and on to those that require a writing sample to get admitted.  

illustration of author

“What fiction editors want: something new, or at least a new take…” Illustration by Josh Quick

Thinking that my writing had advanced to the level of being at least “submittable,” the next challenge became to learn about the world of short fiction publishing—literary journals and magazines, genres, story lengths, publishing media (print, digital, both); contests, themed issues, and formatting and submitting practices that have become increasingly standardized, such as simultaneous submitting.  

The whole complicated process came down to trying to find a good potential match between my “kind” of writing and what specific literary journals want to publish. I began to think of it as being similar to computer-assisted dating. I had my profile:  

Emerging short fiction writer, “literary” vs. a specific genre, seeks established, well-regarded lit journal, preferably in print or print and digital; no or nominal submission fees, is fine with simultaneous submissions and has reasonable promised turnaround times. Desirable but not required: journals that use Submittable and don’t care that much about cover letters and publication history, if any

On the other side of the “computer match” equation is each publication’s profile, which can be discovered by reading the “About” section of their websites and, more importantly, their Submission Guidelines. From this information, available on every publisher’s website from A&U: America’s AIDS Magazine through ZYZZYVA—4,684 active fiction markets (1), many potential matches can be found. 

This article focuses on one of the resources available to subscribers of Duotrope, an online submission tracking and data tool, in which editors can answer a series of up to 14 structured (and therefore comparable across editors) interview questions. Not all editors participate, but enough have over a period of several years to accumulate a considerable archive that points toward what fiction editors want.

Building on a methodology I used for a recent study on what kinds of flaws typically prevent short fiction submissions from being accepted for publication, this study examines how a sample of 42 editors recently answered the question “Describe the ideal submission.” The answers were filtered for publishers of fiction (vs. nonfiction and poetry), and “general” for the genre.

Using some of the results found in the CRAFT study, keywords or phrases found in each answer were categorized according to desirable characteristics of short fiction submissions, such as Impact, Creativity, Depth, Polish, and others. The following table presents the findings and includes the category titles, percentage of time each characteristic was cited, and a representative answer. Most editors cited more than one desired characteristic as being important.

What fiction editors want: Characteristics of ideal submissions 

  • IMPACT (22%) – story is engaging, remarkable, develops tension, leaves an impression

    • “…there needs to be a reaction, something big that makes us have a response—the bigger the better.” J. Schauer, Foreign Literary Journal, 3/21/19.
  • CREATIVITY (15%) – story is imaginative, original, or a different take on something familiar

    • “…expands our understanding of what art, literature…can be.” J. Penton, Unlikely Stories Mark V, 6/15/19.
  • LANGUAGE / PROSE (15%) – skillful use of the language; clarity of expression

    • “…shows aptitude in writing style and word usage…lyricism in language…” C. Woychik, Eastern Iowa Review, 1/25/19
  • GUIDELINES (14%) – shows evidence of having read the submission guidelines and respects them

    • “…follows our guidelines to the letter…” D. Doty, Saddlebag Dispatches, 3/20/19.
  • STRUCTURE (8%) – orients the reader, has an effective point of view, beginning, and ending

    • “…how the parts act in concert to create the whole.” E. E. Smith, Sundress Publications 3/21/19.
  • POLISH (7%) – shows signs of having been cared for, refined, of being a relatively finished product

    • “…something I know that someone has really worked on…” K. Osborne, Little River, 8/11/19. 
  • DEPTH (6%) – has well-developed characters with interiority and agency; avoids stereotypes and superficiality

    • “The best are…wonderfully specific in their subject matter, but universal in their theme; they approach big human questions…” D. D. Johnston, Online Writing Tips Story Prize, 2/14/19.
  • ECONOMY (5%) – concision that facilitates clarity; avoids superfluous words, complicated syntax

    • “…some 8000 word stories probably need to be 3800-word stories.” W. Wimmer, Witness, 6/4/19.
  • AUTHENTICITY (4%) – feels natural and genuine; shows “emotional honesty”

    • “Factual truth is secondary to emotional truth.” N. Olson, (mac)ro(mic), 6/7/19.
  • VOICE (2%) – a voice that is distinctive and congruent with the narrator and/or characters

    •  “…a powerful, authentic voice.” M. Bast, Bacopa Literary Review, 1/25/19
  • DIALOGUE (1%) – works in concert with or facilitates the narration; format doesn’t distract

    • “Dialogue that develops character.” K. Keating, CRAFT, 2/24/19.

The characteristic of Impact was mentioned most often (22%) by the editors surveyed. This shouldn’t be surprising, as it can be anticipated that readers want stories that at least entertain, make them think and, at best, have an emotional impact. Readers want to feel something. They are investing time and possibly a subscription fee and want the experience to be worthwhile.

The next three most-mentioned characteristics were in a close tie: Creativity (15%), Language / Prose (15%), and Guidelines (14%). What fiction editors want: something new, or at least a new take on a familiar theme. Newness can come from the presentation as well as from the subject matter, with many literary journals expressing an interest in creative narrative structures, novel uses of language, or genre-blending. Editors also are interested in the clarity and quality of the prose. Some are willing to invest varying degrees of effort in editing corrections and refinements, but many are not. 

At first, I was a little surprised at how attention to Guidelines ranked along with Creativity and Language / Prose, but then I remembered many editors consistently express the importance of reading and following their submission guidelines. This makes sense, of course, because when a short fiction editor receives, for example, a piece from an unwanted genre, or a work of creative nonfiction, it wastes everyone’s time. Beyond specific expectations, however, it may be somewhat difficult to ascertain the “kind” of writing some editors favor, but for this almost all recommend becoming familiar with what they have published before submitting. 

The remaining desired characteristics of short fiction submissions range in importance from Structure (8%) to Dialogue (1%), with Depth at only 6%. This indicates a story doesn’t necessarily need to be layered with deep meaning, as long as it is well-written, shows originality and makes an impact.

If I had to pick one response that succinctly sums up the results of this survey, it could be “Our ideal submission is one which follows our guidelines to the letter, tells a compelling story and evokes an emotional response from our editors. Sounds easy, but it isn’t” (Dennis Doty, Managing Editor of Saddlebag Dispatches, March 20, 2019). Based on my experience as both a fiction submissions reader and a short story writer, I would say ideal submissions—the ones with the greatest likelihood of getting published, contain something of each of the above-listed characteristics, with some items being arguably more important than others. 

This study attempted to identify the relative importance of short fiction craft elements, as described by a sample of editors. Although it may be possible to reduce a piece of art to some of its components or attempt to accurately predict what fiction editors want, in the end, the beauty of art is in the eye of the beholder. Or, as it says in the submission guidelines of The Sun (established in 1974), “Surprise us. We often don’t know what we’ll like until we read it.”

1. Listed on Duotrope as of September 7, 2019. Another 1,439 active nonfiction, poetry, and visual art publishers also were listed, indicating 76% of all active markets want fiction submissions; however, many of the markets are interested in combinations of all three.

Author headshot
David K. Slay (Guest Blogger)

After retiring from a career as a psychologist, David K. Slay completed two years of short story writing workshops, primarily in the University of California, Los Angeles, Writers’ Program. His work can be found in a diverse group of literary journals, including Gold Man Review, Calliope, ImageOutWrite, Wards, Random Sample, The Magnolia Review, CRAFT, and others. He currently is a fiction submissions reader for CRAFT, and has served as a guest editor for Vestal Review.