In my day job, I’m a newspaper editor. It’s not my full-time job to respond to oped submissions, but I do it when I’m filling in for my boss, or when he asks me to.
So I know how hard it is to respond to every submission with personal comments. We often don’t get back to people at all (in the world of newspapers, if you don’t hear back within a day or two, that almost certainly means no.) I try to respond to every submission but sometimes things get crazy and it just doesn’t happen.
Even when I do respond, it’s highly unusual for me to offer any critique of the submitter’s writing. There are a number of reasons for this: Oped submissions tend to fail or succeed on other criteria before we even consider the writing (the topic, the thesis, the timeliness, whether we already have umpteen opeds in hand making the same point, etc.) A lot of the time, the problem is simply that we have no space in the coming, say, 48 hours, and by the time we would have space, the topic would be stale (again, this is newspapers. Very different from fiction.) So I’ll often send a quick note back saying, please, go ahead and shop this around elsewhere, because if you leave it with us it will wither and die.
It takes a surprising amount of time and energy to put a critique into a few polite but useful words. That’s especially true when the editor doesn’t know the writer, doesn’t know how much experience she’s had. For example, is it enough to say “watch for passive voice” or do you have to explain what that means? If I write “I’m looking for a stronger thesis,” will that mean anything to the writer?
All of this is to say to the fiction editors who respond to my submissions: I get it. I know how much more difficult personal rejections are. I understand that taking the time to craft personal rejections might mean being slower in getting back to everyone. I am aware that some writers respond to rejections (never do this), or resubmit a revision without being asked (never do that either) and even argue or insult editors. Form rejections are the safest course.
So when I get a form rejection on a short story, I don’t resent it at all.
But for the same reasons, I appreciate personal rejections all the more. Even just a few words can be enormously helpful. If I know an editor found the ending unsatisfying, I can work on the ending. If I know an editor found the characters too distant for that magazine’s style, I know not to send a fairy-tale type or omniscient point-of-view story to that market. So personal rejections help improve my craft, and they help me tailor my submissions to the right market — which saves everyone time and energy.
I never write back to say “thanks for taking the time”, because I know this just clogs up inboxes, but I always want to.
So this post is my “thank you”, to all those editors who have taken the time. To the agent who called me up a few years ago to have a long conversation about why she wasn’t taking me on as a client and the flaws she saw in my manuscript. To choose to be a teacher for beginning writers, as well as a busy editor/agent, is brave and generous.