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Confessions of a Cranky Lit-Mag Editor

Peter Selgin edits Alimentum: The Literature of Food and, like most editors, he has a few bones to pick with the folks who fill up his mailbox. His article, The X Files: Confessions of a Cranky Lit-Mag Editor appears in the May/June 2006 issue of Poets & Writers. In the piece, Selgin offers some worthwhile advice that we should all remember.

Selgin deconstructs the opening sentence from one of the submissions to illustrate the importance of starting strong. The problem with his sample sentence is that although it’s clear and grammatically correct, “it’s too innocent; it draws no blood or heat and has no weight or thrust… it augurs nothing: a tip with no iceberg.” Some writers argue editors place too much emphasis on the first sentence, but Selgin points out how it can influence the way a reader views the entire piece. “Were this not the author’s first sentence, and hence presumably his best foot foreward, I wouldn’t be so hard on it. But it is, and with my expectations for his second-best foot reduced accordingly, I read on with a frosty heart.”

The other day, I was accosted by a distant relative who demanded I read her manuscript. Typos and errors littered her pages but, “I’m not worried about that right now. They’ve got editors who will fix that.” I tried to explain how tight the competition is (why should those editors bother fixing mistakes when they don’t have to?) but I don’t believe my message got through. Selgin continues with the importance of a story’s beginning, but I think we can also expand this point to include the necessity of a clean copy. “Even if the work does redeem itself three pages later, why accept a broken-winged bird when, heaven knows, there are plenty of soaring masterpieces out there,” he writes.

I like the way that’s described. It’s a good reminder that we need to be perfect, that our stories need to demand attention from the outset, and that editors don’t need our writing if it’s not good enough.

Another great description is when Selgin turns his editor’s scalpel to the dreaded cliche: “Cliches are like those little crosses you see at the side of highways: They mark a place where a genuine feeling or insight has met its end.” 

Throughout the rest of the piece, Selgin provides other useful tips to keep in mind when preparing your manuscript. Although I’m not sure about his suggestion to print your manuscript on both sides of the pages, I like everything else he has to say. It’s an article well worth a look.