How to Stay Out of the Slush Pile

When editors receive submissions, they (or their assistants) often sort them into three groups: 1) pieces to be read promptly; 2) pieces to be read within the next few weeks; and 3) the slush pile: pieces to ignore, or return unread, or pass off to underlings, or glance at if and when they have a spare moment.

The slush pile is a holding pen for manuscripts that look particularly unpromising. These include pieces that are handwritten, or typed in a strange font or color, or full of exclamation points, or riddled with basic errors in grammar, spelling, or syntax. The slush pile is also the temporary resting place for manuscripts with cover letters that are arrogant (“I’m the next Stephen King, and you can be the lucky editor to discover me”) or bizarre (“Have you ever wondered why people never name their pets Mary or Howard or Craig? So do my protagonists”) or pathetic (“I have had the manuscript edited by two beloved English teachers”). It’s also a dumping ground for work with terrible opening paragraphs (“Melinda breathed in the whispery air of Denmark and closed her eyes. Her mind drifted off to her encounter with the unemployed clown six days earlier…”), and for work that is wildly inappropriate (“Dear Editors of Ms.: I’m pleased to enclose my new cooking feature, ‘Meals to Make Your Man Smile’”).

Unfortunately, lots of good work by talented writers also ends up in slush piles for a very different reason—the writers don’t send their work to the proper editors.

Although this error takes multiple forms, in all cases editors come to the same conclusion: the writer is an outsider or amateur who hasn’t done their basic homework.

The most common error is sending work to a title (e.g., Fiction Editor, Travel Editor, Poetry Editor, etc.) rather than to a person (e.g., Lindy Hough, Jan Johnson, etc.). This is a bit like addressing a letter to The Junior Senator from Vermont or ordering takeout by saying, “Greetings, restaurant employee! Here’s what I would like.” Think of the last time you got a letter addressed to Occupant or Current Resident; how much attention did you give it?

Hang on! you might be thinking. I’ve seen market notices in lots of writers’ reference books, magazines, and websites that specifically tell me to send my work to Lifestyles Editor or Manuscript Editor or Submission Coordinator. In fact, some publications say this on their own websites. They do indeed. And the main reason they do is to keep amateurs and outsiders out.

Which brings us to the most important unwritten rule in publishing (and film, TV, and stage production): always, without exception, send your work to the proper editor—by name, not by title. Insiders know this and live by it.

Why do publishers deliberately mislead writers in this way? To manage the flood of manuscripts they receive. Do they miss out on some good work by doing this? Yes—but they’d rather ignore a small amount of good material than wade through 20 times as much bad stuff.

Your work can also end up in the slush pile if you address your work to:

—An editor who has left the publication

—An editor who does not handle that department, area, or type of material

—An editor who is too high up in the editorial pecking order

How do you deal with all this? When it comes to editors’ names, don’t believe what you read in market notices, writers’ websites and magazines, and most writers’ reference books. Instead, for each publication you plan to approach, do a little sleuthing for editors:

—For a print magazine or newsletter, look at a copy of the current issue in a bookstore, newsstand, or library (use inter-library loan if necessary). Search for the masthead—a list of key staff people—which should be printed near the table of contents.

—For a print newspaper, look closely at the editorial pages for a masthead; also look at the first page of each relevant section.

—For book publishers, look at the most recent edition of the book Jeff Herman’s Guide to Book Publishers, Editors, and Literary Agents, which is published annually in October. Also consult the Deals, Members, and Contacts section of the excellent website publishersmarketplace.com. This costs $20 per month, but it’s fine to subscribe for just one month.

—For television and film production companies, get the most recent edition of the book Hollywood Creative Directory, which is published three times a year, or buy the online version at hcdonline.com for about $20 per month. It’s fine to subscribe for only one month.

—For online publications, see the paragraph below.

Some other techniques that often work:

—Carefully browse the publication’s website. Often its key people will be listed, but not in an obvious or easy-to-find place. Start with the “about us” and “contact us” pages, and/or with the menu at the bottom of the home page; often, however, you may need to dive deeper into the site. (Sometimes the “Submit a manuscript” or “For authors” or “Want to publish with us?” page will be legitimate, but it can also be a booby trap.)

—Google the name of the publication and the word “editor.”

—Call the publication’s switchboard and ask, “Can you tell me the editor in charge of the ______ department for (name of publication)?” Most of the time, you’ll be brushed off or told to send your work to the manuscript coordinator, but about 25% of the time you’ll get the correct editor’s name. A more effective approach is to dig up the name of any editor at the publication, or its parent company. Let’s say you’ve found the name Bruce Marx. When you call, say, “I’ve got a letter about to go out to the editor in charge of the ________ department for (name of publication). Is that still Bruce Marx?” Usually the switchboard operator will say, “No, Bruce doesn’t handle that department at all; you want __________.”

If you’ve gotten an editor’s name from a reference book, it’s a good idea to confirm that they are still with that publication. You can do this by Googling their name and the name of the publication—or by calling the publication, finding the editor’s name on its voice mail menu, and hanging up before getting connected.

Earlier I noted the danger of approaching an editor who is too high up in a publication’s pecking order. Normally it’s best to send your work to the appropriate department, section, or topic editor. But if a publication is large or prestigious enough to have, say, a fiction editor and an assistant fiction editor, or a travel editor and an associate travel editor, send your work to the person with the lesser title. Usually this is the person who reads unsolicited material, while their boss typically only reads the work of writers they’ve worked with before, or know by reputation.

Some publications don’t have department editors at all, but simply an editor-in-chief and, perhaps, a managing editor, one or more senior editors, and one or more associate or assistant editors. Here are some useful rules of thumb:

—If the publication appears to be a one-person operation, send your work to the publisher.

—If it has an editor-in-chief but no other editors, get your work to the editor-in-chief.

—If it has multiple editors, approach an assistant editor, associate editor, or senior editor. (Generally avoid managing editors, who oversee the daily editorial operations but often don’t read unsolicited manuscripts.)

All of this may sound daunting and complicated at first, but it really isn’t. With practice, it becomes just another part of running your writing business, like paying bills, buying office supplies, and writing emails. Unlike those tasks, however, finding the right editors for your work can pay off hugely—in more publications, more money, and more success.