Editorial Comments: Keep Them in Perspective
When I was a novice writer I lived for editorial comments. Occasionally they came, scrawled on a standard form rejection slip, just a few words to let me know if I was on the right track, if what I was writing was any good. I would bet that most aspiring writers long for that coveted editorial critique.
Receiving editorial comments is great, but keep them in perspective. Fiction editing is a very subjective business, and what one editor doesn’t like, another might rave about.
I’ll give you a few examples from editorial comments I’ve received over the years.
- “. . . a fairly enjoyable story, very simple, but enjoyable. But it was also one of those that comes very close to the borderline for acceptance . . . ” – Alpha Adventures Science Fiction and Fantasy.
- “Your story is interesting – a touch of Bradbury – but it just didn’t grab me.” – The Argonaut.
- “John was right that I like it; unfortunately, it doesn’t fit what I’m trying to do with the magazine.” – Bifrost.
“Keeper of the Shrine”
- “This is carefully and persuasively written and keeps a reader intent on what’s going on, but in spite of the existential metaphysic it generates we still find ourselves doubting the inferential conclusions it proposes. And we can’t make it all fit together.” – Kansas Quarterly.
- “It had three readings here, two of which were praising. The third reader suggested you consider [changing] the title . . . One reader said the story ‘is a little too heavy on the symbolism’ but I assume you’re sufficiently experienced as a writer to understand the comment in context.” – Prairie Schooner.
MY NOTES: I took this story back to my Beta Reader, an English Professor at the University of Nebraska. He re-read it, and we decided that I should change the title (“Of Life, Death, and Spiders” seemed a bit pompous), but I shouldn’t touch the symbolism because we believed it was right for a story like this (and apparently two other readers at Prairie Schooner agreed.)
“That Time of Year”
- “This is a well-written story, and I enjoyed it. However, we are very selective on fiction as we use only two or three pieces per issue.” – Proof Rock.
- “‘That Time of Year,’ exhibits a good control of the subject matter, but I have to say that we didn’t find the subject matter particularly engaging.” – Pulpsmith.
“The Moaning Rocks”
- “. . . The blending of legend and impending doom works nicely. Your imagery ranges from trite to splendid. There are moments where you approached Bradbury’s October Country. . . ” Fantasy Macabre.
- “…May I suggest, too, that you think about putting the information in Maria’s legend in some other way (if it’s really necessary at all), because this is where what happens later is telegraphed. Up until then the suspense holds.” – Shadows Anthology.
- “[Although we’ve already met our quota for this year] . . . the title intrigued me enough that I read it anyway. The beginning could be tightened up and shortened a bit, which I believe would strengthen it, but even as it is it is a powerful story and perfect for the magazine. If it should still be available in April, please send it back; I’d love to have it.” – Antithesis.
MY NOTES: Unfortunately, by April Antithesis had ceased publication, so the story went out on the submission trail again. It garnered a wide variety of comments – mostly positive, some not, but most editors to whom I submitted commented on it. I published it finally in October Dreams: A Harvest of Horror. Also, note that Fantasy Macabre liked the “blending of legend and impending doom,” but Shadows wondered if the legend is “really necessary at all” because it “telegraphed” the ending. The part about telegraphing the ending may be true for some readers, but I know of one reader who was so startled by the ending that she threw the book across the room.
- My novel In Human Form excited an agent enough that she suggested some rewrites and then offered to represent it [didn’t sell, unfortunately], while the same novel “didn’t grab” other agents.
- One of my screenplays was optioned recently [see the News page]. It had been shopped around quite a bit and even received a page-and-a-half critique from the story editor at NBC. One of his concerns was that the dialogue was “somewhat archaic,” which was true, but I had a reason for it, and the screenplay was readable and the dialogue was sayable (yes, I know that’s not a word) and moved the story along, so I didn’t change a word.
The point of all this is that editors are just readers, and stories strike every reader differently. As I hope I’ve illustrated with these editorial comments, one editor may like something about a story while another may dismiss the same thing. It is nice to get editorial comments because they are a window into how others – particularly, others who read stories for a living – view what you write.
But the best advice was given by the editor of Prairie Schooner in her comments on “Keeper of the Shrine:” “. . . I assume you’re sufficiently experienced as a writer to understand the comment in context.” If you have any questions about your work in view of an editor’s comment, take it back to your readers – and every writer should have a few readers he or she can trust to give honest feedback – and ask them if they think the the story might be improved if you followed the editor’s advice.
Some things you may choose to change, other things you may choose to leave alone. But take editorial comments in the spirit they are given: as one person’s reaction to your story. The next person’s reaction might be completely different.