Reading for No, Reading for Yes

Laura Maylene Walter
March 7, 2018
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I’m deep in the Submittable queue of submissions for the literary journal I edit, and as always, I’m pulled in opposing directions. I want to work quickly so I can offer efficient and timely responses, and yet I also recognize the need to give each submission a fair and thoughtful read. I’m pushing aside my own preferences to remain open to something new, and I’m also going with my gut. Most of all, I’m forever reading toward a “no” while at the same time reading toward a “yes.”

The possibility that editors might be “reading toward a no” isn’t one most writers would find encouraging. But it happens. It happens when a literary editor (or agent, or contest/fellowship administrator, or basically anyone tasked with winnowing an avalanche of submissions down to a handful of accepted pieces) opens a new submission knowing that the most likely outcome for that piece is going to be rejection. And because there are so many other submissions waiting to be read, if the rejection is going to happen anyway, it makes sense to arrive at that decision as quickly as possible.

For example, I might open a short story and think the writing in the first paragraph lacks the spark or confidence I’m looking for. (A subjective call, for sure, but then this business is inherently subjective.) I’m not going to stop reading immediately, but from then on, my time with the story is partially spent waiting to confirm my initial suspicions. It’s not that I want the story or writer to fail—on the contrary, there’s little I relish more than a piece of writing that surprises me and turns my initial critique on its head—but in most cases, my first impression is probably right. Before long, I’m likely going to conclude this story just isn’t a good fit for the journal, and I’ll have to pass on it. Might as well get to that point as soon as possible.

Or maybe I’m enjoying a story until, about halfway through, the plot takes a completely unconvincing turn. Because I loved the beginning, I’ll hang in there for a bit longer, and I’ll hope the writer can turn it around. Even so, a part of me is now observing the story through new eyes. I’m reading toward a “no” with every paragraph or page that continues along that plot line.

This doesn’t mean editors are predisposed to rejecting a piece before reading it. It doesn’t mean we’re trying to make writers’ lives miserable. Instead, it means we’re being realistic. It means we understand that by moving past the work that isn’t going to be a “yes,” we can turn our attention to the other submissions in the queue that much faster.

Because ultimately—and here comes that paradox—even as we read toward a no, we’re also reading toward a yes. Always.

Every time I open a new submission, I’m hoping for a yes. I want to be stunned by the piece. I want to love the writing, to feel energy on the page, to understand I’m in the hands of a confident writer. I want to experience a definitive, decisive draw to the story, where a yes isn’t so much a question as a necessity.

Most of all, I want to be able to send the acceptance email.

Sending rejections is a grind. Like most literary editors, I have to reject the vast majority of submissions that come my way—and that includes strong, accomplished, beautiful work that, for various reasons, just doesn’t make the final cut. I’m a submitting writer, too, so I know what it’s like. The cold form letter, the close call, the “Try us again!” notes—I’m familiar with it all, and I’m not immune to the sting of rejection even when I’m the one handing them out. In fact, sending the vast number of rejections that is required of any literary editor can be crushing.

Sending acceptances, meanwhile, is pure light. To have the chance to affirm writers who cared to send their stellar work my way—and to be able to consider that writing in the first place—is a gift.

Once I know for sure that my staff and I will accept a piece, the concept of “reading toward a no” ceases to exist. Instead, there’s only this piece of writing before me. There’s only my certainty that I want to publish it and share it with others.

There’s only one answer, and that answer is yes.

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