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Editing

In my previous posts, I’ve talked about rejection letters and how they make writers feel. But what I’m learning in my class this semester is that the best way to feel better about rejection is to become an editor yourself.

As editors of Columbia’s literary anthology Hair Trigger, we read through stacks and stacks of student manuscripts submitted by their professors (about 2,000 in all), and then label them as yes, no, or maybe. Six readers read each piece, and in class, we discuss any piece that has at least one yes or maybe. Then, if we can’t come to a consensus, we pass it on to three more readers, and if we still can’t agree, our professor reads it and makes a final call.

As in the rest of our workshops, we’re not allowed to say whether we liked or disliked a piece; rather, we’re asked to examine “what’s working or not working.” This little matter of semantics is meant to remind us that just because a person doesn’t like, for example, science fiction or magical realism or sex-and-violence, doesn’t mean stories of these natures can’t be good writing.

But despite our efforts at objectivity, it’s very rare that all eleven of us completely agree on the merits of almost any of the stories we’ve read (although it’s a lot easier to agree on which ones are really awful). There are stories that I’ve thought were really strong that everybody else rejected, and stories that I hated that got moved forward. Sometimes it almost feels like we didn’t even read the same story, our interpretations of it are so different. On the one hand, good writing is good writing: strong characters, language, spatial relationships, sensory details, dialogue, lively scenes, engaging plot, and that indefinable quality—heart, maybe, that is more difficult to identify but which, if it’s not there, results in a story with no life. But it’s difficult to be objective about even those things sometimes, try as we might—it’s inevitable that our own biases and tastes get in the way of our judgment, especially because, as writers, most of us think with our hearts and not our heads most of the time anyway.

But this is not to say that I give myself a pass, or blame it on the editors when a story of mine isn’t accepted somewhere. The truth is, really good stories will always find a home. So it’s on me to keep improving and keep submitting. But it’s important to also remember that people have widely varying tastes when it comes to literature, as they do with movies, music, and all other art forms. In other words: don’t take it personally.

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