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As a poetry editor for the online literary journal 322 Review, I’ve learned to navigate between the artistic needs of the authors and the demands of putting out a polished journal. These are my Do’s and Don’ts for new school writing paper editors.

1. Trust your instincts.
The position of an editor can be a scary proposition for some. After all, you hold the hopes of aspiring writers in your hands. Dashing those hopes with the downward swoop of a red pen isn’t always easy. It’s one person’s opinion, yours, and maybe you’re asking yourself: How is that fair? How can you avoid bias or other issues as determining factors? Maybe you haven’t read enough poetry or fiction to know what is and isn’t “worthy”. And, what if you make a mistake and choose the wrong submission or leave out the right one? Are you really the one to decide who and what gets in and who and what stays out?

Yes, you are. It’s your job. And there is no right or wrong. There is only the application of the instinctual stuff that got you to want to become an editor in the first place. You know what you like and what you don’t like. If you’ve educated yourself about the genre you’re editing, have a passion for it, then you’re qualified. Just remember that a quality poem or short story may not always be to your taste, but may be exactly what your readers need to wake them up, or what your journal needs to keep it fresh. Don’t fret leaving out the “right” submission in favor of something else that has captured your interest more.

2. Keep high standards.
Not all submissions meet the criteria set by the journal. Use of profanity, violence or disturbing subject matter, genre specific subject matter, etc. may be beyond the accepted policies. These are the easy rejections, through no fault of your own. But what about the authors who don’t follow submission guidelines, who send ten pages of poetry or 50 pages of fiction when the guidelines specify significantly less? My rule of thumb is to give these authors what they’ve asked for: I’ll scan their submissions, expecting little, but I won’t give them the full attention that I give to authors who have followed the rules. It’s about respect. Give it and so receive it in return. Authors need to understand the guidelines are there for a reason, created not to handicap them, but out of necessity. However, I’m a realist, too. If I feel there is an author worth cultivating a professional relationship with, I will, on the first go around, send a brief email to them with a gentle but firm admonishment, which usually does the trick.

Also, don’t allow yourself to fall prey to quotas. If the submission cycle has not yielded enough quality, do not feel compelled to choose sub-par work to fill empty space in your journal. Why? Because there is a permanence to publication, and sub-par work lowers the perception of the quality of your journal. This perception can haunt you personally, because ultimately the buck stops with the editor. So bite the bullet and wait for the next submission cycle. It’s too easy to give in to the desire to have something, anything to print. But if you want your journal to stay relevant and have the legs of longevity, opt for excellence. When excellence isn’t an option, opt for empty space instead.

Finally, don’t let yourself or your personal standards be bullied by other editors. Many journals use a system that includes an editorial board. Editors vote in rounds for their picks, and each round consists of discussions to defend or defeat those picks. Sometimes the discussions become heated. Stand up for what you believe in, and realize your opinion is as worthy as any other opinion. If you don’t have an aggressive personality, and by default find yourself more often than not on the losing end, develop strategies to defend your picks. Create bullet point notes and use any rhetorical advantage to aid your argument. If you lose a battle, brush yourself off and prepare for the next one. Remember, if something is worth fighting for, then it’s worth fighting for again.

3. Take an editorship seriously.
Editors do not cure polio. Yet they have a responsibility to take their position with an air of gravity. This doesn’t mean that you should frown all day long, but only realize authors have placed trust that an editor will fulfill his/her duties and give serious examination and consideration to each submission. If an author has played straight with you, then play straight with them. If you’re looking for a Hemingway or a Dylan Thomas and haven’t found them yet, don’t take it out on those whose works don’t quite meet up to that standard. Find promise where you can, choose the best from any given pile, stay grounded at the current level of the journal, and always keep a positive attitude toward the next submission cycle.

4. Beware of the rejection letter.
I love to give the good news to poets, informing them that their poems have made the cut. These are the types of emails I always wish to receive after sending my own material out for publication; because there’s a victory in acceptance like nothing else. The victory isn’t in any pecuniary reward, because often for poets there is no payment. Validation and a publication credit can go a long way. Of course when you read an online journal, a print journal or anything that involves the publication of creative works of poetry or fiction, you’re seeing only half the story. The other half of the story is the smoking stack of discarded manuscripts that didn’t make it past the editorial red pen.

The real challenge comes when it’s time to inform the majority of entrants that they didn’t make the cut. No one likes to be the bearer of bad news and these emails are often fashioned as form letters. Editors know the importance of distance when delivering the unwelcome results. Poets and fiction writers are passionate people. They have labored intensely to deliver a product that they themselves believe strongly in; to find out their labors have been met without apparent merit can provoke antagonism, anger, and in some cases can lead to an uncomfortable exchange. The idea is to keep rejections simple and polite. No specifics are required. Thank them for their submission, and if possible encourage them toward the journal’s next reading period. If the author responds to the rejection letter with questions, point out the limitations of the journal, the impossibility of a detailed response. Be cordial and upbeat, but realize, too, that sometimes no amount of encouragement or politeness can cure what has gone wrong. Some authors lose it, and I’ve personally gotten into a few exchanges where the best thing to do was to end the communication altogether, rather than to beget negativity with negativity.

5. Avoid feedback and critiques.
Editors are wary about providing even the smallest suggestions concerning rejected work because of the potential for the author to take the comments out of context. If an author hasn’t spent time in Master’s level writing classes, there is a good chance a critique will be seen as a slight against the person, rather than what it actually is, as something meant to move the poem forward. Feedback of any kind can lead to problems. When an editor chooses to give feedback or make specific comments about a poem, the author tends to get an impression that, with the suggested corrections, the work will be accepted for publication in a future submission. Often the changes (which are sometimes major overhauls) do little to improve the poem, causing discomfort for an editor who has to reject the poem twice. This is why the only time you should remark specifically is when the work has promise in your eyes. In that special case, let the author know that you gave the piece serious consideration, but that certain aspects of it did not meet up to quality control. Guide them on a path of revision, remembering that your advice carries weight. Suggest the author to excise where you think excision best. Hold fast and firm, knowing that not all authors will accept the revision path, and be okay if they choose to bow out.

6. Be yourself.
Editors are important. They find new talent and help to fashion the progress of the arts. Be a part of that tradition and add your unique stamp to the great conversation.

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