Acquisitions Anonymous, or, Rookie Revelations in Editing

It’s been a crazy few months, and my very first professional level editing job is nearing completion. It’s been an interesting experience, to say the least.

When I accepted the job, I did so knowing that I had absolutely no foundations in editing, other than a standard grasp on the functions of the language, and that my personal tastes in fiction were appealing to the chief editor at the publishing house. As a relatively new publishing company, Chupa Cabra House (which I interviewed here) is pretty flexible with their submissions. I had manuscripts submitted to me in every style, font, and shade of polish. I had some authors who included CV signatures with over 300 listings, and some who didn’t even bother to write “hello” or sign their name in the email. For the sake of the anthology, I ignored all of those things, and focused purely on the story quality.

I have since learned ten things about being an acquisitions editor:

  1. Every editor needs to follow a specific style book. I’ve ordered my copy of The Chicago Manual of Style and will be studying up. Submissions from all sides of the globe, and from all styles of English have shown me the absolute importance of this. For instance, the rules for ellipses (space after the word, or no space?), quotations (single, or double?), commas (Oxford?), em-dashes, and all other manners of structure and spelling all depend on where you live, and what “Style” manual you adopt.
  2. Learn upfront what your employer expects of you. Chupa Cabra House only required me to read for acceptance, rejection, and basic formatting to make all of the stories congruent. However, some of my accepted authors expected, or even relied, on my working with them through one more polish to complete the story. Of course, this depends on the house.
  3. When sending out rejections and acceptances: Send out your acceptances first, and wait for the author’s confirmation before sending out rejections. I unfortunately did not do this (I told you I was a rookie), and because of a simultaneous submission that was also accepted elsewhere, I lost one of my short-listed submissions. For double the misfortune, I had already sent out a rejection notice to the one story that I would have liked to see take its place. D’oh!
  4. I have not worked in the business long enough to send out a form rejection. As a writer, I just can’t bring myself to do it, yet. However, I see the mercy in the form rejection. Beyond what so many other blogs have already mentioned, about it being subjective, there are also stories that are simply sub-par… stories that were callously sent to me with typos, tense hopping, or plots I found confusing or boring. For those (admittedly) scant few stories, I can see how a form rejection can actually be merciful.
  5. Take notes. Take looooots of notes. Buy a notebook, add margin notes in Word, print them out and mark them all up–and when you’re finished? Write a one or two sentence summary about the plot of the story. I forgot to do this (again, rookie), and after 65 submissions (some with the same title!), I couldn’t tell ABC from CBA. For many of those stories, I had to reread them as I composed my rejections (obviously I remembered all of the things I loved about the ones I accepted). Which brings me to:
  6. Go ahead, and right after you finish reading a story, write a draft of the rejection email you’re going to send if you’re positive you’re going to be rejecting a story. It will save you time at the end of the project. Go ahead and write a draft of acceptance emails too, and if you can’t accept it due to space, all you have to do is add one more sentence to that effect. Go, go Efficiency!
  7. Be objective. A lot of my friends submitted to the anthology I was editing once they heard about it (even my girlfriend), and I was feeling a lot of pressure regarding how I was going to read blind, or fairly, when it came to their stories. In the end, though, I was able to do so. I detached myself from my relationships and just read for quality–this is one of the most important things you can do, both for your own professional integrity, and theirs. Some of my friends’ stories were rejected. Some of them were accepted. And now I have proof that all of them are just as understanding and objective. No one bit my head off. So, be objective, fair, and kind, and there’s no way you can go wrong.
  8. Triple check your emails. Once an editor, always an editor. Every small transmission or piece of correspondence over the internet becomes a part of your image. Careless mistakes show a careless editor. I sent an email to the wrong person (check the email address, too), used the wrong name (curse you, Cutting Corners and Copy+Paste!), and my avast! application added “WebRep Rating” to all of my signatures for several days (FYI, if this is happening to you, open up Firefox’s Add-Ons and delete avast’s WebRep, which was automatically installed with the regular software).
  9. Take breaks. If you are making a lot of careless mistakes… if the stories are all starting to blur together, then it’s time to step away from the reading and editing for a few minutes. Critical and meticulous editing requires a clear and focused mind, and even if you have a crazy deadline looming, you have enough time to step away from your computer for ten minutes to get some fresh air, or a shot of Vitamin D.
  10. (and perhaps the most important, as I direct it to authors…) The NUMBER 1 reason I ended up rejecting perfectly acceptable stories was not because they weren’t on topic (though I got a fair number of those, too), but, rather, because they didn’t mesh with the overall atmosphere of the rest of the submissions for the anthology. Going into the reading, I had no idea what sort of horror anthology was going to come together. “Growing Concern” was completely at the mercy of all of the authors’ own inspirations. In the end, I was looking for an anthology that flowed, with stories that spoke to each other through the pages. The stories couldn’t just be a “piece of parts”– they had to be a “piece of the whole”.

I ended up rejecting a lot of beautiful stories for this anthology, and though my fingers hovered for a long time between the “accepted” and “maybe” labels in my Gmail, eventually, the voice of the anthology had to be heard. And that, I think, is an anthology editor’s most important job: shaping the work into a character all its own.

Next year, I think I’m going to try and build up a stronger CV for editing, so I can eventually take on freelance, or even a publishing house position, as an editor. I enjoy it, but I definitely think next year will be about working towards more paid positions, rather than the royalty-based and volunteer work I do now.

If you’re an editor, or have edited fiction before, what are some of the things you learned that aren’t listed here?

If you’re an author who has had their work edited (professionally or volunteered), were there any parts of the process that you felt unsure about? Were there parts that you liked?

12 thoughts on “Acquisitions Anonymous, or, Rookie Revelations in Editing

  1. Being someone that does a lot of editing, I think it’s more important to develop your own style rather than follow one from a book. Not that a book can’t be a good jumping off point.
    Maybe that’s just me.
    Also, one of the things that I’ve learned is that allowing the work to edit itself can be more important than following all of the rules, especially in regards to commas, so adopting the rigid structure of a “rule book” can damage a piece of writing. [I still need to go back over House and pull out more commas (among other things) because I was focused more on rules, then, than I am now.]

    Hmm… I had one other thing I wanted to say but ushering the kids out the door for school has made me forget. bah


    1. Andrew, of course I’m not advocating strangling a text with grammar rules, and there is always accounting for style, but on a professional level, you need a standard base, this is just how I feel. Houses differ on where to put the periods after an ellipse, when to hyphenate a word, etc (Check this out for further info: The reason for that is usually because of the style book they use. For instance, AP is usually used for journalism, and Chicago for literature. That’s the only reason I suggested studying a base, to know where and, more importantly, WHY you make a stylistic change.


      1. No, I get that. What I’m saying is that “styles” are based on root rules. I’ve found it more profitable to study the root rules and develop my own style based on those. I don’t want to follow some arbitrary style, because that’s someone else’s arbitrary style. If the style is going to be arbitrary, I want it to be my own.

        Does that make more sense?


  2. Great post, Alex! This makes me have even more respect for what editors do. I especially like your comments about sending out a personal rejection versus a form. Many editors don’t bother with personal rejections simply because they receive so many submissions and it takes too much time. I’ve received plenty of rejections, and most are forms. When I’ve received a personal rejection with particularly helpful feedback, I’m always appreciative. However, some of the personal rejections I’ve received made me wish the editor had just used a form letter (such as the editor who told me my use of adverbs was disturbing, simply because he despises them), or the editor whose rejection of a poem I submitted consisted of sending me an entire poem by a very famous poet and suggesting that I write more like her. I admire you for taking the time to respond personally and thoughtfully to all of the submissions; I’m sure the writers will appreciate it. And I look forward to seeing this anthology published!


    1. Thanks Miranda! Yeah, that’s exactly what I was thinking when I realized what a “mercy” a form rejection can be. I’m sorry you had such cynics for editors! I would never do that to someone. I’d sooner quit the business, than stop seeing “submissions” as real people.


  3. Fascinating post, Alex. Editing an anthology is so different from editing a novel. I had to choose which poems to leave out of the one I published because they didn’t fit the theme.


  4. It’s so interesting to see how the other side of writing/publishing works. I like the fact that you try to personalize rejections. But I can understand how the “form letter” might be kinder and easier for some. Having to comment on student writing when I was teaching composition in college was a difficult and painful process at times.


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