What are editors looking for from writers?
From Published Finalist, to Writers of the Future winner, to Managing Editor of Apex Magazine.
I first wrote a blog for Writers of the Future shortly after my first short story sale. I talked about the value of the Forum and the importance of collecting varied writing advice, proudly displaying my growing collection of Honorable Mentions. Three years later I was back, sharing insights into my journey to Published Finalist in L. Ron Hubbard Presents Volume 38 of Writers of the Future. That time, I talked about how I’d come to value the journey of being a writer—the friendships, the self-growth, the challenges—more than the destinations and accolades. (Even when that destination was Hollywood!)
I am honored and thrilled to be back a third time to talk about my role as Managing Editor of Apex Magazine, the Hugo and Nebula-winning magazine where I’ve been an editor since 2021.
I started at Apex Magazine in 2020 as a slush reader, something I’d heard repeatedly was hugely valuable to developing our craft. I learned a ton reading slush and, when an opportunity to join the editorial team arose, I jumped at the chance.
I was immediately thrown into the deep end of the back side of publishing—taking over the monthly microfiction contest on the Apex Magazine Patreon, general Patreon management, and numerous tasks that make publishing possible but aren’t the shiny work of writing and editing—social media management, record keeping, website maintenance. I learned more than I could have imagined about publishing in a very short period of time.
In late 2022, the magazine added flash fiction as a regular part of the magazine, and I was honored to be promoted to Flash Fiction Editor. Then again in the summer of 2023, I was promoted to Managing Editor of Apex Magazine. When we added flash, I created my own slush team, a small team to help me wrangle the 150 or so flash pieces we get monthly. As Managing Editor, I also try to make sure our entire team feels supported and appreciated, keeping the lines of communication open. It also means I get to consult with our Editor-in-Chief, Lesley Conner, about the stories selected for the magazine. She does the majority of reading herself, but sometimes she needs someone to talk to about the stories, or offer a second opinion. I’m also busy behind the scenes with Patreon and flash fiction.
The question authors ask editors most, I think, is WHAT DO YOU WANT FROM ME?
And the answer is, of course, it depends.
It depends on the market and the editor, and it depends on what tastes and needs the magazine has at a given time.
As is often discussed about Writers of the Future in regards to the quarterly stories, any market sometimes has more particular needs. Recently, Apex was looking for stories focused on a particular theme for an issue that just needed one more piece to really come together. The thing is, you’ll never know what the editor is looking for unless you have the inside scoop, so all we as writers can do is send our best work and hope!
A story that was objectively very good was recently returned to the author because it was too similar to a piece we’d already published in recent years. It can be frustrating and even discouraging to hear “be original” as an author. Maybe a better way to phrase it would be “be yourself.” The unique quirks, worldviews, sense of humor, experiences and fears that make you different from any other human being can inform your writing, making it different from any other story.
This, I think, is a strong way to interpret the oft-repeated advice “Write what you know.” We don’t know what it’s like to be a unicorn or fly a space ’copter, but we do know what it is like to love and hurt in the way only we can. That, poured into our stories, makes them resonate with truth—and stand out in the slush pile.
It’s also important to read the markets you’re submitting to. This is the best way to get a handle on what they’re looking for—what have they already bought! With Writers of the Future this is a little less indicative, perhaps, because the books pull together such a wide variety of stories and themes, but you can still get a sense for what judges prefer, what they’re looking for, what they might find funny or frightening, exciting or wondrous. With short fiction periodicals, I am of the opinion that reading them is the single best way to improve your chances of acceptance.
Only by reading them can you get a sense of what their tastes are. For Apex, a general rule of thumb is “Strange, Surreal, Shocking, and Beautiful,” which is our tagline, but there’s more to an Apex story than that. We want a certain emotional resonance, a sense that this story will make people think or feel. Writers of the Future, Strange Horizons, Clarkesworld, any market you can name has particular tastes.
A writer’s job is to make it so the editors and first readers cannot say no to their work. The next best step (after reading the market) is to make sure you’re following the submission guidelines. So simple, and yet something constantly ignored. Follow the rules and don’t give first readers an easy reason to say no.
Because, sadly, my job as an editor and reader is to make sure that only the strongest, most suitable pieces are selected for the magazine. This means that I’m looking for reasons to pass, even when I love a story. An ending that doesn’t come together, too many unexplained in-world terms, a character voice that feels unnatural, descriptions that aren’t painting a strong picture for me—all reasons I’ve passed on stories I otherwise liked. But I’ve also accepted stories where the end didn’t quite work for me, or I needed more clarity, or I wanted more from a character or setting, when the rest of the piece was so strong I couldn’t say no.
A note on grammar, punctuation, and spelling. I’m of the opinion that in the age of spell check, egregious spelling errors are just a sign of a lack of care. However, I’m keenly aware that not everyone who tells beautiful stories speaks English as their first language, and that not everyone who speaks English as their first language speaks it the same way! So for myself as an editor, I’m not strict on comma usage, grammar structure, or other so-called rules. If it works, it works! Clarity and good storytelling are most important to me—but other editors may feel differently, so it is a good idea to proofread carefully before sending your work out.
At the end of the day, all we can do as writers is write the best piece we are capable of and send it to the editors and markets we hope to work with. And all we can do as editors is to hope the next one we read is a perfect fit!
Rebecca grew up reading in the Rockies and has lived in many places, including Tokyo, Japan and Stuttgart, Germany. Rebecca’s short fiction has been published by or is forthcoming from Flame Tree, Apparition Lit, Galaxy’s Edge, Writers of the Future, and others. She is the Managing Editor at Apex Magazine. Rebecca reads, edits, and writes stories exploring the relationship between self and society when she’s not playing Stardew Valley or raising her children. She is fueled by cheese-covered starch and corgi fur. Find her on the internet: https://linktr.ee/rebeccaetreasure