Lessons Learned in a Literary Office

Lessons Learned in a Literary Office

by Editor-in-Chief Sandra Tyler

MeWEIBSITE2As The Woven Tale Press continues to evolve, it has captured the intrigue of new contributing editors, including DeWitt Henry, the founding editor of the award-winning literary journal Ploughshares. Back 30 years ago, while interning for him as an editorial assistant, I learned the hard lesson I went on to indoctrinate in my own students: As a writer, you must strive to become your own best editor.

During my internship, I was introduced to the term “slush” pile; that was my job, daily to sift through piles of unsolicited manuscripts. It was both disturbing and revelatory to be on the other side of this submission process. Still a fledgling writer, I already had accumulated a hefty folder of my own rejection slips, and I particularly savored the ones that deviated from the generic form letters, even if it meant only a quick cursory “try us again” handwritten scrawl — small notes of hope.

My memory may serve me wrong, but I remember the Ploughshares office as small, cramped and windowless, most of the space taken up with piles upon piles of manilla envelopes snail mailed by writers nurturing a hope similar to my own. I am interested less in the accuracy than my interpretation of this remembered fledgling time: it resonates of the insular world of a writer, the necessitation of a space devoid of distractions. Within the walls of that small room, it was my job to evaluate how well I could become as immersed in another’s story as I only ever had in the writing of my own.

That immersion doesn’t necessarily mean a submitted story need be plot driven. It does mean the actual writing needs to be compelling; voice and tenses must be consistent. Adjectives should be carefully chosen and resonate. Bottom line: yes, the writing must be memorable. But it should be meticulously self-edited before it goes into the mail, as devoid of needless distractions from character and sequence of events as how I remember that windowless Ploughshares office.

Of course, with the burgeoning of the internet, submissions have morphed into the far more ephemeral — they rarely wind up on actual paper. But this correlation between writer and editor  is perpetuated, as I pass on to our own editorial assistant the lessons I learned in that insular Ploughshares office. Faced with her own, however ethereal, slush pile, she cannot be expected to read entire manuscripts that come across her cybersphere desk. But neither must the story be perfect; it is not uncommon for us to work with writers to hone a promising story. Just recently, I spent some time going back and forth with a writer moving paragraphs around to hone the focus of a story. The actual writing, the voice, diction, tenses were well edited— that left only the time sequence that needed to be honed. In other words, this was a writer who clearly had already done her own real gritty work as an editor.

Over these past 30 years, DeWitt has followed my career as a writer, even having reviewed my first novel Blue Glass. Over the course of his own career, DeWitt has edited numerous anthologies as well as countless quarterly issues of the journal. Having passed on the editorial mantle at Ploughshares, he now dedicates himself to his own writing, his most current book, Falling Six Stories. At this point in my own career, as a writer now turned editor, I’m indebted to him for those invaluable editorial lessons as a young, relatively inexperienced, writer. Look for one of his flash fiction pieces in our upcoming September issue.

Copyright 2016 Woven Tale Press LLC. All Rights Reserved.

4 Responses

  1. Thanks, Sandra – timely for me as I’m hoping this fall to get my focus back by editing a novel I completed in 2014. In the two years since writing it, life has grown me new eyes. Hope you’re well – Mary

    1. Sorry, Mary, never replied to this. But glad this post reached you in some way. Get back to that editing!

  2. Sandra,
    A lovely look back, and you’re wonderful to light the way for emerging writers. There’s a lot of excellent info here.

  3. A lovely look back, eloquent and wise.
    And it’s wonderful to see you lighting the way for emerging writers. Beautiful.

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