Our esteemed Editor in Chief finds himself somewhat indisposed due to a combination of hard-drive-meltdown blues and steampunk writing mania. Since Nature and webzines abhor a vacuum almost as much as cats and dogs do, we offer the following serving of Webzine Helper.
What is an Editor supposed to do, anyway? When Cary Semar retired a few years ago (after about 7 years as Short Story Editor), I was offered the job and (for better or for worse) accepted. Unfortunately, I forgot to ask for the Big Book of Editing Rules and Regulations, and I've been wingin' it ever since.
Some authors feel that an Editor (or Slush Pile reader, at larger publications) should provide specific constructive criticism when rejecting a story, and should avoid making negative comments so the author is not unduly discouraged from continuing to write and submit his work. Some Editors (and Slush Pile readers) believe that it is sufficient to say "This story didn't work for me" or "Your submission does not meet our current needs"; after all, they work for the publication, not the authors.
To complicate matters, there is a significant difference between the kind of editing done by newspaper and newsmagazine editors, fiction magazine editors, and book editors. In the first two cases, the primary duty of the editor is to obtain the best material possible for their publication. This may involve copy-editing material that is close to the desired level of writing but contains easily-corrected errors, flatly rejecting material that is fundamentally flawed, and, of course, offering praise when praise is due.
Book editors, on the other hand, are mainly if not exclusively involved in line-by-line and chapter by chapter copy-editing of material that has already been accepted, at least in outline or proposal form, by them or by Higher Authorities. (Boss to Editor: "Stephen King is bored and wants to write a book based on the idea that Mole Men are causing all those enormous sinkholes that are swallowing up houses and cars these days. Even if it sucks, it'll make huge profits. Work with him on it until the result doesn't make your eyes bleed. Oh, and make sure it's ready to go to press in time for the Christmas rush.")
To expect thorough and detailed critiques from a magazine editor is probably too much, based on the experiences of anyone who has submitted material to a number of markets. Most publications that receive a substantial number of submissions (possibly hundreds per month for a high-profile magazine) rely on form rejections, often featuring the stock phrases quoted earlier. Of course, authors whose work has often been published in a particular market may receive more attention from the editors of that publication because their work is at least close to the editor's "standards", and thus relatively easy to "fix". (Authors should note, however, that a piece that "works" for one editor may be instantly rejected by another.)
At the other end of the spectrum from the "form rejection" or "acceptance as is" School of Editing, some Editors (namely me) will actually make small or even significant changes in a story rather than simply providing the author with suggestions for changes. Some authors are happy to accept the changes I make, some accept some changes and reject others, some insist on retaining things that drive me crazy (I know, it's such a short trip, I should walk...) Once I have decided that a story is worth running, I make it clear that it is the author's prerogative to approve the final version. (In the case of "Girl Facing Village" by Lee Alon, this meant replacing "my" version with the version as submitted...)
So -- what should I be doing? Anybody? Bueller? Bueller? And have the results over the past three years been good?
Short Stories Editor