What the Editor Wants: “The Dancers”

Those of us who submit fiction and poetry to literary magazines are very familiar with calls for submission.  We pore over them–eagerly at first, then anxiously–looking for just the right  home for each of the precious darlings we have written into this world.

Genre, word count, deadline, and manuscript format? No problem there. I have several pieces that would fit the bill, and I can follow directions as well as the next person. Now, what is the editor looking for?

Young, urban, edgy? Nope, not a good fit there. We’re talking Queen Victoria at a rave.

How about experimental, hybrid, if-you-don’t-know-what-it-is-send-it-to-us? I might be able to delude myself into thinking that some of my failed fiction languishing in the digital drawer is experimental or of hybrid genre. But who am I kidding? It’s failed fiction, the doyenne of the stage company trying to play the ingenue.

So now that I’ve eliminated the editors who clearly wouldn’t want my work, how can I tell which ones would? What are they looking for? A review of interviews on Six Questions for. . . with editors from a wide range of literary magazines yielded the following answers to the question of what the editor wants:

  • Stories that are fresh.
  • Stories that need to be told.
  • Stories that take their breath away.
  • Stories that grab their attention from the first sentence.
  • Stories that give them goosebumps or make their eyes water.
  • Stories that cause them to reflect on the bigger picture that is life.
  • Poems that follow Ezra Pound’s dictum to “make it new.”
  • Poems that are different in one way or another.
  • Poems that are compelling.
  • Poems with descriptions that make their synapses fire.
  • Something compelling and noteworthy.
  • Submissions that make them see their lives in a new way.
  • Submissions with a wow factor.
  • Work that is moving, through-provoking, original, and new.
  • Work that ripples their nervous systems for years afterward.

I think you can see where I’m going with this. Editors want something new, different, and compelling. Obviously. But just as the children of Lake Wobegon are all above average, all my stories and poems are new, different, and compelling. How could an editor think otherwise?

Recently, I was able to gain some insight into this vexing question where I least expected it–issues of the Dalhousie Gazette from 1914-1918. I’ve been reading them to get a sense of what campus life was like at Dalhousie University in Nova Scotia when my grandmother pursued her degree there.

Given how high emotions were running at the time, poems about the war were included in the Gazette on a regular basis. Most of them, while undoubtedly heartfelt, struck me as pretty overwrought, particularly by today’s standards:

Then I read “The Dancers.” This poem immediately stood out as different from the other poems I’d been reading. It was compelling, moving, thought-provoking. “The Dancers” made my synapses fire and rippled my nervous system:


1Archibald MacMechan, “1915,” Dalhousie Gazette XLVIII, no. 4 (December 21, 1915): 1.
2Wilfrid Wilson Gibson, “The Dancers,” Dalhousie Gazette XLVIII, no. 7 (March 15, 1917): 1.

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