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.

22 thoughts on “What the Editor Wants: “The Dancers”

  1. What are they looking for? Such a list that answers that question! It is a wonder they approve of anything at all to publish. I just can’t think of any contemporary writing I’ve read in the last few decades that rippled my nervous systems for years afterwards. I’d forget that list and just write and write and write. You probably won’t ripple anyone’s nervous system but you will continue to create good work, continue to be published and remain true to yourself without relying on any crazy editor’s list.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Liz, this is why I self published my poetry, well that and the fear of constant rejection from editors for my submissions. Of course that came at a price too. Because I self-published my work I cannot get my books into ANY bookstore whether it be locally owned or a national chain or on their website. And the same thing goes for book signings, so technically it’s word of mouth. I have 6 published poetry books out and all are individual books, even though I put them under a “series”. If you go onto Amazon.com and type in my name or Google: (Jennifer’s Poetry Series) click on the links that take you to the Amazon website, because a while back, I stupidly created 2 groups by the same name on Facebook and I still haven’t figured out how to take them down from Facebook.

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  3. The Dancers is beautiful. And it has stood the test of time. I was reading about WW Gibson’s poems the other day but, of course, I can no longer remember where! It may have been an item on war poets, or something in connection with Robert Frost. Do you know what his link to Dalhousie was?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I don’t think Gibson had a direct connection to Dalhousie, other than being British. There were a lot of war poems published in the Dalhousie Gazette, the student newspaper. I expect that most of them were selected by the Gazette’s faculty advisor, who also wrote several himself. You may have read about Gibson along with his contemporaries Wilfred Owen and Rupert Brooke, who were also WWI poets? I found this brief biography of him and discovered that he never actually served in combat! He was inspired by the personal anecdotes of others and exercised the power of the sympathetic imagination to write the poems. http://www.warpoets.org/conflicts/great-war/wilfrid-wilson-gibson-1878-1962/

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      1. An excellent link. Thank you. And, yes, indeed, what an extraordinary sympathetic imagination he had. I also noted in another article that Gibson’s circle included Eleanor Farjeon ( via Edward Thomas ). The first book of poetry I owned was by Farjeon. I still have it, and I still love it.

        Liked by 1 person

  4. ” We’re talking Queen Victoria at a rave.” Funny.. To be serious for a moment, what I want is far more important to me than what “they” want. I write to say what’s on my mind, what someone wants to hear is never in my thoughts. It is my great “commercial” failing and my great strength. Stay well and continue…

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I don’t write for what “they” want either. That’s what my day job was for, although by the end, the day job did not want to hear what I had to say. I do pay attention to what editors of literary magazines want so that I’m not wasting my time sending work to publications that are looking for something else entirely.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. P.S. Of course, you don’t write for them Liz. I know that. Sonny told me that. It’s just that all the years of dealing with certain “types” and their “critiques” merely to make “critiques” have sharpened my hackles. Kindly forgive, and continue…

        Liked by 1 person

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