you are in the diode archives fall 2010



Behind the Blue Pencil  

“Writing is a struggle between presence and absence.”
—Lu Chi (261-303 CE)

I’ve always loved pencils; as a child I preferred them to crayons. I held the sharp graphite tips at strategic angles to sketch, shade and doodle. I wrote, and then deleted my inchoate literary dabbling with a motley collection of erasers. Writing was my earliest preoccupation, and with it came the need to edit and polish what I had written. The heady rush to see a first draft of undecipherable scribbles morph into a readable piece with shape and substance kept the interest dormant despite various detours along the way. It was only much later that I fell unexpectedly into a job where wielding a blue pencil had both a literal and metaphorical meaning.

For most people the word “editing” conjures up visions from high-school, poring over homework with a copy of Strunk and White’s Elements of Style trying to untangle the many knots of a convoluted sentence. Writers and editors are often amazed how typos and misplaced punctuation survive multiple readings—like those arcade moles one hammers back in place only for more to pop up—but, though necessary to bring a finished piece to print, copy-editing is only one part of the entire editing process. Editing is an art as well as a skill. A good editor develops a pitch perfect ear for what is said, as well as for what is left unsaid. An editor can visualize a finished book just as a conductor can hear an entire symphony while still being able to isolate the dynamics of each instrument. The editor lowers barriers between writer and reader, facilitating communication and refining language in an effort to bring the author’s intention, voice and style intact to the reader.

All book publishers, magazines and newspapers have editors on staff. Editors also play a large role in literary magazines. In spite of growing technologies in the publishing arena, there are a great number of print and online magazines in demand. For poetry, it is customary to publish in these venues before thinking of a poetry collection or inclusion in an anthology. In journals, rather than editing submitted work, the focus is primarily on the selection process. Since journals get many more submissions than they are able to print, by necessity, they have to be selective, only printing a small percentage of what comes in. Just as for a journal, an editor who puts together an anthology must select from poems submitted and balance them to form a unified manuscript.

Many journals operate on a shoestring budget; the majority of their editors are underpaid (or unpaid.) Contrary to misconceptions people have of editors misusing their power and doing a hatchet job on a book, or rejecting poems and stories at whim, most editors put a lot of time and effort into running journals, and make selections based on careful readings of the work. Editors of literary journals work on magazine text, writing reviews, features and commentary. They interview writers and provide insights into the poet’s work for shared clarity and purpose. Editors have to deal with a voluminous correspondence, researching, fact-checking, obtaining permissions from other publishers, and ordering materials. They also have to contend with PR work, networking, coordinating prize nominations, setting up features, interviews, etc. Editors are often asked to write book reviews which can be time consuming. Journal editors are genuinely interested in exceptional, original and powerful work, and are eager to share it with the reading public.

Submission guidelines are the “instruction manuals” of the journal world—no one wants to bother reading them. But whereas one can easily operate a new toaster oven, or program a High Def TV (especially if one is under the age of 30) without a manual, ignoring guidelines could make the difference between editors giving their full attention to the work, or not.

Sometimes selection seems like a mysterious process. Why do journal editors pick certain poems or stories over others? The editor’s choice is based on a variety of factors, including more general requirements such as work which demonstrates mastery over language, and writing that is strong and vibrant with the ability to make an impact on the reader. Work that is evocative and which can reach readers at some level or other will most likely be chosen over work that is trite and cliché-ridden with tired images, and which lacks intensity and vigor.

And now onto the hot topic of journals—the rejection letter. In any language, “no” is the wallflower of words—it stinks big time, its popularity rating well below that of the amorous skunk, Pepé Le Pew.  For most people, rejection can chip away at self esteem; as writers, it keeps them out of the elite community of accepted writers—”the chosen ones.” The innocuous note starting with “We regret . . . we’re sorry . . . unfortunately . . . ” never fails to deliver a sucker punch, whether it’s a first submission or the hundredth. From the other side of the fence, most editors admit that sending out rejection notes is the least favorite part of their jobs. Not only that, many struggle with composing the perfect ‘thanks, but no thanks’ letter. If too soft, they are accused of prevarication; if too blunt, they could be held responsible for blighting the aspirations of an upcoming author. Putting it in perspective helps seasoned writers understand that it is a numbers game. From hundreds of submissions, journal editors can only publish a handful. They have to choose what they feel are the best poems that will work together to present a balanced issue. Even if there are five brilliant poems about death, unless it is for a themed issue revolving around the grim reaper, the editor will likely take one and pass on the remaining four.

Sometimes people forget the medium of print is irrevocable. Smart writers are cautious of putting in writing something they might regret later, like an inflammatory response to a less than favorable review. Editors often talk to each other and share resources, sometimes mentioning names of writers who have made an impact on them—good or bad. On the flip side, editors best serve their journals by maintaining a professional attitude, even in face of provocation.

Without writers, literary journals would have no content. Editors consider it a privilege to read good work and be part of bringing it to a wider readership. Every so often, when editors read through submissions, they find something rare and compelling; the possibility of that discovery is why they enjoy the job in spite of its many pitfalls.

As long as there is passion for writing, there will be an accompanying drive to present the best work in the best light possible. It may be a flawed and subjective endeavor, but it is the only one available, and for the most part, it works. Writers and editors are part of the literary equation; writers want their work to be published, and editors want to publish that work—in the end, they are on the same team.  


Ami Kaye is the publisher and managing editor for Pirene’s Fountain, a journal of poetry. Her poems have appeared in various journals. She has written features, reviews, and articles.  She is the author of What Hands Can Hold, and her new poetry collection, Singer of the Ragas, will be released later this year.