What a Short Story Editor Does

Posted by April 4th, 2011

“There’s a big difference between editors and copy editors.”


 I have nothing but respect for copy editors, but I become rabid when I read articles and off-hand remarks mixing up the functions of editor and copy editor. I’m primarily a short story editor, so that’s the kind of editing I’ll concentrate, although there’s certainly some overlap with novel editing. I’m going to use the word magazine to include both print magazines and webzines.

First of all, a short story editor solicits fiction. This may sound easy but it isn’t always so. Some writers write short stories because they love the form. Others do it because they believe (correctly) that writing and publishing even a handful of excellent stories can bring quicker recognition than novels. One of the biggest problems a short story editor has is keeping her best writers from moving exclusively into novel writing. Many writers, once they begin producing novels, no longer feel they have the time or energy to write short stories because of the (usually) lousy pay. Very few venues considered professional by SFWA pay more than ten cents a word for a story. Some pay up to twenty cents a word but most pay between five cents and eight cents a word. So short story editors have to regularly cajole and nag writers to write short stories rather novels. A good editor is pro-active, searching out new talent and encouraging established writers to produce short fiction.

A magazine’s fiction editor begins by reading the manuscripts that come in. When I’ve edited magazines I’d  first look through all incoming submissions and skim the cover letters, separating the unsolicited manuscripts or “slush” from non-slush.  “Slush” is the term used for submissions by people who have never published anything anywhere nor have attended a recognized writing workshop (such as one of the Clarion workshops or the Odyssey workshop). All the slush  goes to the “slush” reader–someone hired (or otherwise compensated) to read those submissions — if my reader likes a story in the slushpile, she will pass it on to me.

Editing an original anthology is different. Before I can sell an anthology proposal, I have to round up some “names”–writers whose confirmed participation will help sell the book–to a publisher and to the reading public. I draw up a wish list of writers I’d like in the book—this will include writers with whom I’ve previously worked, other established writers whose work I admire, and also talented newcomers whose work I’d like to encourage.  Only the most recognizable names will actually be in the proposal.

If the anthology sells, I send out invitations, explaining in more detail the anthology’s theme, outlining the submission parameters, the due date, and the payment. I encourage potential contributors to work as broadly as possible within the theme. I (and most other anthologists) ask for more story submissions than I can publish because I know that some writers won’t be able to make the deadline, or won’t be able to come up with an appropriate idea. Also, of course, I  inevitably have to turn down some of the stories – not necessarily because they aren’t good, but sometimes because a story is too similar to one I’ve already bought. An anthologist’s task is to choose stories that work well together, making the volume work as a whole.

As I edit a specific anthology, what I’m looking for evolves. Initially, I’m wide open to a variety of types of stories. As the anthology fills up, I start to weigh what I’ve got in terms of word length, theme, point of view, type of story, type of characters, and structure, and the needs of the anthology become narrower as I try to fill in the remaining spots with something different from what I’ve already bought.

Because there is always an anthology deadline, the editor stays in touch with the writers to remind them of that deadline and prod. Then the submissions come in. The editor will read and rejects the story straight out, or may accept it immediately (sending out a contract and when that’s signed and returned, paying the writer. There are varying schedules for payment but that’s a whole different topic). The third possibility is that the editor tells the writer that she likes or loves the story but feels it needs work before she can commit to buying it. This is possibly the most important part of the whole process, and certainly one of the most satisfying to me–working with the writer to make a good story great, or as close to great as possible.

An editor often works with the writer both before committing to buying a story and after actually buying it. Throughout my career I think I’ve read possibly only three or four submissions that needed absolutely no editing whatsoever. Very few stories are so perfect that they cannot use the critical eye of an editor.

So the bulk of the stories that I like or even love will need work– from a light line edit (more on this later) to a major rewrite.  I may suggest, push, and cajole but I’ll never do the actual rewrite –that’s not my job. I will try to help the author communicate what she intends to in her work by asking questions: What do you mean by this? What happened here? Why did this happen? I tell writers that they need to know what’s going on in their story—even if this information never appears in the final text. A writer may know her world so well that she believes the reader will get it but that’s not always so–as the “ideal” reader it’s the editor’s job to ask for clarification of certain points, when necessary. I often go through several revisions with writers if I like the story enough to begin with–this includes suggestions for consistency in character behavior, asking for clarification of  paragraphs/sentences/phrases so that the reader can comprehend what’s going on –especially if the narrative is complicated and/or the language dense. I might suggest different wordings. If the ending doesn’t work the writer and I will discuss why this is so and try to work out a way to fix it.

I edit in stages:  the first go-through questions and attempts to address any major problems in the story (that is, of course, if I like the story enough to invest my time and energy in the first place). Then, I’ll see if the author’s rewrite fixes those problems. There will usually be a few follow-up questions or suggestions. Next I’ll concentrate on the more detailed issues during which there’s a flurry of correspondence until the writer and I are both happy with the result.

Then the story will sit in my inventory or in my anthology file folder until I’m ready to schedule it for an issue (for a magazine) or when all the stories for the anthology are accepted. This could be up to a year, which is actually a good thing because by this time both the writers and editor can look at the story one more time with almost-fresh eyes. Before a story manuscript goes into production, I give it one more very careful line edit–that is, I go over the manuscript line by line and check for redundancy, inconsistencies, overuse of words, misuse of words, final questions on logic, and yes…if I happen to catch them–correct typos or errors in punctuation that I missed earlier.

An anthology editor creates the front matter that is to be provided for the  anthology’s publisher. This includes the Table of Contents, with the stories and their authors listed in final order, a copyright page, individual author bios, possibly individual afterwords, and an overall Introduction.

Then the anthology goes into production. This is where the copy editor comes in. Fiction copy editors check the manuscript’s punctuation, go over it for consistency, spelling errors, and otherwise “clean up the text,” hopefully catching anything the author and the editor miss. She will also query factual or other errors. The anthologist then goes over the copy edit to ensure that nothing important has been changed without the permission of the author (some writers are easy-going about punctuation. Others don’t want a semi-colon touched). The manuscript– with my changes, made after consulting with each author–either a “stet” which means “leave as is” or “ok” or complete rewordings by the author– is then returned to the publisher and a proofreader goes over the manuscript.

Other jobs of the editor:  contracts–making sure one goes to the author for signature and three are returned to me, signed (one copy for the author, one for me, one for the publisher); payments–ensuring that the author is paid in a timely manner (by me if I’m editing an anthology or by the accounting department of whatever magazine for whom I’m working.

That’s basically it, at least until the anthology comes out. But that’s another article.

(This article previously appeared in the SFWA Handbook and has been reprinted here by kind permission of the author. Photo courtesy Ellen Datlow.)

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Ellen Datlow

About Ellen Datlow

Ellen Datlow has been editing science fiction, fantasy, and horror short fiction for over twenty-five years. She was fiction editor of OMNI Magazine and SCIFICTION and has edited more than fifty anthologies, including The Best Horror of the Year, Inferno, Poe: 19 New Tales Inspired by Edgar Allan Poe, Darkness: Two Decades of Modern Horror, Lovecraft Unbound, Supernatural Noir, The Beastly Bride (with Terri Windling), Teeth: Vampire Tales, and Haunted Legends (with Nick Mamatas). Forthcoming are Naked City: Tales of Urban Fantasy, Blood and Other Cravings, and the young adult dystopian anthology After (the last with Windling). She's has won multiple Locus Awards, Hugo Awards, Stoker Awards, International Horror Guild Awards, World Fantasy Awards, and The Shirley Jackson Award for her editing. She was named recipient of the 2007 Karl Edward Wagner Award, given at the British Fantasy Convention for "outstanding contribution to the genre." She has also been honored with the Life Achievement Award given by the Horror Writers Association, in acknowledgment of superior achievement over an entire career. Ellen also co-curates the long-running Fantastic Fiction at KGB reading series in New York City’s east village. More information can be found at www.datlow.com or at her blog.

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