Seen by The Masters Review
Common Submission Mistakes
Each quarter, The Masters Review editors see hundreds of stories, and the pieces selected for publication come from a group of extremely varied submissions. We feel lucky to receive such a strong and diverse array of fiction and nonfiction, and we often have heated discussions about which pieces to publish. Currently, we’re reading for our Short Story Award, which closes on August 30. So we have some advice for hopeful writers about what makes a story stand out from the slush, and what mistakes writers should avoid to keep their piece at the top of the pile.
The Basics of a Good Submission
Fiction, nonfiction, short story, or flash: Regardless of genre, there are a few easy things you can do to ensure your story makes a good first impression. It might seem rudimentary, but it is shocking how often editors see mistakes in the following categories:
Follow them. If we ask not to see identifying information on a document—don’t include it. Format according to given specifications, and simply follow the rules. We receive stories via email and snail mail, which we do not accept. We receive poems, which we do not currently publish. And unfortunately, because of the number of stories we must read, making silly errors forces our hand. We will automatically decline your piece.
Don’t submit a story that is too long. Editors and readers know what a 6,000-word short story looks like, and if you’re over, we can tell. If your story is over the word count limit, it isn’t the right fit for that publication. If you feel you can cut it—great! Trimming for length is a wonderful editing exercise, so see what you can leave behind. Please, do not submit a story that falls outside of the submission guidelines, especially word count.
The tidiness of your document speaks volumes. While most editors are happy to overlook the occasional missed punctuation, a run-on sentence, or incorrect plural in an otherwise polished story—if a piece is riddled with mistakes, it tells us your writing isn’t ready. Take the time to spell-check and look for any funny business. It is a sign of respect and shows us you care.
Thankfully, most writers are careful, thoughtful people, and the majority of submissions that come in adhere to guidelines. So then what? Here are some craft elements that appear in stories that are common reasons why we may decline a work:
What’s the Susan Sontag quote? “Love words, agonize over sentences. And pay attention to the world.” Do that. We see a lot of stories with poor prose or overworked writing. I’ve heard it before: “Show; don’t tell.” No one wants overly complicated sentences full of useless adjectives, or a long paragraph that is entirely summary. So edit your lines for clarity and be sure each word has a purpose. Make sure your sentences are serving your story by including the right details and eliminating the wrong ones. Does a certain paragraph delay action? Is your dialogue clunky? Trim it. Nothing turns an editor off faster than bad diction or poor prose.
Tense and Point of View
Do a quick check! Slips in tense and POV are easy to make and are often quick edits. Unless it’s intentional (and be very careful when it is), clean up any mistakes to make your writing more consistent and reliable.
I guess it just irks me when a character is reduced to a single element. It’s okay for secondary characters to some extent, but a single father, a disabled veteran, a pregnant woman, a strict coach—these are all potentially interesting characters, but don’t let their roles define them. Treat your characters like real people. Give them a life outside of their label. Develop them.
Lack of Interiority
We talk about “interiority” a lot in The Masters Reviewoffice. We reject a large number of stories with strong prose and great ideas because we don’t have access to the interior lives of characters when we feel this is important. If we don’t understand what the character is thinking, we don’t know what the action of the story really means to the protagonist. Readers need to understand your characters in order to care about them.
Why Do I Care?
The stories we hate to reject are the ones that show so much promise: a great character, a fully developed world, an interesting premise, an internal landscape we’re invested in, and a strong use of language. This is a fantastic package, but it falls short if the writer doesn’t understand what her story’s purpose is. In addition to making sure your plot drives the story in a logical way, be sure the emotional discoveries within your story are clear as well. Outside of the plot, ask yourself: What is this story about and why is that important?
Other Questions to Ask
Here’s a list of questions that may seem random but would have helped stories we’ve read recently sort out their issues: What purpose do the surreal elements in my story serve other than the fact that they are extremely fun? How much of my story is told in summary? Am I giving fair treatment to all of my characters? What is the central conflict of this story? Am I spending too long on descriptive phrases? What purpose does my dialogue serve and does it feel realistic? What facts about my characters and the world they live in do I want my readers to know up front? Does the order in which information is revealed in my story make sense? (Similarly, if I am withholding important background information in a story, to be revealed later: Why?) Are the transitions in my story clear? And lastly…does my story reflect just how much fun it was for me to write this?
Reading submissions is such a fun process, made even more so when the writing works and we get to accept a story. Thanks to everyone who submitted stories and to those planning on submitting to our Short Story Award! We can’t wait to see what you come up with. For more info on our current contest and submission guidelines, visit our website!
By Kim Winternheimer, Founding Editor