04 May 2019

Bad News and Good News

by John M. Floyd

Last Saturday I conducted a one-day writing workshop in Richardson, Texas, for the North Dallas
chapter of Sisters in Crime. (I had a great time, and I sincerely thank Pam McWilliams and Barbara Spencer for showing me and my wife such a warm welcome.) The agenda included a two-hour session on "Writing Short Stories" in the morning and another on "Marketing Short Stories" that afternoon. I received and addressed a LOT of questions, especially in that second session, when we talked about dealing with editors.

As I told the group, it's been my experience that most short-story editors are professional, friendly, and easy to work with. Granted, these "dealings" are sometimes short, if I get a rejection letter--but even then, they disappoint me in a nice and encouraging way. When they do accept and publish a story I've submitted, they generally pay me on time and present my work in a way that makes me proud.

Flying blind

The real test of dealing with editors comes during that murky area that's not quite a rejection and not quite an acceptance, when editors ask me to change something in one of my submissions. That situation always reminds me of the following joke:

"This is your pilot speaking--I have bad news and I have good news. The bad news is, we're lost. The good news is, we're making damn good time."

Here, the outlook is a little better than in that announcement. The bad news is "we haven't accepted your story yet" and the good news is "we haven't rejected it yet either." And it doesn't happen often--these days editors seem more likely to give you a definite yes or a definite no, with no middle ground. When they do ask for revisions, I usually go through two phases: the first is a stubborn tendency to wonder how they could have the gall to question something I've worked so hard to create, and the second is a gradual realization that those requested changes are often logical and justified. Sometimes they do make the story better. And even when they don't, well, the editors are driving this train, and if I want to ride along I probably need to salute and obey orders.

The fact that these requests for revision don't happen a lot is one reason we as writers need to be careful to make each story as perfect as we can make it before submitting. Editors would rather not go to the trouble of asking for changes, so if the story doesn't work as written, it'll probably just be rejected outright. In this "buyer's market" there are plenty of other submissions out there that might not require any tweaking at all.

Can you spell "compromise"?

There's a silver lining, to all this: If and when I'm asked by an editor to make changes and resubmit, I can be pretty confident that if I do it, the story will be accepted. This has happened to me dozens of times over the years, and in every single case, my changes have resulted in an acceptance. Sometimes the revisions are small (style issues) and sometimes they're extensive (involving a character, or a scene, or a plot point), but I'm always fairly sure that if I accept their suggestions and do what I'm told, they'll buy the story. I realize a lot of writers are headstrong about this kind of thing and will argue about or even refuse most suggested edits, and while I admire their willingness to stand up for what they believe, I maintain that if they would bend a little and secure the sale and the paycheck, they'd be better off. Later, if and when they submit the story elsewhere as a reprint, they can always change it right back to the way they had it in the first place. (I've done that very thing, many times.)

As for examples of revision requests, I was once asked to change an ending such that the resolution was more clear, and another time I was asked to cut back a bit on the length of the opening so the real action in the story happened sooner--and it would've been hard to argue with either of those requests. Some revisions, though, are hard to swallow. Years ago an editor objected to my use of the sentence "Susan cut her eyes at him." She said, "Is that a Southern expression?" I told her I didn't know if was a Southern expression or not, but I agreed to change it. It became "Susan glanced at him," and the editor was happy. When I sold that story again, Susan--sneaky young lady that she was--went right back to cutting her eyes.

Most suggested revisions are truly minor, like inserting or removing a comma or deleting a "that" or changing a semicolon to a period. I always accept those without any fuss; what does it really matter? For some reason, the print edition of The Saturday Evening Post prefers using actual numbers in phrases like "20 feet" or "30 minutes" rather than spelling them out ("twenty feet," "thirty minutes"), and they always ask me to change those in my manuscripts. I might not agree, but it's also not my magazine and they're paying me for my story, so I happily let them do it the way they like.

Q & A

What do the rest of you think, about all this? What's the hardest, or maybe the silliest, change that you've been asked to make, in a submitted manuscript? Do you usually feel such changes help the story, or not? How hard a line are you willing to take to defend your choices? Do those revisions usually result in a sale?

One last observation. I think I've mentioned before, at this blog, that after the first submission I ever made to The Strand Magazine, the editor phoned me, introduced himself, and said his staff liked my story but they had never heard of the type of poison I used to do away with one of the characters, and that I might need to change it. (I think it was something derived from the yellow osceola blossoms of East Africa, or some such thing.) Anyhow, he asked me where I'd found out about that poison. I told him I made it up. After an extremely long and (on my part) nervous pause, he said, "Okay." And they printed the story without any changes. As I believe I have also said before, publishing is an inexact science.

Maybe that's one of the things that makes it fun.


  1. Experiences with publishing editors – mostly good but one bad. Publishing marketing people – terrible.
    Experiences with magazine editors – excellent. My stories have been helped a number of times by good editors and assistant editors at top of the line magazines and small mags. Here's a tip given to me by George Alec Effinger. If an editor asks for a rewrite – listen carefully and rewrite the story (unless the rewrite is ridiculous, which is rare).

  2. Hey O'Neil -- Thanks for the input, and for the tip by Effinger. I agree with him.

  3. An editor who actually takes the time to examine your story and make it better is worth his or her weight in uncut diamonds, and I see very little of it now. I wish I saw more of it.

    Over the last few years, most of my stories have been accepted as they were and I noticed no changes in the final product.

    On the other hand, I've had two or three stories where editors suggested many changes, mostly minor but a couple crucial, and I've agreed with nearly all of them because they improved what I'd written. If I disagree, I try to explain why I don't want the change, but still feel it's the editor's call.

    I agree with O'Neil's experience. I have submitted work to dozens of markets and can only name two publications I would not submit to again.

  4. Thanks, Steve, for the advice and observations. I too am rarely asked to change anything, and it seems that's always been the case--I get a yes or a no and that's it. And I agree that when I AM asked to revise it's usually for a good reason.

    You bring up a valid point: Yes, sometimes you do have to disagree with the suggestions, if you feel strongly enough about it. When that happens I just try to choose my battles and make sure I don't come across as too stubborn or inflexible.

  5. The ability to make revisions based on a publisher request is absolutely essential if you want to have a novel published with a trad publisher. IN fact, I tell all my students to put that in their query letter: "I'm open to revisions." As you said in the comment above, John, you have to choose your battles.

  6. Hey Melodie. Yep, most of these observations were about shorts and shorts editors, but with novels you'd really have to be flexible about requested changes. I guess that's one of the reasons so many folks are self-pubbing. (But of course there are dangers there as well, because sometimes the experienced publishers can be a lot of help.)

    I should probably say again that most of the time, no changes are ever requested to short stories. The stories are either (1) rejected, (2) accepted and published as written, or (3) accepted and published with minor changes they never even asked you about. As Steve implied in his comment above, requests for revision are often welcome and helpful.

  7. John,

    I've had basically reasonable requests for short story changes from various editors.
    But a few of my novels had difficult editors to work with. Most of the time revisions are helpful.

  8. I almost envy your strange (and sometimes negative) editorial experiences, John. I think I prefer them to bland form rejection letters that have zero comments or suggestions. (Although I certainly understand how literary tastes can be subjective - my current record is 13 rejections for a story before it was picked up by the "Saturday Evening Post.") Editors are busy folks, for sure, but when they take the time to jot down even a single sentence of feedback, especially on rejections, I'm shocked these days - and very grateful. *You're* such a masterful story writer, I'm equally shocked you actually get rejected!

  9. Jacqueline, I too think most revision requests for shorts are reasonable, and helpful as well. I certainly believe they're always MEANT to be helpful. One does wonder, though, whether some editors just can't resist tinkering a bit with the story. When I edited that mystery anthology years ago, I really did try hard to "trust" what the authors did, put aside my pet peeves, and only object to the "big" things. Editing is a tough job at best, and my hat's off to those who do it on a daily basis.

    BV, you are far too kind. Thank you, but I assure you my rejection rate, though it's better than it used to be, is still high. And you are correct, VERY few editors have (or take) the time to offer feedback of any kind. All we can do is keep trying, right?

    Thanks to you both for your comments!

  10. Only once has an editor rejected a story with a suggestion that I rewrite the ending, which she found unbelievable. I tried changing it but when I fix the hole it opens another one. I take it out every few years, looking for a solution, but so far, zilch...

  11. Rob, it's still encouraging that that's happened to you only once! I have several times been asked to "fix" an ending, and while those changes have so far always resulted in an acceptance, I might be guilty of having sold my soul to the devil a time or two in the process. Again, though, when I make a change I don't really like, I almost always change that story back to its original state again before reselling it.

  12. I wish I could attend one of your workshops, John! I had an editor of a horror magazine ask for changes before accepting a story. It was one of my very first submissions and I didn’t get it to where he wanted. I still kick myself For not pulling it off.

  13. Larry, I wish you could--we'd have a good time, and I'd probably wind up learning from you.

    As for those very first submissions, all I can say is, I've probably reworked every single one of my early stories. (And I thought they were so good at the time.) But, again, anytime an editor takes the time to ask for changes, it means he or she sees promise there. I hope you wound up selling that story elsewhere!

  14. (I'm just getting around to reading these!) John, that last story about the poison was hilarious! I've been asked to revise and I always do it! :) (P.S.: George Alec Effinger ROCKS!!!!!! And so do you!)

  15. Hey Jeff! Yep, I've never yet turned down a request for revision. Thanks for popping in, here!


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