How do you know when something is good enough to publish?

Colorado Review receives hundreds of submissions every month, over 9,000 submissions each year. Each is carefully read and considered by a team of editors, associate editors, and editorial assistants like me. I am a graduate student, working on a master’s degree in writing creative nonfiction.

Since 1956, Colorado Review has published world-renowned authors and first-time-ever-to-be-published authors alike. Each piece of writing that is submitted for review is given an equal chance, equal weight. We do not look at an author’s name or publication history when we read their work. We just read it.

Some people write because it is therapeutic. They are discovering and making sense of their lives, their stories, by sitting down with their paper and pen or computer. They start with a feeling and those feelings can be very strong indeed.

Some people write because they have something to teach. They want us to understand the topic about which they write. They want us to know crucial information about our world so that we can make better informed decisions as citizens, consumers, human beings. They start with a passion. These writers are on a mission that they want us to join.

Some people write because they want to make art. Their goal is to encourage beauty to grow in the world, to cause us to think and feel deeply, to know something in our bones by experiencing it on the page. These writers are concerned with the aesthetic, with the philosophy that truth, beauty, and goodness are somehow intertwined. They want us to engage with that deeper reality which only art can show.

Every essay that I read has merit. Each is the best work in the author’s personal style; each has something important to say. Had we but world enough and time, I would be tempted to publish them all. Though Colorado Review is prolific, with a long history of publishing up-and-coming authors, each issue—and there are only three each year—is confined to just 200 pages, give or take. Despite their high quality, some submissions must be passed over.

Choosing which essays to publish is the hardest part of my job. And yet, when I read through submissions, I can sort out the works that fit into the upcoming issue from the ones that we will have to regretfully decline. The styles and motivations of these essays differ wildly. Their tone, their voice, their topics all vary. But their quality shines through like a bright light. Reading submissions, I can tell. Writing is an art and a communicative tool and a source of and method for making meaning.

So how do we know when something we read is good? We know it when we read it.