By Colorado Review Editorial Assistant Melissa Merritt
I’m sitting in front of a computer in the Center for Literary Publishing reading creative nonfiction essays that have been submitted for publication. I’m an editorial assistant with the Colorado Review, and sadly, I’ve spent most of the afternoon reading essays that for one reason or another just don’t fit our journal. I stretch and take a big breath before plunging back into the queue.
Next up is a sixteen-page essay that has been waiting its turn for about six weeks. I imagine the author, waiting patiently through these excruciating weeks to hear back about this essay, probably one of her favorites.
If all goes well, she’ll wait a bit longer. Two readers have to up-vote a piece before it advances to the editor. That can take another week or two, depending upon how many editorial assistants are working that week.
I open the file and begin to read the essay. I get more excited with each sentence that I read. I think, “This is really good!” And then I stop to ask myself, what exactly is it that makes this essay, or any for that matter, special? It occurs to me that you might like to know the answer to that question, too.
These are some characteristics that I see in successful essays submitted to the Colorado Review:
* The author has drawn me into the story.
I care about the narrator and am curious about what happens next. I want to read the next sentence and then the next. I forget about stretching, or the room temperature, or the fact that I didn’t eat breakfast before arriving at work. I’m only thinking about the essay. For a few minutes, the whole world is this essay.
* The writing is strong.
This means different things to each editorial assistant reading submissions, but there are common threads to this requirement. A piece qualifies as excellent writing when I am not distracted by the structure or obvious errors within the writing. I don’t have to come up for air to wonder if a fact is really true. The essay runs along smoothly. My heartfelt and humble suggestion to writers submitting to any journal is to proofread the essay, then leave it for a few days and reread it before submitting it for publication. I may notice the structure of the writing, especially if it is innovative, but the meaning of the words and the structure of the words should work together seamlessly.
* The narrator is compelling.
There is a narrator I care about for some reason. Maybe she is working through a difficult moment in life, maybe she’s funny, maybe she has a new take on a universal experience. I should want success for this narrator, in whatever form that may present itself.
* I want to know what comes next.
Some essays are introspective and, if well-wrought, can be astonishing. Some essays are event based, and those essays are successful when I care about what comes next, when I cannot imagine not finishing the essay, when I find some kind of resolution or satisfaction at the end of the piece. I don’t mean a happy ending, a moral, or an essay that’s tied up with a bow, but it needs a solid landing.
* It’s a good length for our literary journal.
Our website says that “There is no specific word or page count; generally, however, Colorado Review prefers short stories and essays that are somewhere between 15 and 25 manuscript pages.” I’ve up-voted a few short essays, but most of the pieces we publish are ones that adhere to our page length guidelines. Recently, we received a collection of essays that was over one hundred pages in length which unfortunately had to be rejected. But when things go well, as they are in the essay I’m currently reading, the submission seems like one that Colorado Review readers would appreciate finding in their mailboxes—a piece in which it is evident that the writer has read both our journal and our guidelines.
* Doing just a little homework before sending your essay into the wider world cannot be overstated. We don’t publish recipes. We don’t publish how-tos. We don’t publish tips and tricks, or zombie stories, or literary criticism (though we do publish book reviews). We publish some of the finest new literary essays, stories, and poetry out there.
Happily, the essay in front of me is getting an up-vote. As assistant editors, we expectantly watch our favorites as they trundle up the line of readers to the editor. Then we get to take part in the process of labor and delivery for our new little bundle of joy. We take every step seriously, from first read to fact-checking to final galleys. It’s always a festive day when the new issue arrives.
I up-vote the essay I’ve just read and send it along for another reader to consider. It’s really good—one of my favorites this week. I hope I’ll see it in the next issue of the Colorado Review.