Last month I had the honor of serving as a Judge on the Literature Fellowship panel at the Florida Division of Cultural Affairs. We read and scored 46 manuscripts in children’s literature, poetry, creative nonfiction, and fiction. This was my first time judging and I found myself enjoying the process thoroughly, calling upon my years as an avid book reviewer for publications such as the Kenyon Review Online and the Iowa Review, among others, in assessing the applicants’ submissions. I thought I’d share a brief synopsis of my editorial philosophy here, to demystify what goes on in an editor, reviewer, or in this case, judge’s mind — sometimes rather swiftly — as they assess a work.

I begin by simply looking at the physical story or poem, see how long it is, if it is divided into sections and how that division is accomplished technically (simple line breaks, numbers, etc.) Then I note the point-of-view structure: what/who it is, other characters and their relationship to the point-of-view. If I’m reading a story, I look for an immediate, compelling situation, voice and desire mechanism that drives the plot forward, how clearly I am able to follow what happens to whom and what happens afterward; in a poem, I look for tension which culminates in surprise at the end. I read on the micro-level as well as macro, making note of words, ideas, images and grammatical structures that repeat. I notice the time flow—if a prose piece, I pay attention to how the sequence of events in which events are told relates to the chronology of events (what is backstory, how much of the action is forward-moving, how is time flow/pacing handled). With fiction, the basic conflict of the story must be clear, gripping, and resonating by the story’s end. Often I try and categorize the story in a general sense, asking myself what kind of story this is or if the piece brings to mind work by another writer in style or subject matter.

If the writer fails to establish these elements fairly quickly (within the first several pages), i.e. in fiction, if the plot or point-of-view is unclear from page one, there are numerous grammatical, structural errors, etc) I determine how much of the entire piece I will finish reading. If the structural elements are working fairly well and the story has merit, I read further and note any places where I feel “tripped up” and the areas in which the piece might need more attention to craft. Finally, I assess whether the piece is an aesthetic fit for the audience in mind, the degree to which it thematically resonates with me after I read the last line or sentence. At this point, I decide if the story or poem under consideration warrants a second read or a promotion to the next level of editorial review.

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