Can you really tell within a few paragraphs if something is good?

Guest post by Patty Jansen
Many people are surprised when agents and editors say that they often don’t need to read an entire story to know that they’ll reject it. Some writers are even insulted. But if you read five to ten story submissions a day, and you keep this up for a few years, you tend to develop an eye for picking the 10% or so of submissions that show reasonable promise to pass onto editors. How do you do it? Here is a quick checklist I use to weed out the stories that I’ll reject immediately from the ones I’ll continue reading—in the first few paragraphs (I usually do read a bit more, or skip to a different part of the story to see if the story redeems itself). I want to stress that this is my list, and that other people may well have different criteria. That said, the issues below will raise their ugly heads at some point in the selection process.
A decent magazine gets hundreds, or even thousands of submissions each year. They typically have a number of first-line slush readers. Those people will see hundreds of submissions. They don’t need to read an entire submission to know that they’re not going to pass it to the next level. Sometimes they don’t need more than the first sentence.
Why?
There is a myth in aspiring writer-land that grammar and style don’t matter all that much. That it’s the story’s content which determines its publishability, and that beautiful prose alone won’t sell your work.
Yes, yes, and yes.
That said, what sinks a lot of stories is a lack of what I’ll call natural flow in the text. It comes both from not listening to writing advice to taking it way too seriously. It comes from trying too hard to sound interesting and from lack of cohesion in the writing. It comes from tics every writer picks up somewhere along the line.
The most important reason a story gets rejected after a paragraph or two is that there are issues with the writing style and occasionally the grammar.
What do I mean by this, and what sets red flags?
Apart from the obvious (is the text grammatically correct and are there spelling mistakes?), an experienced slush reader will see:
If first few the sentences are unwieldy and trying too desperately to fit in too much ‘stuff’. Chances are that the rest of the story follows this pattern. Sure, this is fixable, but a lot of work for the editors, and a lot of communication with a writer who may not be ready for quite this much red ink. Too much effort. Reject.
The first few sentences contains odd word choices. The writer may be hanging onto the ‘no passive language’ or ‘use interesting verbs’ mantras too much. Again, this takes a lot of effort to fix because it will be insidious throughout the piece. Too much work. Reject.
The first sentence and the second sentence don’t follow one another. There needs to be a flow of logic in the text. If the first few sentences jump around like crickets in zero-gravity, chances are that the author has a problem expressing logic in a format readers can follow. This takes a huge amount of time to fix. Reject.
The first three sentences all start with the same word, usually a pronoun. A quick scan reveals that this continues through the text. Or the sentences start with some other repetitive pattern, like a participial clause (a clause containing the –ing form of a verb) or a prepositional clause, like: In the kitchen, there was…, or, After he did this, he… Writers often use these and participial clauses to avoid some other structure (never start a sentence with ‘There was…’ says the bogeyman), but the end result can become a repetitive mush of too-complicated sentences and death by ten thousand commas.
The story starts with an unnamed character and a quick scan reveals that there is no reason for the name of the character to be mentioned for the first time only on the third page. That by itself is not a great sin, but often, the lack of a character’s name will signal POV problems that may be more confusing.
The first few paragraphs contain words that are repeated several times, for example a four-sentence paragraph in which the word ‘door’ is used five times. Again, this is fixable, but if the writer hasn’t pick this up him or herself, it will likely occur throughout the story.
And an experienced slush reader will see these things even before he or she has started to take notice of the story’s plot or its central premise. The easiest way to make it past a first slush reader is to polish your style, and the best way to do that is by writing more and reading what you want to write. Meanwhile, try to volunteer as a slush reader some time. It’s a crash course in what works in fiction.
Besides a writer of crazy fantasy and hard Science Fiction, Patty Jansen is slush reader and editor at Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine. She blogs at http://pattyjansen.wordpress.com/, about writing, about science and about editing and slush piles. Patty is a winner of the second 2010 quarter of the Writers of the Future Contest and has published in the Universe Annex of the Grantville Gazette and has a story forthcoming with Redstone SF.

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