Awhile back I ran across an
internet discussion debating the merits of reading slush. While some expressed
skepticism that reading slush would be worth their time, every slush reader or
former slush reader I’ve spoken to has extolled the value of the experience.
colloquially known as slush readers, are an integral part of any speculative
short fiction market’s inner workings. A slush reader’s job is to read through
the mass of a market’s general submissions — the “slush” or “slush pile” —
identify stories that fit the market’s needs, and pass those stories up to the
editors for a final decision.
So what exactly are the
benefits of being a submissions editor aka slush reader? What value do people,
especially writers, derive from slogging the slush? I’ve done very little
slushing myself, so in order to answer this question, I consulted with a number
of folks with experience slushing for major SFF venues.
1. You Give Back to the Community
At the risk of stating the
obvious, contributing to something you value is, by definition, valuable. Many
submission editor positions are volunteer positions, and donating your time is
one way you can support something you love. Some people donate money to causes
they believe in, others might donate food to a food bank, or clothes to a
shelter. It all depends on the resources available to you and the needs of the
particular organization you want to support. Venues that publish speculative
short fiction need slush readers.
For Matt Dovey, who has
slushed for PodCastle for 3 years
now, this contribution to the community is the most important part of slushing.
“[It] makes me feel like I’m paying something back,” he says. “There is not enough money in the speculative
short story market for it to work without volunteer labor, despite it offering
something of real worth back to the world.”
And engaging with a
community is never a one-way street: Matt Dovey also “made a lot of connections
with very smart, very cool people.”
Other writers agree, slush
reading connects you to the wider community. “I live in what feels like the
middle of nowhere… hours from any opportunity at meeting up with speculative
writers,” says A. Katherine Black. “Being on the Strange Horizons staff has given me a stronger sense of
participation in the SFF community, which has been wonderful.”
Slushing not only connects
you to the editors you read for, but also the writers who submit. Every time a
slush reader passes a story up to the editors, they’re doing their part to
advance the author’s career. And they can’t help rooting for that story, and
for the author who sent it in.
More than that: slush
readers even root for the stories they reject. Cislyn Smith, who has slushed
for Uncanny Magazine since they first
opened almost 5 years ago, says “seeing something that came to Uncanny end up elsewhere is always a
thrill, and I’m happy that the author kept sending things out and found it a
2. You See the Process from the Other Side
Speaking of rejection,
slush reading can be a great salve for that inevitable sting.
“Often times, it’s not that
your story isn’t good, it’s that it doesn’t fit what the venue needs at that
time for whatever reason,” says Dawn Vogel, who slushed for Mad Scientist Journal for 8 years. “Slushing
helped me see how many GOOD stories have to be released back to their authors
for exactly that reason.”
When an editor says your
story isn’t right for them, they often mean just that. It doesn’t mean that
story isn’t right for someone else.
And while that lesson can
be related by word-of-mouth, firsthand experience is a stronger tool for
learning than received wisdom. There’s no substitute for witnessing the
apparatus and inner workings of a fiction market up close.
“As a writer reading slush,
seeing great stories sometimes get rejected for reasons unrelated to quality is
eye opening and reassuring,” says Sandy Parsons, who slushes for Escape Pod. “Also seeing the sheer
volume of stories in the queue can give you a whole new level of appreciation
for what the editors and publishers have to contend with.”
Beyond that, slushing can
lead to further editorial opportunities, and may even make a writer realize
they’re just as comfortable on the editor-side of the table.
3. You Improve Your Own Writing
In addition to seeing
stories that work but aren’t right for a given market, slush readers also comb
through loads of stories that, for various reasons, don’t quite work. Identifying
what doesn’t work in a story, and why, is essential to slush reading, and
reading slush is bound to build that skill. It also happens to be an invaluable
skill for a writer.
“I think even if you’re not
actively going into this to learn to become a better writer, it’s bound to
happen just because you’re reading so much and reading critically,” says P.A.
Cornell, who slushes for Amazing Stories.
“I’ve definitely noticed a big improvement in my own writing and in my ability
Applying that kind of insight
to writing and revision can take a story to the next level, where it can get
noticed by slush readers at another market and get passed up to an editor.
“I learned the fail mode of
stuff I was trying to do,” says Effie Seiberg. “I could see stuff where it was
clear the author thought they were being clever, but really only making the
author laugh. This made my own work better because it taught me what not to do.
My own craft seriously leveled up from slushing.”
While there’s an upper
limit to what one can learn from reading slush, and some choose to stop
slushing after a couple of years, plenty of people stick with it for longer. Because
there are more reasons to keep slushing than just honing your writing skill.
4. You Make Your Own Reward
Perhaps the most compelling
reason to read slush is the simplest: for the sheer enjoyment of it.
To the uninitiated, it
might seem strange, even masochistic, to take pleasure in wading through dozens
of stories looking for undiscovered gems, but it’s those few gems that make it
all worthwhile. Stephen S. Power put it well: “Slushing is like shopping, but
you don’t have to pay for what you want. Same dopamine rush when you find
something good.” So for some, slush reading is like a literary flea market, or
a magical bookstore, where all the stories are free and completely new to you —
and in many cases, new to the world.
There are a surprising
number of things to appreciate about slushing. “I love slushing,” says Eleanor
R. Wood, who slushes for Podcastle. “I
love seeing everyone’s ideas and vastly different writing styles. I love waxing
lyrical about the stories I love and championing them to the editors. I love
seeing stories I bumped get accepted. I love being part of such an amazing team
of people, knowing my contribution is useful, and tuning in each week to hear
the stories we’ve rooted for. I love panning through the silt looking for that
one gleaming story that makes me laugh, or cry, or transports me somewhere
Of the 4 reasons described
here, any one alone could prove sufficient motivation to read slush; and most
people I consulted cited at least two of these benefits, if not more. Of
course, slush reading is not going to be for everyone. Some writers simply
don’t have the time or inclination. But for those who do, it can be worthwhile
and rewarding endeavor.