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.
Submissions editors, 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 home.”
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 to edit.”
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 incredible.”
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.