Translations from the Editorial

(c) copyright 1973 by Marion Zimmer Bradley

For the past twenty years, since 1951 or thereabouts, I have been earning my living as a professional, free-lance writer, and speculating about the greener pastures on the other side of the desk. That is, I've been wondering what it would be like to be on the dishing-out end, instead of the receiving end, of those rejection slips, editorial requests for rewrites, blue-pencillings, and so forth.

Naturally, I told myself, if I were an editor, I would always level with my writers. I would never, never use weasel words such as "This rejection implies no lack of merit in your story..." or "This isn't quite right for us..." I would faithfully read the slush pile, try hard to discover new writers instead of going all-out for big names, make my editorial reports promptly, and send out all checks by return mail.

Well, I've recently survived an eleven month stretch as Features Editor for a magazine which shall be nameless (there are still laws against libel in this country) and since I understand that almost all free-lance writers daydream of some day being on the other end of the desk, a brief rundown of my safari through slush-pile country (with blue pencil and eyedrops) may help other dreamers to learn the facts of life -- i.e. that when the editor starts making with the weasel words, it's just his instincts for survival doing their thing. (Of course, if his instincts for survival were in good shape, he'd never have wanted to be an editor...)

The first resolve to go was the one about the slush pile -- probably because, for my sins, I was working for an old-time publisher, one of these chaps who brags that he used to edit a string of twenty-four pulps. He used to pay his editors fifteen dollars a week, and he has never really believed that brains come any higher than that. He still brags that he can get by with paying the lowest rates in the business, and as a result, the manuscript mailbag is all slush pile -- when I called respectable agents and asked for material, the kindly ones said "I'm sorry, we have nothing suitable just now." This was my first experience with the Fine Art of Editorial Transation: I soon found out that what they meant was "I'm sorry, but anyone good enough to be a client of ours is going to have higher rates than you're paying." The unkindly ones usually didn't need translation -- their response was usually some variant of "Are you for real? Drop dead!"

So, in order to make up each month's issue, I was thrown back on the slush pile -- the manuscripts sent in by naive amateurs who were content to see their names in print, no matter how low the pay, or by semi-professionals who couldn't yet command good rates but hoped to pile up enough "sold" wordage to interest a good agent; and by the hopeless duds. I could either find enough wordage in this stuff for each successive issue, or I could write it myself.

I began my stint as an editor by thinking of myself as a pearl-diver, trying to fish up priceless neglected gems out of the mud and slush. After a couple of months I began to realize what was meant by the slang meaning of "pearl diver" -- the fellow who fishes in the greasy dishwater at the local hash house -- and to know that my chances of finding a pearl were just about like his! It was never a question of finding the best manuscripts -- the publisher went out and made special arrangements, blackmailing or conning old friends, for two or three "lead" articles every month. The rest was up to me, and to the other underpaid editor of the magazine, to produce from the slush pile. Somehow, I had to fish out the least worst, and if by chance I found a halfway literate article in the pile, to nurture the sender like a precious gem, until he or she discovered that most magazines paid more than $15 for a full-page article.



So, unless you are dealing with a top-flight magazine which pays good rates, if you are still submitting to the slush-pile of the borderline magazines which buy non-agented material, I offer from my experience some Translations from the Editorialese ... i.e. when the editor writes you a note about your submission, this is probably what he means:

"Of course, your manuscript needs some heavy editing..." Translation: "Please, please learn to spell, or at least how to use a dictionary."

"Your story still needs a little work..." Translation: "It's got to be rewritten from beginning to end before I'd have nerve enough to put it into the layout, and if you don't do it, I'll have to."

"I'd like to hold this a few days for a final decision." Translation: "It's really pretty bad, but if nothing else that's better comes in before the deadline, I'll have to use it, good or bad."

"We hoped to use this, but unfortunately we can't make a spot for it in the current issue." Translation: "I was afraid I'd be stuck with this, but fortunately something else came in." (Or, Alternate translation: "The basis idea is okay, but I haven't the time to rewrite it from beginning to end, or the chutzpah to ask you to do it for the rates we pay.)

"Your approach to the subject is interesting and original, but I'm afraid our readership would demand a little more documentation..." Translation: "I never heard such a crazy idea in my life, but I'll take a chance if you'll blame it on some standard reference, expert, or Big Name, preferably one we can quote in large type."

"Using such an original approach to your subject may shock our more conventional readership, but we feel that a little controversy is wholesome. I feel, however, that we must give equal time, ..." Translation: "Okay, we're both crazy, but the publisher says I have to take you apart in the next issue, under a pen name, to avoid infuriating the old foofs who will write in slamming anything new we dare to print."

"This material does not exactly meet our editorial requirements." Translation: "Holy smoke, next time read the issue! We don't use epic poetry!"

"This particular item does not exactly meet our requirements just now, but we really hope you'll try us again..." Translation: "Holy Moses, you can write! Alas, we just can't use an article on the whorehouses of Lost Atlantis, no matter how funny and delightful it is, but please, please send us something we can use..."

"All our material is staff written and we are not considering outside contributions at this time." Translation: "We don't buy hard-core porno; we don't buy kiddie stories; we don't buy material hand-written in pink magic marker; we don't buy the work of illterate amateurs who don't know their trade. I'm too busy, and you're too hopeless, for me to attempt to educate you. Get lost."

"I have taken the liberty of rearranging and editing your article slightly..." Translation: "I had to rewrite the damn thing from end to end. If you look at your manuscript and what I did with it, you might learn something; next time your pride, and my sweat, can both be spared."



I also developed, due to the publisher's permanent tight-money policy, and his firm belief that anything over a cent a word was rank inflationary nonsense, a set of phrases in editorialese for dealing with those of my writers who were not simply so pleased to see their names in print that they took each check as a pleasant surprise. For instance, the most useful, necessary, and overworked phrase in my little Editorial Phrase Book became "in due course." As in, of course, "payment will be sent in due course" or "We'll have a decision on this in due course, " The translation, it hardly needs saying, was simply editorialese for whenever I around to it.

There were others: "Payment will reach you when it has been processed through the accounting department." Translation: "One of us, in the constant rush, forgot to put through a voucher for the word-count and check, and the whole damn thing has to be gone through again."

"Payment will be forthcoming very soon now" means we'll pay you when we hear from your lawyers or when you threaten to move into the office to sleep after you've been evicted.

"We have altered our policy to payment upon publication." means you'll get a check unless we decide to fold the magazine before we get around to using your story.

"Payment is by arrangement only" means we can't pay you, and we suggest you don't bother sending us anything more unless you don't need the money and just write for the fun of seeing your name in print. It's the professionals-keep-out of the publishing business.

Don't think I enjoyed learning to write in editorialese. Every phrase added to my Handy Notebook meant another illusion dropped. As I wrote in a rare moment of honesty to one of the equally rare literate professionals who roosted -- briefly -- in our pages before giving up on us, "Look, friend; I'd love to have all the good material from respectable agents to choose from; I'd like to pay three to five cents a word, and I'd like to send out the checks on acceptance. But I'm not really running the damn magazine at all. I just work here, like anybody else."


In the course of my eleven months on the magazine, I also learned to translate what was said to me by the publisher. I asked, for instance, about buying art for the magazine, and I was told, "We make special arrangements for that." Translation (as I soon found out): "We get all our art from a cold-type book, which is why it looks exactly like all the other art in all our other magazines."

Now and then, for a change, the publisher would use some original artwork "reprinted by popular demand." Translation: he had a four-foot stack of old Finlay, Lawrence, etc., pen-and-ink drawings left over from use in science-fiction pulps back In the forties, which he'd bought up for a couple of bucks apiece and used eight or nine times each.

"We hope to develop a consistent editorial point of view, by having a great deal of our material staff written." Translation: "We can't pay decent free-lance rates, you poor dope; you're going to have to write all the features yourself so I can be sure of getting my full money's worth for your salary."

"You can take the work home, and do it at your leisure." Translation: "We're short of desk space around here, and I'm too stingy to put In another one for you."

And, of course, there was the most frightful phrase in any publisher's Handy Notebook. If you hear it more than three or four times, once you learn to translate it, it's bound to drive you right out of the editorial profession, and right back to your own free-lance typewriter. It goes like this: "Listen, dear, we're going to press tonight, and we're just a littic short for the issue..."

And of course the translation is: "There's nothing but crud in the slush pile, so please let me have a nine-thousand-word lead article, all copy-edited and blurbed, on a nice, popular, controversial topic -- but not too controversial -- by five this afternoon. Oh, yes, and be sure it has a nice short snappy title we can slug in on the cover, and maybe a couple of illustrations or photographs ... what the hell do you mean it's short notice? What the hell am I paying you for?"

If you have to hear this more than twice, it's your own fault.


Marion Zimmer Bradley's home page