Rating Dilettante by Kim Schultz
It’s that time of year where whenever I show up for something writerly, people ask, “So how’s the anthology going?” Let me just say, I don’t drive the anthology bus (Kelli does); all I do is match readers to submissions and make sure nobody reads their own. That’s it. The anthology goes where Kelli drives it and I’m the mom-chaperone who says things like, “Jimmy Ryden, put your butt in your seat until we get to Knott’s Berry Farm or you will be spending the entire day in Camp Snoopy.” (No, I don’t submit when I work behind the scenes, but my stories do appear in Volumes 1 and 2 from my younger and wiser days.)
So how is that anthology going? I’ll give you numbers: more than 170 poems entered, more than 115 prose pieces entered, more than 100 flash pieces entered. We had fifty first readers sign up, which sounds like a lot until you realize each of these submissions is getting read three times. Add up all our pieces, multiply by three, and you end up with 1155 separate reads given to submissions before they hit our editors’ desks.
Why do we have first readers? Good question. While the only reading that counts is the editor’s, a piece that might otherwise be overlooked may get a closer read from the editor if it has three glowing reviews. In the past, one editor went through the pile of reviews and looked at all the ones where the reviews were a polarized mix. We don’t know how the editors for this volume will use the first reader reviews, but they do get used.
Next question: How do first readers give feedback? Since all the submissions are online, we use an online form. It’s pretty simple, only four questions. The first three questions ask readers to give a numerical rating to a story on a 1 to 5 scale where 1 is No! and 5 is Yes!
1. Is this a good story/poem?
This is a level of interest question about the plotting and concept of the piece. Was the subject of the poem or story interesting? Did you want to keep reading? Were you confused because it made no sense? Was there no resolution? If you have a grammatically perfect story that is someone reading aloud the phone book and nothing else happens, that’s not a good story. It might be a well-written story, but it’s not a good one.
2. Was it written well?
This is the technical question. When a piece uses your and you’re indiscriminately, that’s not well written. If the point of view shifts without warning or purpose, that’s not well-written. If the story’s great but the text is laden with clichés and purple prose, that’s not well written. I’m using all the negatives to illustrate the point, but if the mechanics of writing go unnoticed, chances are good that it is well-written.
3. Would you put it in the anthology?
The Clash said it best: should it stay or should it go? Some ratings are consistent from reader to reader (sadly, the ones at the lower end); some are at the polar opposites, two Nos and one Yes or two Yeses and one No.
Thus ends the numerical rating portion of our form, and we move on to free response: why or why not? This is where the readers differentiate themselves. There’s always someone whose critique is longer than the piece. There’s always a comedian who has a witty quip to dispense bad entries with. Most interesting to me is the feedback on pieces rated a 3 or 4 for inclusion in the anthology: Needs editing, good first pass, could be workshopped, isn’t quite there yet. These strike me as the kindest entries, even though the authors will never see them.
What’s next? The first readers’ names are stripped from their feedback and the ratings are sent to our editors. How they use them is up to them. I get no inside scoop on who gets in; I find out once the notifications are sent out like everyone else. Until then, I will get to do what the submitters have been doing: waiting and (hopefully) working a piece to submit next year.
Kim Schultz used to write about cell phone test equipment, particle counters, and nuclear waste disposal facilities for money, but now writes aridly acidic prose for her own amusement when her children are asleep. She’s the vice president and volunteer coordinator for SDWI and is working on her novel, really.