For the past year, part of my writing life has been focused on reading slush—sorting through the wobbly digital stack of your work. While I was reading slush, I was submitting my work to slush piles, so I’ve been on both sides of the table. And I have some good news for you, which I also tell myself after every rejection letter:

Good work is easy to recognize, and there isn’t as much good work as you think.

The wonderful Amanda has asked me to deliver some advice from my position of power (muhahaha). Let’s start with the first thing I see when I open a slush pile submission: format. That’s right, I skip the cover letter. I’ll usually skim it at the end if the work has kept my interest, but it isn’t my first stop.

Please format your piece according to the submission guidelines and in standard manuscript format. Now, poetry is its own beast, so make sure you format that properly. Formatting your manuscript is the same as showing up in professional clothes to an interview. Google it.

Now, the important stuff—the work. As a young writer, I was told you had one sentence to impress an editor. Maybe I’m not as jaded as some editors, but I’ll keep reading for a few pages of prose before I drop off. Poetry, I’m a bit of a harder sell. If the opening lines aren’t catching my interest (through word choice, image, unique idea), then I’ll start skimming.

Now, you’re probably wondering what keeps my interest. There’s no formula because each piece is different, but good writing is definitely a plus—strong verbs, specific nouns, alternating sentence structures for starters.

young man sitting on steps and reading

After that, my advice becomes vague. I want a story that keeps my attention, that doesn’t read like a stereotypical example of the genre or sub-genre. I want work that is up to date when it comes to ideas like racism, sexism, sexual identity, and climate change. I want stories and poems that feel organic, that don’t let stylistics control them. Surprise me.

Yeah, you’ve probably heard that last bit from other editors. I remember grumbling to myself, how do I surprise someone? You have to write what you want to write. If you stick to what interests you, what obsesses you, what you can talk about for hours, you should write something fresh. That’s a good place to start, at least.


Phoebe studied creative writing at Lycoming College with Amanda and went on to pursue her MFA in Creative Writing and Environment at Iowa State University. She is also one of the creative geniuses behind the upcoming literary anthology, Sunvault: Stories of Solarpunk and Eco-Speculation. You can follow her on Twitter @pheebs_w.