For the last few years, I’ve been a slush reader for Aurealis speculative fiction magazine, and it’s done wonders for me as a writer.
What is a slush reader, you ask? Simply put, open-submission publications like Aurealis receive hundreds, possibly thousands, of submissions every year – far too many for their editors to read through every one when choosing what to publish. So they rely on (usually) volunteers to sift through this virtual mound of unsolicited fiction – the slush pile – and figure out which stories are of high enough quality to pass on up the chain.
I joined the team at Aurealis on a whim, but haven’t regretted the decision for a minute. In fact, slush reading been integral to improving my abilities and confidence as a writer.
Boost your confidence in your own writing
One piece of common advice for writers is to read, and read widely. It is, in general, excellent advice – like any craft, a key way to improve your writing is by studying and emulating the techniques of writers whose work you admire.
But if, like me, you struggle to see the good in your own writing and tend to focus on the parts that feel stilted or clichéd or just awful, then constantly comparing it to the perfectly-polished final products of master craftsmen can make it hard to see your own work as anything but a steaming heap.
Why do I bother? you may think to yourself. I’m clearly the worst writer on the planet.
Here, then, is the first advantage of slush reading: no matter how bad you think your own writing is, I guarantee you will find – submitted for publication, no less – writing that is worse.
Slush readers aren’t expected to make editorial decisions – our task is literally just sorting the good writing from the bad. And my goodness is there a lot of bad. Nonsensical or nonexistent plots, wooden characters, mind-numbingly poor prose, endless clichés – all these are par for the course.
As a discerning reader – and let’s face it, if you weren’t a discerning reader you wouldn’t be so damned judgemental about your own writing – it won’t take you long to realise that your writing isn’t the sickly, lame wildebeest you thought it was. It may not be at the front of the herd, running with the glossy-horned likes of Gaiman and Jemisin, but neither is it limping along at the back of the group.
Slush reading gives you the chance to compare your writing against not only the best, but the worst, and to make a much more realistic and reassuring assessment of where you’re up in your writing journey.
Learn from others’ mistakes
The other problem with reading only high-quality, published fiction is that, although it can teach you a lot about what to do right, it can’t teach you much about what not to do wrong.
Slush readers are (usually) required to provide feedback on why they’re accepting or rejecting a submission. For Aurealis, it only has to be two or three sentences, but that still requires me to analyse my reaction to a story, and that’s particularly useful for the rejections: I can’t just dismiss a submission with This is awful! – I have to stop and ask myself, What about this doesn’t work?
Maybe the start of the story felt so lacklustre I didn’t want to continue – but what was missing to make the writing fail to grab me? Maybe the beginning caught my interest, but the ending disappointed me – why? Maybe the whole story seemed rushed or dragging, or I couldn’t follow what was going on – what was it about the way it was written that made me feel that way?
The more time you spend analysing poor writing this way, the more you can learn about how to improve your own craft.
As it happens, the inspiration for me to write this blog post is that I’m about to move on from Aurealis. My years as a slush reader have been invaluable, but I’m at a stage now where it’s starting to feel less useful.
My confidence in my own writing has grown a great deal, especially since I’ve started seeing publication. And the beginner-level mistakes and flaws of the stories I slush-read are starting to feel more repetitive than educational. I think I’m ready to move on to studying intermediate-level mistakes and flaws (I’m sure I still make plenty of those!), and my hope is to achieve that by joining a critiquing group like Critters. I’ll report back on how it goes – watch this space.
Meanwhile, if you’re interested in becoming a slush reader, get in touch with your favourite open-submission publication and see if they could use a hand. If they use volunteers for their slush reading, chances are they don’t have enough of them!
And if you’re not sure where to start, I happen to know Aurealis has a vacancy…