• Pour, Pour Writers

    Posted Posted by David Duhr in Rants & Raves     Comments 14 comments

    Listen, I understand the frustrations of the submission process. I really, really do. I know it’s full of headaches, and that it’s time-consuming and spirit-sucking and can make you wish you’d chosen a career in the janitorial arts instead.

    But like Laura wrote about last week, editors are not (always) the enemy. And the submission process isn’t all cake and ice cream for us, either.

    Thankfully my benevolence knows no bounds.

    Yes, I have decided to take time out of my busy schedule to work as peacemaker between these two groups of creatives. (Hold your applause until the end, please.)

    I think it’s essential that writers see what it’s like on the other side of Submishmash. To that end, I’ve created a multiple-choice test using four 100% true and verbatim cover letters I’ve received recently in my role as a fiction editor. (N.B.: the last is the subject line of a writer’s submission rather than a cover letter.)

    Editors, you already know the answers to these, but feel free to take the test if you want to brush up.

    Writers, read the letters closely, spend a moment thinking about each question, “pour over” the answers, and make your choices. No cheating. No looking at someone else’s computer, no sneaking into WBN and ganking the answer key. And no damned Irish need apply!

    (Just kidding. We love the Irish.)

    Sharpen your pencils, WriteByNighters, and good luck. The clock starts now.


    1) I’m working on a science fiction type book that is probably prophetic.  (I’ve done prophecy before, not on purpose, it’s just how things have turned out several times and this one has that feel about it.)  From what I’ve read on your site, it’s probably a good deal more serious than anything you currently publish.  Is there any point to me sending you an exerpt?  If I don’t sound like your kind of writer, can you suggest anyone I might try?  I’d really appreciate it.

    Question: Should I read the “exerpt”?


    a) Yes, I am always up for ingesting some good quasi-sci-fi probable prophecy, especially if it’s accidental prophecy.

    b) I would rather smack around a beehive with my penis.

    c) Only if the writer makes the excerpt a good deal less serious than it is now, because I am far too juvenile to handle anything with more depth than a limerick.

    d) A truly prophetic writer would already know if there’s any point in sending me an excerpt.


    2) this is a short story i recently finished. it must be between 2,500 to 3,000 words. it might take a minute to pour over.it is not very polished.but any kind of feedback would be greatly appreciated.have a good day.

    Question: How long did it take me to “pour over” this submission?


    a) One minute, as estimated.

    b) A minute and a half, having spent thirty seconds verifying that over.it is not a functioning website.

    c) I didn’t even read the first line because when I opened the story I learned that it was actually over 9,000 (9,000!) words. So, zero minutes.

    d) I’m still reading it. Leave me alone.

    f) All of the above.

    g) What the hell happened to “e”?


    3) Enclosed please find the attachment- a short story entitled: “[title redacted]” comprising approximately 9600 words, for your kind consideration for publication in your magazine. If the article is found to cross the stipulated limit of 7000 words, it may please be edited judiciously.The story has not been given to any journal for publication and is an original writing based on a hypothetical situation.

    Question: Will the 9,600-word article/story be found to cross the stipulated limit of 7,000 words?


    a) If I have 9,600 apples and you tell me that I am only allowed 7,000 apples, the number of apples in my possession exceeds the apple limit you stipulated.

    b) If I have 9,600 apples and you tell me that I am only allowed 7,000 apples, the number of apples in my possession does not exceed the apple limit you stipulated.

    c) If I have 9,600 apples, and an apple a day keeps the doctor away, then I can cancel my health insurance for the next 26.3 years.

    d) You lost me at “edit judiciously.”

    e) Unclear, since 9,600 is only an approximation. And as we learned in #2, sometimes a writer will be off on word count by a solid 7,000. (Assuming that c. is the correct answer to #2. Are you comfortable making that assumption? Because if you do, and you chose c. for #2 and now e. for #3, and you’re wrong, then you’re already down to a 50% on this exam, and won’t that make you feel all salty?)


    4) [Submission email subject line] flash ficction?

    Question: Is this piece actually flash “ficction,” or is it not?


    a) I’ll never know, since I immediately deleted it without looking, but the writer submitted it to the nonfiction department, who then forwarded it to me, which makes this whole submission even weirder and wronger than it already was.

    b) All of the above.


    Pencils down, ladies and gents. So how do you think you did? Let us know below.



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    Working on a joke involving penises, beehives, and honey. If I can come up with it, I will please submit it for your judicious editmation.

    David Duhr

    I danced with that myself; originally had a line about it being “honey-covered,” but every way I worded it made it sound like my man is permanently covered in honey. Which is not the case.

    So I wasted my judicious editing on that.

    Candice Coghill

    I poured over the questions and tried to smack all of them around, judiciously, with my penis. Then I remembered that I don’t even have a penis, so that didn’t help ! Nonetheless, having almost reached my stipulated limit, I forced myself to quickly read the last entry regarding a ficction submission, and then I left to go throw up. Plop, plop, fizz, fizz, oh boy am I glad I’m not in your bizz if this is but an example of what you get in your e-mail !! LOL

    xoxo and Good Luck !

    R.E. McDermott


    Unfortunately I was unable to finish the test. After reading the choices following your first example I became obsessed with crafting a limerick centered around smacking a beehive with my penis. I’m still vague on it but I know PETA and honey will be involved. Thanks for the inspiration.



    Sad. I’ve seen similar negative samples on other [agent] sites and some of them are unbelievable. However, I would like to see someone give equal time to the positive examples. How about some query or submission letters that actually made you do your happy dance — if any?

    David Duhr

    There are hundreds of examples of “How to write a cover letter” posts. I don’t think I’m capable of adding anything interesting to the mix. Besides, I think the don’ts are usually more helpful than the dos.

    Really, though, a good cover letter won’t make me happy. It might be refreshing, but it’s only a beginning.

    A good cover letter will, however, make me pay more attention to the attached story. And if the story is also good, then I’ll do the happy dance.

    Thanks for reading and commenting.


    I’m feeling grateful for the lessons and I learned the following.
    1. Be clear about what I’m writing, what my message is and have confidence it’s worth writing about.
    2. Use spellcheck.
    3. Stay within the limit of words allowed.
    4. Make it easy and desirable for someone to read the next line, and the next …
    5. and be patient, there’s a lot of digging for the editors to find the gold…maintain the light of my gem and remember writing is about service and inspiring my community.


    Laura Roberts

    Nice one, David. I wonder if I still have any of the other “greatest hits” from my inbox… we could do a weekly “worst of”!

    David Duhr

    That sounds so fun, and so inappropriate.

    Leah Kaminsky

    I love this! Especially having been on both sides of the desk myself (and posted snarkily about at the submission process yesterday… though it was definitely not me who hacked your account, nor was it you I was referring to!). Anyone in this industry obviously has to have a thick skin about never hearing back or having to wait several years. It’s more when editors and agents don’t show the slightest effort that things become frustrating. An automated system like submishmash or a form letter to acknowledge a submission has been received or read and rejected seems like something basic… Read more »

    David Duhr

    Thanks for writing, Leah.

    I think you absolutely must share with us who it was that took two years to reject a story, and then mailed/emailed (what I assume to be?) a form rejection. That’s silly. I get antsy when we’re pushing a three-month turnaround time.

    It was Indiana Review, right?

    Leah Kaminsky

    Actually, no. But Indiana Revue… Now don’t get me started on them! The offending site was the internet wing of McSweeney’s. Surprising, actually, because they’ve always rejected me in a matter of days. In all likelihood it just got lost somewhere in the slush pile, in which case I say let it alone or apologize profusely! However, my friend who was rejected is just about the best, most lyrical writer that’s ever lived, and her response actually managed to elicit a profuse apology from their side. So… I guess in the end just more evidence we’re all human. Perhaps, as… Read more »


    People really send crappy submissions like that? I’m not an editor, but I wouldn’t read any of them! If you can’t put together a decent email or follow instructions you’re going to have real hard time with the subsequent steps.

    I understand being nervous and not knowing what to say, but that’s easy to fix:
    Whatever you write, stand up and read it aloud (in private please!). You’ll immediately determine how well the ideas flow together and what changes are required.

    Thanks for sharing, it was quite entertaining.

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