Editor’s Rant: What Editors Look for in Contest Submissions

Although he has been writing since childhood, Joseph Reinis has also been growing as an editor for the last 11 years. Beginning small by offering to look over his peers’ work in college, he gradually started to become recommended to others, eventually gaining regular demand for his editing. After three years with Tethered by Letters, he has sharpened his skills and earned the trust and appreciation of many new and established writers. Starting as a junior editor, he has worked his way up to the position of Editing Director where he oversees TBL’s Free Editing Program along with many of the other resources TBL offers.

Editor’s Rant: What Editors Look For in Contest Submissions

by Joseph Reinis

(Or: all of the things we would kindly ask you to stop doing)

Every quarter I settle in and get ready for the big, fun project which is reading through our contest submissions. Filled with excitement, I eagerly begin reading through stories and poems. Somewhere around the 50th submission, knowing that I’m not even half way through, all of the hope and joy drains out of me and I begin thinking about my screenplay about robots working menial tasks until they are outdated and shut down.

There are always some gems, well-crafted and inspiring works, and a fair amount of promising pieces that could use some polish, but it seems that over half of what I read is suffering from the same slew of problems. It would be so much easier on my brain if it were a unique variety of problems across all of these pieces; at least it wouldn’t be so monotonous. However, every contest is filled with the same types of issues.

Rather than just complain about it, I’ve made this handy list of things editors would like you to stop doing in your work:


Some writers have a bizarrely uneven level of commitment to their work. They’ll take the time to craft a new piece of writing, fill out all of the forms for a contest, and even spend money on entry fees. Yet, somewhere along the way, they completely skip out on proofreading their story.

In case it’s not clear how editors view typos and grammatical mistakes, here’s a quick overview: one or two mistakes is simple human error and forgivable. But if there are three or more, we often stop reading on the spot. Taking the time to perfect your story in all ways, including basic proofreading, is a sign of a professional writer. Failing to do that lets the editor know where you are in your development as a writer, and that you’re probably not at the level they are looking for. Always carefully proofread your work before sending it off. Get a second or third set of eyes on anything you write before you decide to submit. Do everything you can to make it perfect before an editor ever gets a hold of it.


Most editors did a lot of reading before they got their job. Afterward, they do even more reading. They do so much reading that after a while, everything they read starts to blur together and read the same. How will your work look when it hits their desk? If you are doing anything too familiar or too inspired by another work, we will recognize it immediately. Solid writing can’t save a story if it feels like another iteration of a story retold for the hundredth time. Of course, there are plenty of experiences that everyone has had and everyone writes about. Are you about to write a story inspired by your recent break-up? Unless you have something truly worthwhile and unique to say, don’t bother. If it doesn’t stand out, I’ll forget your story before I queue up the next one on my list.

Your Story is Too Long

By the end of every contest I read for, I always consider lowering our maximum word count. It’s not that I don’t like reading long stories. It has much more to do with how often writers use more words than they need. Most of the stories I read, even the very short works, could stand (at the very least) a 10% cut. Almost every story I work with after the contest gets a note to cut the story’s length.

I feel like there are two versions of every story: there’s the writer’s version, where every detail, bit of character development, and all of the back story are included. Then there’s the reader’s version, where all of that information must be distilled down to the essentials needed to understand the story well. Editors are looking for the reader’s version. We want to see the version where all of the time and thought a writer put into the story is conveyed as effectively as possible. Get comfortable cutting out all of the parts that aren’t adding enough to the story.

The Worst Possible Thing

Every contest, there are several stories where the most awful, unspeakable horrors befall a character I know next to nothing about. And there are plenty of others where two completely generic, fictional people find generic, fictional true love. In both cases, I feel nothing for the story or the characters.

Here’s an idea I can’t stress enough: If you develop your characters well enough, readers will feel for them when they suffer as little as getting a paper cut. Readers will rejoice when they get to eat their favorite snacks. But if you don’t write a believable, three-dimensional character, your reader will not care about the most extreme of fates they face.


When you’re submitting work to a contest or a journal, remember that the person reviewing your piece has made a career out of reading similar writing. They’re not easy to impress and read countless stories before they got to yours. Do everything you can to stand out–just not in a bad way.

Free Editing Program

At TBL, we believe everyone should have a chance to achieve their dreams of publication. As a part of our nonprofit pledge, we off free edits to all our dedicated members, completely free of charge.

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