Posted by: Kathy Temean | April 5, 2017

New Jersey Farm Scribe: An Inside Perspective on The Slush Pile

Erika Wassall, The Jersey Farm Scribe here with…

An Inside Perspective on The Slush Pile

When Oliver was about two months old (so a little over 7 months ago now) I had a brief internship with a small publisher.  One of the things I got to do was read submissions from their slush pile.

It was an incredible learning experience.

You know how everyone says “it’s all about the writing”.  Of course ultimately, this is true.  But if you’re sending unrequested manuscripts out… most likely it’s not enough.

Here is why: 

Scenario A:

The actual editor opens a few emails on their coffee break.  They sit back, sip their latte and glance at an email from you.  They are immediately entranced by your eye-catching letter and unique idea.  It’s a bit out of their box, but they KNOW good writing when they see it.  They love it so much, they fall in love and contact you immediately.

Scenario B:

The assistant, volunteer or intern has opened over 20 emails so far TODAY with queries.  They open that same, beautifully written letter with an incredibly unique idea.  They think to themselves “Huh, neat!”  They then close the email thinking that would be perfect, IF THEY WERE LOOKING FOR THAT.

Does Scenario A happen?  Sure.  It GENUIENLY does!!!  Buuuut I wouldn’t hold your breath.

Many times, the person you are trying to reach (even in what may appear to be a one-man show) is not the person who goes through the slush pile.  That means the person reading your work has a BOSS.  The BOSS says “We want red apples.”  Looking to be a good worker, even the BEST green apple in the world is not likely to get passed on.

Take me.  I understood what the publishing house was looking for.  They of course had the caveat of “if it’s good enough, we don’t care WHAT it is.”  But in the same breath, they listed things they had no interest in.

I frequently found myself completely gripped by a piece, and thinking it matched MANY of their criteria.  But I wasn’t sure it was a perfect match.  I sometimes went back and forth and really considered highlighting it for review.  In the end, I usually found myself airing on the side of caution.  I think it’s great!  But really… who am I to go out on a ledge and say it’s good enough to ignore the usual rules?

The hard truth is…. there are so so SO many submissions to go through that it can become easy to dismiss, even genuinely fantastic work.

So what?  What did I really LEARN?

Well, as with most things there are two sides here:

Glass half empty:  There are many good writers out there.  And even though in theory they all want “exceptional writing”, the truth is that’s usually NOT enough.

Cup half full:

(A) Getting a rejection letter is a bit easier for me now.  I had to pass on many things I sincerely thought WERE great.  You know that line “While I enjoyed your work, it’s just not a fit for us”?  Sometimes it’s actually TRUE!

(B) Do your research and you will genuinely have an edge.  Seek out publishers or agents that represent successful stories similar to yours, show how you are a perfect fit for THEM (and please, not just by using adjectives from their website, that gets old!), and you can really increase your chances of catching someone’s eye.

But most importantly, never, EVER write for a specific publisher or agent.  Never TRY to make your piece fit what they want.  It never works, and honestly, it usually shows.  It’s not the piece that’s meant to be written.  Be true to your work.  Let it take on the life it wants to.  Let it change and morph into the individual creation it is.  Then find it the real home it deserves.  It’s out there.  After all…

…. your manuscripts are worth it!


Erika Wassall is a writer, a farmer and a liver of life. She is a member of SCBWI and a proud Mad Scientist, bringing science experiments right into children’s classrooms, and hearts. She has a small farm in New Jersey with sheep, chickens, pigs and vegetables. Check out her new website at where as a first generation farmer, she often takes the long way, learning the tricks of the trade on The Farm. On her website is also The Shop page with tips and a free Q/A from her husband’s mechanic shop, and The Writer page where she shares stories, experiences and characters from the heart. Follow her on Twitter at @NJFarmScribe. She’d love to hear from you!

Look for Erika’s next article on Wednesday May 3rd. Thank you Erika for another great post.

Talk tomorrow,



  1. 20 emails? Try 100+! I work for a literary agency, and yep, Scenario B is what happens. I see so much that is great – but not a fit for my agents. SO much is based on taste. The “cup half full” advice is spot on!


  2. Great and helpful perspective! Thank you for sharing about your experience.


  3. Every hopeful writer needs to read this–I know I did. I’m sharing it.


  4. Thanks so much Erika for the insiders view of what goes on behind those closed doors.


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