The Other Side of the Slush Pile
     Victoria Grossack

As a writer you probably spend much of your time preparing your manuscripts for submission. But what happens to your darlings after you send them to seek their (and your) fortune? Are your words reaching the hearts and minds of the jaded agents, editors, and judges? Or are they being ignored?

This article discusses what it’s like to receive submissions by describing my own experience in the area. My co author and I run a poetry contest at our website, Tapestry of Twice a year we hold an Odes to the Olympians  contest, in which we select one of the twelve Olympian gods and ask for poems to be written about that particular deity.

Why Do They Want Your Writing?

You may wonder why we run this contest. This, by the way, is a good question to ask regarding all the places where you submit: Why do the agents – editors – judges really want manuscripts? In most cases it is because they want to sell the manuscripts further, either to publishing houses or to the general public. They want specific manuscripts because they don’t feel capable of selling just anything to their particular contacts. An editor of science textbooks would probably not know what to do (at least not professionally) with a romance novel.

As we are running a contest, we don’t expect a profit, at least not directly. We do hope to build up some good will and publicity for our series of novels (currently only available in Greek). But we have other motives, too. Our competitions pay homage to the many competitions of ancient Greece, which brought us the great sporting events of the Olympics, but was also the spur for the creation of many plays and other works of art. We want to encourage the same dedication to excellence.

We particularly want to support educators teaching mythology, so each contest has two levels: those for poets under 18, and those for adults. In order to make sure that the poets are under 18 we ask for the birthdates of those entering in this category.

So far the contest has been successful, for we receive hundreds of entries, as well as gratitude from educators and poets for holding the contest.

Ask yourself before you submit something, what other motives your targets might have besides money. A political agenda? A desire to further a religion or some other cause? Does your manuscript help support those desires?

Will Submissions Arrive?

When we began the Odes to the Olympians contest – dutifully honoring Zeus in our first competition – we were afraid no poems would show up. This initial insecurity is probably shared by most agents and editors and judges. We thought our contest was cool, but that didn’t mean that others would think so. And even if they would, we weren’t sure how to reach them.

A greater worry troubled us: what if none of the poems we received were good? We didn’t want to give prizes to bad poems. So we reserved the right, when posting the rules, to award nothing, if no poems merited first place. However, we really did not want to be in that position. Declaring “no winners” could make it appear as if we were lousy at publicity, or cheap, or suffering from some other type of disorganization. Poetry contests without winners are bad poetry contests.

This anxiety must be shared by those depending on other slush piles. In fact, their anxiety must be greater as they review submissions, because their careers, their publications and their companies depend on them finding the right manuscripts.

Not surprisingly, we didn’t have a huge number of submissions during the first contest. Fortunately, several that came were very good and we were able to choose winners. Since then, the number of submissions has increased dramatically and a lack of entries is no longer a concern.

The Submissions Arrive

After a new contest is posted, the submissions start to arrive at the e-mail address dedicated to the contest. I begin by scanning each poem briefly, to see if the poem meets the requirements for the contest. Most do, but there are always a few poems that have nothing to do with the deity being honored. The last contest was for the goddess Demeter, but someone sent a poem honoring Zeus and another sent one for Aphrodite. Another poet sent in four poems in separate e-mails, none of which had anything to do with any of the Olympian gods (as far as I could tell).

I wonder what these poets are thinking. Did they simply not read the instructions? Or did they read an old version of the instructions? Or did they think that we would be so moved by their poems that we would consider awarding a poet who praised Aphrodite in a contest dedicated to Demeter? Most probably, though, they were just hungry for someone to read and appreciate their poems. I can understand that. I respond with e-mails that I believe are polite and kind, thanking them for their poems but reminding them of the rules of the contest. Occasionally someone tries to argue, but not usually.

I review the rest of the information in the e-mail. Mostly I want to be sure that I have enough information to classify the poet as an adult or in the under-18 category. I have to ask this question frequently, which shows that many don’t follow instructions. I send off an e-mail thanking the poet for his or her poem, and then, if necessary, request the missing information.

Most respond with the information quickly and without ado. This last time, one of the poets was “wounded” - poets are a particularly sensitive species - when we asked if she was in the adult category. Her poem was too good, she was sure, to belong to the under-18 category – had we even read it?

I replied that no, we had not read it. I explain that we try not to read the poems until after they have been processed – stripped of their names and put into the right categories – and placed into a file with all other poems in their category. (Furthermore, that day we had received over 30 poems.)

My response seemed to mollify the poet in question.

The Contest Closes

Shortly before the end of the contest period, I prepare the html file that goes on the website announcing that the contest is closed. When the last day of the contest is over (making allowance for the fact that people live in different time zones), I post this file.

A few poems arrive, alas, after the contest is closed. These poems are not allowed to participate in the contest. A competition has rules, and those rules need to be followed, or else it would be unfair to the other poets.

Processing the Poems

Next the poems are copied and put into two files. At this point all the extra formatting – strange fonts and colors – is removed. Each poem is assigned a number. I copy over the files again, and this time strip out the names. I send the files without names to my collaborator.

Then it’s time to read the poems. This takes many hours, because there are hundreds of poems. I have to take many breaks to keep them from blurring together as I read.

It’s hard to separate the wheat from the chaff. Even in poems that really are not very good, bits of creativity excite me. Still, I have to do this, or the task will never be done, so I start writing “NO” beside some of the poems. The “NO” appears for a variety reasons. The poem may simply contain inaccurate information about the god or the goddess. The poem may lack rhythm, or have a rhyme that is forced and hurts the meaning. Often a poem contains a great verse or two, but the others don’t work as well. One poem is quite good but, alas, it goes over the line limit. (There has to be a line limit or some poets would submit epics.) The too-long poem gets a “NO” beside it.

Other poems get a “MAYBE” written beside them. These poems are better than the “NO” poems, but they aren’t so good that they are automatic winners. And yet I think I may have not read them carefully enough; that I may have missed something. Some poems take longer to digest.

And then, a few gems appear. Poems that unite theme, and language, and evoke a deeper feeling. Poems that somehow show instead of tell. I write “I LIKE THIS!” beside a few. I review the MAYBES again, too, until I have one or two that I think are candidates for First Place, and others worthy of Honorable Mention.

My co author undertakes a similar procedure, without ever having seen the names of the poets. When ready, we e-mail the numbers of our preferred poems to each other. Sometimes there is quick agreement; other times we discuss and need more than one phone session to determine our choices. We pick the winners – with an extra double-check to make sure that students are not over 18 and that we have e-mail addresses – and the honorable mentions.

Another point to take away from this column: for your manuscript to climb out of the slush pile, it often needs to please not just one set of eyes, but several.

Informing the Winners

Then we inform the winners. Even though this is all done by e-mail, we can feel the delight in their responses. We share in their joy – it’s a marvelous feeling.

We ask a few administration-related questions. We want to know the names of local newspapers, so that we can release press statements. We need the winners’ addresses so that we can send them their certificates (which include pictures of olive wreaths, the traditional prize in such contests in Classical Greece). We also ask how they would like to be paid. The amount of the prize is $50 (US), but as we are an international contest – we don’t ask where poets are, but some contestants obviously hail from places such as Kenya, South Africa, New Zealand and India – not everyone can handle an American check. If they can’t, we suggest PayPal or an Amazon gift certificate or perhaps a wire transfer to a local bank account.

I struggle to get the new html page ready, to showcase the poems of the winners and the honorable mentions. I try not to misspell anyone’s name; alas, I still do it occasionally, upsetting those whose names have been distorted. A quick edit improves things, and happiness is restored.

Prepare for the Next One

In the meantime, my co author and I decide which deity we’ll honor next, and which picture we’ll use on the webpage. I struggle again with the html but somehow manage to prepare it and upload it. The process begins again.


I hope this article helps you see the other side of the manuscript process – at least from the POV of a contest judge. There’s one last point that I want to make: the judges, the agents, and the editors are people too, with feelings and faults, hopes and sorrows, aspirations and disappointments.

Questions? Comments? Do you want to use this article? If so please contact Victoria Grossack at grossackva at yahoo dot com.

This article is the sole property of the author. It is produced here with the author's permission.  The unauthorized use or reprinting of an article is illegal, and will be prosecuted at the discretion of the author.


Fiction Fix Home Page

Current Issue

Contact us.

Article Archive

Writers' Guidelines


Privacy Statement



About the Writer:

Victoria Grossack is, with Alice Underwood, the internationally published author of Iokaste: The Novel of the Mother-Wife of Oedipus, and other books coming out in the series called the Tapestry of Bronze (Tapestry of  You can also read more of her articles on writing by ordering the e-book, Levels of Structure in Fiction from  

Odes to the Olympians poetry contest information is available at Ode Form Contest.

Victoria was a moderator of a critique group for Coffeehouse for Writers and teaches the From Leaves to Forests and Writing Historical Fiction workshops for Coffeehouse for Writers.