As school newspaper and literary magazine advisor, I have come to appreciate the many querying tips I’ve heard repeated by countless agents and editors at conferences. Imagine putting together a middle school publication consisting of 3 sheets of 11”x17” copy paper, folded to create a 6 page newspaper or magazine. Then consider what I have to fill these pages with—a middle school slush pile.
My staff writers and illustrators consist of any eager sixth, seventh or eighth grade student who signs up, regardless of ability level. We meet once every two weeks after school for two hours to brainstorm, write, type, draw, photograph, and workshop. With 50 kids to just me, rarely do I have time to do one-on-one edits with anyone. Add to this, freelance submissions—content area prompts sent to the appropriate teachers, who then have all of their 130 or so students write a submission before handing me the stack. And homeroom surveys of the entire student body, soliciting opinion quotes in addition to data.
With these nearly 1,000 submissions each month on top of my regular teaching load and motherhood, I can totally appreciate why an agent/editor spends only a short time with any one item in their in-box. It is easy to read through a stack of four hundred middle school quotes in as little as 15 minutes and to separate which ones are worth publishing and which ones didn’t really say much. The latter stack goes straight to the recycling bin, because I don’t have time to handle the same paper twice. There are occasionally responses that are important enough to publish on a topic, but a lot of students may have made a similar comment. In this case, I create a common response stack, and I read through it, weeding it down to the one kid who said it best and recycling every other response.
As authors and illustrators, our work is up against thousands of other submissions, coming across a way-too-busy agent/editor’s desk. And truly, the only thing that will stand out about our work is our work itself. It doesn’t matter how cool a font or background picture my staff writers spend their meeting time putting together, because in the end, I have to strip it down to the content and format it like every other submission in the newspaper. The only thing that matters is how well the student wrote their piece. Do they have an effective hook? Do they possess an intriguing voice? Did they do their research? Did they take the time to revise their grammar and spelling? And that’s it. There’s no two-ways about the business end of an author or illustrator getting published. It takes honing our craft so that we rise above the slush. And maybe an appreciation of this subjective process, by walking in someone else’s slush-pile shoes.