In the tavern the other night the young writer was asking the old editor some honest questions, while the middle-aged writer/editor looked on and listened in.
The young writer asked the old editor how he judged a story's suitability for a publication's "audience."
I put that in quotes because I could tell that the old editor heard it in quotes.
He smiled, and revealing the last bit of sheepishness left in his thoughtful old soul, said he always judged stories based on whether they are interesting—or not—to him.
When a story is interesting, he said, even if it is a structural disaster, he'll carry it around in his briefcase for a year, "trying to figure out how to make it work."
When he reads a submission that is not interesting, he dispatches it quickly, replying to the writer with four one-syllable words: "It's not for us."
In a subsequent email exchange with me—I'd forwarded him an exchange I was having with a woman who insisted she had something worthy of Vital Speeches—the old editor elaborated on his reasoning:
Believe me, I learned this the hard way. Being specific is good when you're editing a piece and trying to teach the writer something. When you're rejecting a piece (or trying to teach a writer not to bother you anymore) it pays to be as vague and subjective as possible.
"It's not for us" has the additional virtue of being absolutely the truest reason you're rejecting a piece. It's just a less insulting way of saying, "I don't like it enough."
The old editor is wise, of course, on both counts:
1. The first and only judge of whether a story is interesting to your readers is, Is it interesting to me? (Unless, of course, you're serving an audience whose interests you don't think you share, in which case, as my first editor Larry Ragan once said, "You're in more trouble than you know.")
2. And Larry also said that "an editor becomes an editor" when an editor says no. And any moment spent arguing with or mollycoddling someone who is not contributing to the editorial excellence of the operation is time and energy taken away from the demanding work that must be done.
A quick and gracious "it's not for us" has the additional virtue of freeing the writer to continue the urgent search for an editor who does find his story interesting, and who will carry it in his briefcase for a year, trying to figure out how to make it work.