Behind the Scenes at Ploughshares

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Some authors mail poems on loose-leaf paper. Others are solicited by guest editors. With so many different voices collaborating on one magazine, we understand that readers and writers are curious how many cooks are in the Ploughshares kitchen. Here’s an effort at de-shrouding some of the mystery.

How exactly does a writer get work published in Ploughshares?
“Luck and timing,” Ladette Randolph, the editor-in-chief of Ploughshares, says. The editors and readers do not read submissions with one specific guest editor in mind. In fact, Randolph says that pieces are read far in advance. “We choose what emerges out of the batch in front of us.”
The guest editor solicits ninety pages (one half of the magazine) directly. The second half of Ploughshares comes straight from the submissions pool. Andrea Drygas, the managing editor, estimates around 1,500 writers enter the “slush” (that’s publishing lingo for submissions) every month, which adds up to around 10,000 pieces read each year. Two issues each year include poetry, and all three feature fiction or nonfiction. That comes to 45 poets and 15 prose writers each year from the slush.

So how does a story or poem break out? Most begin with one of the forty-some Ploughshares readers, many of whom are MFA students or graduates. All readers are screened and their initial decisions are monitored. From the first round of readers, a senior reader might look at work passed on and send their choices to the genre editors: Margot Livesey for fiction, and John Skoyles for poetry, both professors at Emerson College. The editors will then send material back to Ladette Randolph for review.

Meanwhile, Randolph (like the rest of the staff) also dips into unread submissions. “I think everyone is going to the slush more now and looking for work,” she says. “If it makes me keep reading, I immediately forward it and place it in my queue to reread.” Then more conversation with the genre editors.
A story might be read eight times before it is accepted. “That initial catch is the good one,” Randolph, a fiction writer herself, advises. “People need to spend a little time thinking about that first page, that first line.” She also values good old-fashioned cover letters, courteous and relatable: “They are the initiation of a relationship. It’s important to be professional and create confidence.” Also important: to not tell what the story is about.

Both Randolph and Drygas go back and forth with the guest editors on decisions and deadlines. The finalized content comes months before publication. Stories and poems for the Spring 2010 issue, which Elizabeth Strout guest-edited, were set by the end of November. The Fall 2010 Jim Shepard issue has already gone to the typesetter, and selections for the Winter 2010-2011 issue edited by Terrence Hayes, who was “really on top of things,” have already been made. Colm Toibin and the Ploughshares staff will have the Spring 2011 text ready by this October.
Now that the Fall 2010 issue has been copyedited and typeset, the next step is finding the right cover. Drygas recalls the staff’s efforts to find a cover suitable for the current Spring 2010 issue, one that evoked spring “but in a darker way” to match the Elizabeth Strout tone.

Strout herself was receptive to collaboration on the current issue. “She was very good about jumping right in and becoming part of the Ploughshares staff for a few months,” Drygas says. Randolph found the author warm and accessible throughout the process, and admired her “strong and sure feelings” about the work she chose: “She loves poetry. That was a wonderful surprise.” Strout solicited some of the major poets in the magazine, including Edward Hirsch, Michael Collier, and Linda Pastan. She also focused on shorter stories, sending back longer pieces from solicited authors, wanting a diversity of voices to come through.

And as per the Ploughshares guidelines, many Spring 2010 pieces came from general submissions. Prose writers Marjorie Kemper, Carol Keeley, and Scott Nadelson; poets Jeanne Dubois and Chelsea Rathburn, to name a few. If at first your piece hasn’t landed, the staff encourages you to keep sending. As with Elizabeth Strout’s editorial mindset, Ploughshares searches in each issue for a diversity of voices, a discourse between writers established and emerging.
–Joshua Garstka