What I Learned in the Slush Pile

I offered to join the Pitch Madness team over on the fabulous Brenda Drake’s blog because I wanted to help out fellow writers and also see what it’s like from the other side.  Whoa, do agents ever have a tough job.

The first day, there were two hundred entries to be sorted through by several readers.  With one more entry window to go!  I thought I’d share some observations from my experience as a reader and writer going through the slush pile.  Here are a few things to keep in mind.

1. It is SO subjective.  I know, you hear it all the time, but it’s true.  It’s true I tell you.  I always think of myself in a bookstore, leafing through books and knowing fairly quickly if I’m interested in reading it.  Yup, that’s kind of how it is.  Everyone has different tastes, and of course agents also have the knowledge of what’s selling and what’s hot.

871147_98968988Photo by Julia Freeman-Woolpert.

2. A GREAT pitch can change everything.  I also think of the slush as a game of “Go Fish” for the readers.  They might be looking for some specific things as they go through, but then they pick something out of the pile and think, “Oh, this is gooood.”  There were several I saw that were totally outside of my usual genres, but they were so intriguing they hooked me right away.

450486_66212920Photo by Charlie Balch.

3. VOICE is pure gold in the writing world.  Another thing you hear all the time.  And for good reason.  While the pitch may have interested me, a fabulous voice in the sample made me get to the end and say, “I want more!”  Sometimes the voice makes you fall right in and you just know it’s going to be special.

1380449_55126986Photo by Jan Willem Geertsma.

4.  Make sure it’s CLEAN and CLEAR.  It’s hard to get everything you want to say in a short pitch.  But once you do, make sure it’s spotless.  An error takes me out of what I’m reading and it doesn’t pack the same punch when I read it again.  It also has to be clear and concise.  If it gets confusing, that pulls me out too.  The same goes for the first 250 or anything else you submit.  (That being said, a small error doesn’t mean it won’t get picked.)

1193876_17551332Photo by Sanja Gjenero.

5. What makes it a WINNER?  What exactly is it we’re looking for?  It has to present the character and the premise in a way that makes us want to read more.  Show me your main character’s situation and make my brain start reeling with all the possible complications. Why is it unique?  What’s the cool part that will make me say, “Wow, I’ve never seen THAT before”?  What makes your story stand out in the crowd?  What is the big, fresh part of your story that will make me want to stalk find you on twitter and follow your career?  Take all of that and smoosh it into that tiny little pitch.  Not easy, I know.

One other note . . .

Contests aren’t for everyone.  While they are a great opportunity, know that the participating agents just might not be the right fit.  There’s a reason we research agents so extensively.  See #1.  So if you get passed over or don’t get the response you want, keep going. My short contest run was quite unsuccessful.  One comment literally said “ditto” to the not so helpful comments above it.  But, contests are a great way to learn, to get feedback, and to meet some amazing new writing friends.

Whatever your path is, just keep walking until you get where you’re going.  And make some new friends along the way. 


Photos courtesy of stock.xchng if anyone is looking for a good source!


  1. Thanks for posting this! It's always so helpful to hear the thoughtprocess from the other end of the slush. Gold stars to all the slush readers! :)

  2. Great tips! Contests are fun but they also create a good bit of anxiety - hoping I hit "send" quick enough only to later discover a typo, hoping my entry catches the attention of someone, and then if it does get chosen, hoping it leads to something.

    It's possible that I'm addicted to rush of it all.

    Thanks for reading the pile!

  3. You're right about how the process is subjective. Comparing to reading tastes is a good point -- I'm reading a bestseller right now that IS good but the genre is not my favorite. I can appreciate it, but if I was an agent I'd want to rep something I loved and had more investment in. I can definitely tell that perspective, but it's tough being on the other end wondering who will like your story!

  4. It's been so fun to hear the why's of the slush pile. Thanks so much for volunteering to help, and double thanks for sharing what you saw. :)

  5. Dee, hearing what happens on the other side is helpful. Especially, if you fall in the 'no' pile :) Thanks for all the time and passion you put into this contest!

  6. Very cool that you are helping out with that! Great tips!

  7. Thank you for sharing your perspective from "the other side." I have received rejections and some with awesome comments that encourage me to keep on, keeping on.


Please note: ALL SPAM COMMENTS WILL BE DELETED without being posted. If you're here to add a paid link, save yourself some time and skip it. Actual blog reader comments are happily accepted. :)

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.