“You Shortlisted My Submission… Why Didn’t it Make the Final Cut?”

Absolute Blank

By Theryn Fleming (Beaver)

I want to begin this article with a word of encouragement. Please don’t give up on Toasted Cheese as a venue because your work is rejected once (twice, three times…). Be persistent! Many people submit to us only once and we never hear from them again. I obviously don’t know their reasons, but I hope it’s not because they think a single ‘no’ means ‘no’ forever. The ‘no’ applies to the submitted piece only and not to anything you might write in the future. Keep trying.

There is a much smaller group of writers who submit to us again and again, even when they repeatedly hear ‘no.’ If you fall into the former group—the writers who meekly retreat—you might think such writers are gluttons for punishment. But here’s the thing: eventually many of these persistent writers hear ‘yes.’

If we shortlisted your submission, we saw something in it—we think you’re on the right track—and when we say we’d like to see more work from you, we mean it. Keep writing, keep revising, and keep submitting.

Background Image: CC-by Patrick Slattery/Flickr

Background Image: CC-by Patrick Slattery/Flickr

Type A: Eager Beavers


The piece is well-written, and it’s the quality of your writing that caught our attention. What you have submitted is a polished piece of work. Yet, it’s incomplete. If nonfiction, it’s more of an anecdote than a story. If fiction, it’s a beginning without a middle or end. It’s the short-story version of polishing the first chapter of your novel to perfection, while failing to write the rest of the book.

Bellman says, “For me, it’s often that something feels like it’s missing—it doesn’t quite hold together, or something doesn’t make sense, or, in some cases, the writing is good, but it doesn’t seem to tell a story.”


The piece is complete, i.e. the whole story is present, but you’re not done with it yet. This is a first or maybe second draft that hasn’t been polished yet. Were you so excited to share—or so afraid you’d chicken out—you submitted the minute you typed ‘The End’? Did you spot a typo or realize you wanted to make a change immediately after you hit ‘Send’ and dash off a breathless addendum to the editor? If so, your piece is likely unfinished.

  • What these two issues have in common is writers who are impatient to get their work out there. We love that you’re excited about your work. But remember, part of writing is giving your work time to breathe. When you think it’s done, set it aside for a while. Work on something else. When you give it time, you can come back to it with fresh eyes and look at it more objectively. Alternatively (or in addition), take the time to run it past your writing buddy or group for feedback before submitting.

Type B: It’s Not You, It’s Us


You’re probably familiar with the term ‘fit’ from job interviews. While we don’t have preset themes for our issues, themes often arise organically during the selection process. If all of the pieces save one fit the theme(s), then that oddball piece might not make the cut. This isn’t something that’s set in stone—obviously if the piece is exceptional, it’s going in regardless of how well it fits with the other pieces—but if it’s something we’re waffling over, fit is definitely a factor taken into consideration.


Each month, we shortlist about ten submissions. Think of this like heats in track events. During each reading period, we read three months of shortlisted submissions. Think of this like the finals. When all the shortlisted pieces are read together and compared, inevitably some are going to rise to the top and others are going to fall to the bottom. The ‘bottom’ in this case is still good (you made it to the finals), but on this day, others were better. In addition, there’s an intersection between quality and subject matter. If two people have written pieces on the same subject (this happens more often than you think), we’ll likely choose only one of the two.

  • What these two issues have in common is that there’s an element here that’s beyond your control. You have no idea (nor do we) what other people are going to submit. If you’re going to write, you will have to accept that there’s an element of luck or serendipity to successful submissions. But there are some things you can do to improve your odds. Read back issues to familiarize yourself with what the editors are looking for. And always, continue working on your craft, making your writing the best it can be.

Type C: Houston, We Have a Problem


Sometimes a piece we might have accepted doesn’t make the cut because there are simply too many technical errors. Our staff is all-volunteer and we don’t have the time to do a line-by-line edit of your piece. While typos and minor usage errors are not cause for rejection, problems that occur throughout, and would require an intensive edit/extensive rewrite of the piece, are. Common problems that fall under this rubric are tense shifts (shifting back and forth between past, present, and future tenses) and point-of-view shifts, which can mean either head-hopping (jumping from one character’s point-of-view to another when you’re not using third-person omniscient) or shifting randomly between first- and third-person or first- and second-person.


We’ll call this one cobwebs, after a poem I wrote in eighth grade that included the phrase ‘cobwebs of mist.’ Superficially, this poem was ok. It had some nice imagery. But that’s all it had. It lacked depth. It wasn’t about anything. There was nothing for the reader to make a connection with. This is perhaps the most common problem with poetry. Poems will contain imagery that makes them appealing at first glance, but on closer look there’s no substance—much like how when you try to grasp a spider web, your hand goes right through it. A good poem is more than just a description. What are you trying to say? What do you want to convey to the reader? Make sure there’s a there there.


With longer fiction, and sometimes nonfiction, often we’ll be intrigued by the opening of the story, the premise. But somewhere along the line, things break down. The story becomes convoluted or impenetrable, bogged down by the writer trying too hard to be clever, mysterious, or deep—or goes off the rails completely (scary clown deus ex machina!). Remember: We’re readers, not mind-readers. We have no idea what’s in the eight-ninths of Hemingway’s proverbial iceberg that’s still in your head. All we have to go on is what is on the page. When you ask for feedback on your work, do you find yourself jumping in and explaining what you meant when readers say they didn’t understand where that clown came from or that the whole ‘clown thing’ didn’t make sense? Stop. Instead of explaining, listen to your readers. Then read your story again and ask yourself: is it really possible to figure out what the deal with the clown is knowing just what is on the page? Make sure readers can understand your story without an author’s note.

Bellman says, “I go for strong characters and a compelling tale that hangs together. If you are going to send me on a treasure hunt of meaning, at least give me a map.”

Ocean ChartNot this one.

  • What these issues have in common is they are all problems that can be solved by working on your craft. You have something to say and/or way with words, but writing is a process; as long as you are writing there will always be more to learn. Books on the craft of writing abound—make use of them. Pro-tip: your public library will have most of the popular writing craft books. Check out a wide variety for free first, then purchase the ones you find most useful to keep next to your desk. If you prefer more interactive lessons, sign up for a writing class, workshop, or conference. Classes and conferences are a chance to get a fresh perspective on your work, some feedback, and best of all, meet other writers, i.e. potential writing buddies or groupmates.

So there you have it: some common reasons why submissions don’t make it past the final cut. We hope you find this information helpful and look forward to seeing another submission from you soon!

Final Poll Results

Print Friendly, PDF & Email