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Top 5 secrets to standing out in the slush pile

A woman at a desk sorting through paper files

As an editor working for a well-regarded picture book publisher, I’ve seen hundreds of submissions from hopeful authors. Some stand out immediately. They sparkle and catch you in their light. You think about them for days afterwards. If for some reason they don’t fit your list, you remember the author’s name and will eagerly read any further work from them.

But what makes these manuscripts stand out in the slush pile? Here are the top 5 things I look for.

A serious writer

I can always tell when a writer has invested in their dream. I’m talking about those who have learnt their craft, who know the basics like the typical word count for a modern picture book, or how to write for a particular age group. It’s obvious that these writers have taken the time to attend writing conferences, read widely in their chosen genre or complete reputable writing courses. Believe me, these things stick out and instantly put us editors in a positive state of mind. We realise that you are a person who treats your work professionally, and this impression gives your manuscript the best possible chance.

A fabulous title

A title might seem such a small thing, and I suppose it is in the grand scheme of things. But because it’s the first thing an editor (or reader) sees, it’s wise to make it a good one. A title that intrigues me or makes me laugh will predispose me to feel kindly towards your manuscript from the get-go. Many people will pick up a book in a bookstore based on the title, and editors are well aware of this.

An amazing opening

Some of my editing buddies will only read the first few lines of a story before making a decision about it. While I will read a little further than that, I can’t deny that the opening of a story must grab me in some way. Work hard on those first lines. It’s vital that your story hooks your reader right away. This is especially important for a children’s book. Some ways to do this include making a surprising statement, asking a question, starting with an interesting snippet of dialogue or giving an interesting detail about a character. Experiment with many ideas before making your final choice.

Characters that feel real

This is not an easy one, I know. But if you’ve thought hard about your characters, given them personal traits that your reader can identify with, and made them instrumental in driving your plot (not the other way around), then you are on the right track. Your main characters can be funny, bold, quiet, inventive, charming or even horrible (for a while), but make sure they don’t just walk through your story. Have them dig deep to solve the problems they face.

A story with soul

This is a little hard to define, but I’ll try. For me, your story can’t be a hollow collection of words. It has to mean something. It has to speak to its readers and make them realise a truth about the world. So please put your heart into your story. Really think about what is important to you and what you want your readers to understand.


Of course, if you’re struggling with any or all of these things, I can help! Check out my Services page to find out more.

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