Advice for Writers & Editors: An Interview with Ladette Randolph, Editor-in-Chief of Ploughshares

(Ploughshares is an American literary journal. It was founded in 1971, at an Irish pub in Cambridge, Massachusetts. It is known for its guest editor policy and publishing literature of the highest order. Some of the writers who’ve placed work in Ploughshares include Raymond Carver, Mona Simpson, Ann Beattie, Robert Pinsky, ZZ Packer, Grace Paley, and Tim O’Brien.

I first met Ladette Randolph when I lived in Boston. I was fortunate to have access to GrubStreet, one of the nation’s best independent writing centers. GrubStreet is located in downtown Boston, right next to Emerson College. Ploughshares has been housed at Emerson since 1989. My workshop instructor invited Ladette to our final class. She began by asking each of us to share a detail of our writing lives. I was in the midst of applying to MFA programs for the first time. I’d been waitlisted at a couple of reputable schools, and I recall informing Ladette of the fact with a touch of undue pride. She spoke to us that evening about the publishing world, gave us advice, and told us, most importantly, to keep writing. Three years and three application cycles later, my fiction’s found a home in Virginia Tech’s MFA program. As a current reader for issue 89 of the minnesota review, I decided to reach out to Ladette and get her take on editorial work. She kindly took the time to respond to my questions. Below is her advice, relevant to any editor, writer, or proponent of the literary arts.

Ploughshares ensures an array of artistic voices with its guest editor policy. Some guest editors of past issues include Lauren Groff, Percival Everett, Major Jackson, and Raymond Carver. As Editor-in-Chief, how do you choose which author to solicit for an upcoming issue? Do you employ a consistent method when contacting authors?

I don’t apply a particular methodology, but I do try to address issues of diversity in all of its forms. I like to invite guest editors from different parts of the country, different writing programs (if they’re associated with a writing program), difference styles, etc. Many of the writers I approach about guest-editing the journal are simply too busy and have to decline the invitation. Our forthcoming guest editors include the novelist/short story writer Jennifer Haigh (Spring 2017), the novelist Stewart O’Nan (Fall 2017), and the fiction writer/ director of the Iowa Workshop, Lan Samantha Chang (Spring 2018). Since we started the Emerging Writers contest, the staff has edited the Winter issue each year. A modest departure from the guest editor program.

Are there specific ways you handle or think about matters of diversity?

I hope the above answers this question in part. I think about diversity, obviously, in terms of race, gender, and ethnicity, but I also think about it in terms of style and regional difference. The guest editor program is intended to bring to our pages writers we wouldn’t otherwise encounter. I think about the network of writers around a particular guest editor. It’s far from perfect.

How much does length impact your opinion of a piece and acceptance/rejection rates of pieces?

Length (within the page limits we’ve established for submissions) doesn’t really affect our rates of acceptance. At least not that I’m aware of. I’ve sent long pieces in every shortlist to guest editors; however, I have to say I’m very happy when I can include in the shortlist some shorter pieces, too. 

What is your approach to the ‘first round’ of reading when it comes to the slush pile?

There are several approaches. We have a large group of well-trained and loyal screeners, some in the MFA program at Emerson, some grads of that program (or others). The screeners read and pass on pieces they feel need another look, and I read those pass-ons for prose while the poetry editor, John Skoyles, reads them for poetry. I frequently go to the submissions and read cold, as does John.  

Have you noticed any emerging literary trends—whether with form or subject matter—over the last few years?

I’m seeing a bit more engagement with new technology. It isn’t the focus of the stories but it’s part of the lives of the characters in ways it wasn’t for a few years. I’m seeing less of the fantastic lately and more about a global consciousness. It may just be that these are the pieces the screeners respond to, but there’s a new seriousness in a lot of the stories I’m reading lately. If there is humor (and we all know humor is very hard to do well) it’s often a bit dark.

What are some of the ways your editorial work has impacted your own writing?

I was a writer before I became an editor, but I’ve been in publishing for so long I can’t separate the two things: writing and editing. I’m sure it’s had an impact on my writing, but I’m too close to see it. I hope it’s made me a better writer, but the truth is, even after a book is published and I’m giving a reading, I’m still editing. The reading copies of my books are a mess.  

Do you have any tips for young authors who are submitting their work?

Don’t try too hard. Be yourself. Find your voice and your subject matter. It’s hard to be honest about what you love, but it’s important to do so. Double-check and triple-check your first sentence, your first paragraph, your first page. Busy editors can intuit a lot about a submission from those first few sentences. Chekhov advised young writers to look at the beginning of their stories and to lop off the first page or page and a half, and also to look again at their endings since, (bad paraphrase here) writers tend to lie to themselves at the end of a story. This still seems like very good advice to me. 

Dan Kennedy is a first year fiction writer in Virginia Tech’s MFA program. He grew up in Pennsylvania and graduated from Boston University with a BA in English. As a child he aspired to be the next Batman, but upon realizing that he possessed neither the funds nor skills to accomplish his goal, he decided creative writing and sports were the next best things.


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