The Q & Q Files: Shining on the Slush Pile

Hey there, sunshine!

Everyone wants their work to pop, right?  Here’s another bundle of goodness (and shiny tips) from the Q & Q Friday files—yours to enjoy in whatever form takes your fancy.


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Hi! Welcome back to Girl and Duck, another Q and Q Friday. As I always say, they come around quickly.

This letter is a long one with lots of juicy questions in it. I’ve actually gone in and chosen one of my favourites, one that I think will apply to everyone. So let me read it to you.

Dear Jen, What makes a manuscript, ie a story for children, really stand out and shine from the slush pile?

That’s such an awesome question, and that’s from Ursula in Melbourne. Thank you for that, Ursula.

I’ve been mulling it over because we need to get down to that one thing that I think makes a manuscript shine and I enjoy this question because, having worked as an editor, I know what it’s like to manage a slush pile.

When I first started working at black dog books, which was a children’s publisher here in Melbourne in the early 2000s, I was a junior and I was in charge of the slush pile. The slush pile is often given to the juniors simply because it’s such a mammoth task and no publisher can afford to pay people to sit around and read.

The higher up you get, the more urgent your workload, the more you triage all day.

So sitting around reading unsolicited manuscripts goes lower down your To Do list. It’s one of the least urgent things to do.

I recently spoke to somebody, I think it was in Penguin, and she said that nowadays the slush pile is divided up between everyone. Everyone gets a portion. Everyone gets some of it to read because is such a daunting task. They take unsoliciteds home and they read them at night or on their day off or on weekends.

But back in those days it was my little thing, and it was something that I would do when I had a little bit of spare time.

So can you see how important it is to get your manuscript right? The pressure that the person who is reading it is under is immense.

Okay. So that’s the first good clue.

I like to think of it like this: Imagine if you went into a library or bookshop and all the shelves were full of books that were all covered in brown paper. There wasn’t anything to distinguish them, except maybe size. And you’d have to go through and randomly pull books off the shelves and make decisions about what to read and you had no cover to guide you or inspire you or to pique your interest.

That’s what’s happening when you’re reading from a slush pile. So again, keep that in mind— you’ve only got words.

So what I would say, Ursula, and what I would say to anybody, and this is not just for children stories, if you’re writing any kind of fiction, the one thing that I think makes a manuscript pop is voice.


You have to get the voice right. You have to work really hard on your voice because voice is what’s going to make it pop. Voice is what’s going to attract a tired reader, a tired editor, a tired agent. Someone who’s just fed up, you know, and desperately wants to see something that’s going to entertain them, that’s going to grab their attention.

So you must work on voice. Now I talk about this more over there, over on the blog.

One of the first things I talk about in my real life classes too is voice. Because voice—a confident, funny or serious, it doesn’t matter if it is serious but it has to be confident and warm and inviting, the reader needs to feel that they’re entering a world where they’re going to be tightly held. Where there will be someone who knows what they’re doing.

So a wobbly or half-arsed voice, or a voice that seems insincere, a voice like that is no good.

All those voices, they need to be worked out of you. And they will come out when you first start creative writing. The writing is bound to be clunky and awkward and self-conscious. It takes time to find a voice that’s authentic and a voice that’s, you know, original, but also sincere.

Don’t be disheartened when you first start writing if it sounds so much not  like what you want it to sound like!

Keep working on it. Keep writing and writing, until you’ve purged yourself all those influences and you’ve purged yourself of the latest book that you’ve been reading. All those things, until you start to find your own voice.

Now this can take years, okay? It’s not something that you work out in a weekend. It’s something that takes years. But if you’re doing it all the time, and practicing, of course you’re going to get better and better more quickly.

So keep chipping away at voice. As I say, it’s what really will make the editor stop and read some more.

The thing that you have to realize, too, I think, and a lot of people don’t quite appreciate this, is that publishers want books, you know?

They want good manuscripts, they want to see good work, they want to see possibilities. They’re after a product. They’re not sitting there looking through the slush pile, judging it and being mean or mean-spirited or acting like a school teacher and feeling superior.

They are genuinely looking for something that’s going to shine. Something that’s going to pop. Something that’s going to catch their imagination.

Never lose sight of that when you’re writing. Never lose sight of the fact that you’re attempting to entertain someone, to capture someone’s imagination.

But you’re also providing someone with a product that they really, really want. Publishers really, really want good books.

Keep that in mind. Don’t feel so threatened. Don’t feel so undermined by everything that you hear about slush piles—these ideas that people get about publishers sitting in their ivory towers, you know, not wanting to meet with the plebs down there who are writing. Of course they do. They want good books!

So Ursula, keep that in mind.

I was also thinking about things that will make your manuscript pop, but in a bad way.

Things like glitter glue, hand drawings, you know, if you’re not an illustrator or haven’t had much experience. That’s a pretty scary thing to do. Photographs of your children or your grandchildren? No way.

I speak from experience. But of course now we have electronic submission of most manuscripts. So I think that probably saves a lot of editors from having to go through these, you know, Grade Five school projects.

Now there’s something about children’s writing and of course I do understand, that people out there think that writing for children is easy. It’s just for kids so I’m going to knock up a children’s book in a weekend and I’m going to send it to the publisher and the publisher is going to say, ‘Hallelujah! We’ve never seen anything so remarkable. We’ve got the next J.K Rowling!’

They would  look at an Oliver Jeffers book and say, ‘This kid’s got toothpicks for legs. I could do that. I could draw a book like that.’


But of course it’s the untrained eye, isn’t it? They’re not seeing the subtleties. They’re not seeing the talent, they’re not seeing the palette, the body language, the humour and the technique that’s gone into in all of this.

Again, they think they can knock up a kids’ book just like that in a weekend.

So because of this the amount of unsolicited manuscripts that come into kids’ publishers is enormous. So many people think they can do it.

This is actually a really good thing for you guys because what it means is that — I’m not exaggerating—about 90%, in my experience, of the slush pile is slush.

So, you know, you’re sitting down to read the slush pile, you’ve got maybe half an hour to get through some manuscripts. So you’re going to quickly sort out the rubbish. I tell you, even the cover letter will sometimes be full of errors and bad spelling, the grammar is appalling. You can just dismiss it outright.

Beyond that, you might get through the first couple of sentences, again I don’t mean to sound mean but that’s how bad it is. That’s how low the standard is sometimes amongst people having a go at writing a kids’ books. Absolutely atrocious.

So you’re just not going to bother, are you? You’re going to go through, sift out all that rubbish, and then you’re going to focus on the few little ones that are glimmering in there.

And the ones that are glimmering, I tell you, they will have a strong, passionate, confident, inviting voice. A voice that will hook that reader, hook that editor and get them to keep reading.

Again, I stress this applies to all fiction, to fiction across the board. Voice, voice, voice.

So that’s really what I wanted to say to you today, Ursula. If you want your manuscript to pop, make sure that the voice is strong.


Make sure that the manuscript is presented professionally, too. Make sure that you have a crisp, professional cover letter. Not something huge, not waffly, not too familiar, all that sort of stuff.

Stick with the guidelines. Read the publisher’s guidelines and stick to them. Don’t waffle off and do your own thing, again you’re going to get flicked to the side, you’re not going to get looked at if you do that.

All right, so that’s really what I want to say. Hold on to that. If you want to be in that top 10%, if you want to be the manuscript that gets read, if you want yours to be the manuscript that the editor says, ‘Oh wow! Listen to this guys!’ Because that often happens, too. You get something good, you’re so excited when you get something good because is so boring reading rubbish. It’s demoralising, you know?

So be that person. Be the person who really focuses on voice and gets in the top 10%.

Voice is that one little precious thing. Imagine going into that bookshop and all those brown books that you’re pulling off the shelves. And you’re flicking through them—the thing that’s going to catch you is the voice.

That’s all I’ve got to say today at girl and duck. I hope you all have a great weekend.

Thank you so much to those of you who have written and left notes on the blog. It encourages me to keep going!

Okay, I’ll see you next week. Bye for now!


If you’d like more encouragement and inspiration don’t forget to subscribe to the girl and duck mailing list. It’s free!

Coming soon, my new ebook:

See Me Jump: 20 Things I’ve Learned About Writing Books for Children

I can’t wait to share this book with YOU!

6 Replies to “The Q & Q Files: Shining on the Slush Pile”

  1. Glitter glue, photos of your kids (obviously reading and LOVING your ms) and grade five projects! Thanks so much for this post – man, how I laughed! But thanks also for reiterating that publishers do want good books, that they want to be entertained and fall in love with a story too, because sometimes, when you are umming and ahhing over your beginning or changing a word here and there to make it more ‘you’, it’s easy to forget that. Looking forward to the ebook!

    1. It is really easy to lose sight of that, isn’t it, RM? But yeah they LOVE good work. LOVE!! It’s so motivating to keep that in mind. Thanks for commenting! Loved hearing from you.

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