After I became an acquiring editor, I was startled the first few times a writer asked me what I was looking for. It hadn’t occurred to me this was something I should know. I wondered if this was a professional failing, evidence of my unsuitability for the job. It wasn’t until I heard other editors in public forums respond to this same question with vague comments like, “I want to see only good work,” or “I recommend you send only your best work,” that I understood there were no formulas or shortcuts into the mind of a given editor. The acquisitions process wasn’t a code that could be cracked. Over the course of a long career—after having read many thousands of manuscripts—experience itself has taught me I know even less about what I’m looking for now than I did when I first started. I know now, in a very deep way, it is writers, not editors, who innovate in literature. It doesn’t matter what I believe I might (or might not) be looking for, writers will always surprise me, making me look again at work I couldn’t possibly have anticipated. Sometimes, after what feels like a dry spell, when I begin to suspect I might be too jaded to continue this important work, a manuscript will come along that is so fresh and surprising, so quietly assured, so delightfully unexpected, it sweeps me away, and inspires me to believe again, not simply in myself, but in the whole enterprise of literature.
—Ladette Randolph, editor in chief, Ploughshares