When a Story Has “Flu-Like Symptoms”


In July Anthony Rendon was a late scratch from the Nationals’ lineup due to “flu-like symptoms,” MASN Sports reported.

By Jack Limpert

In the baseball world, the reason given for a player not being in the lineup often is “flu-like symptoms,” an umbrella phrase that might cover everything from a bad hangover to repeated visits to the bathroom. Sometimes teams think it’s best to not always be too honest with the media and fans.

Editors face a similar dilemma when telling a writer “No, we’re not buying this.” The editorial equivalent of flu-like symptoms is something like “This is interesting and well-written but it doesn’t meet our needs at this time.”

Most editors are publicly appreciative of unsolicited material and supportive of writers—they’re the reason editors have jobs—and one challenge for editors is to not let weariness and cynicism creep into the process. At one point at the Washingtonian we were getting enough unsolicited manuscripts that needed rejection notes that a checklist rejection slip was proposed with one reason for rejection “This is an affront to western civilization.” And at times we had a generic rejection note that was used for most unsolicited material.

But any good editor wants to monitor unsolicited material, looking for talent that should be encouraged and for the surprise of a great unsolicited story. Once as an editorial assistant was rejecting a stack of manuscripts I asked to take a quick look and found an unsolicited manuscript titled “My Dog Was an Iranian Hostage.”

The hostage crisis had ended earlier in 1981—the Iranians had held 52 American diplomats and citizens for 444 days. It took about two minutes to read the dog story and call the author, a foreign service officer. We bought the story and slipped it into the January 1982 issue as a one-page feature. It was one of nicest short pieces we ran that year.

The main reason to look at unsolicited material was to search for writing talent. If the story submitted didn’t work, I often sent a note to the writer, trying to offer constructive suggestions and encouraging the writer to stay in touch with us. That approach often resulted in enough back and forth with the writer to lead to a story idea that worked well for both of us.

As for battling editorial cynicism, there are good stories to be told about that.

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