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Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Why Jane Austen Would Be in the Slush Pile Today

By Jennifer Hudson Taylor

Jane Austen
Don't misunderstand me. I am a huge #JaneAusten fan and in many ways I believe she was ahead of her time. In spite of her popularity and movie success, if you compare the quality of her writing to what is required of writers today, she would not be published in today's market. In fact, her manuscripts would be allocated to the slush piles until the dreaded rejection letter arrived in her email box.

Getting noticed and published by a traditional publisher has always been hard for new authors--and each year it seems to get harder. There are so many industry standards and writing rules that authors must write by until they have the sales to back them up and they can break those rules.

1. Show, Don't Tell

Too often it is drilled into writers' heads to show a scene unfolding, don't tell the reader about it. Jane Austen breaks this cardinal rule throughout her books and in almost every scene she wrote. Below I have pulled an excerpt from Sense & Sensibility.

The carriages were then ordered; Willoughby's was first, and Marianne never looked happier than when she got into it. He drove through the park very fast, and they were soon out of sight; and nothing more of them was seen till their return, which did not happen till after the return of all the rest. 

Here is an example of how it could have been written to show rather than tell. I've written are article on The Big Show Vs Tell Debate.

Curricle Example
The servants brought the carriages around, leading with Willoughby's shiny black curricle. He extended his hand to Marianne. She beamed with excitement as her smile reached each glowing cheek. Accepting his assistance, she glanced up at Willoughby with trusting eyes full of adoration. 

He climbed in beside her and snapped the reins. The horses launched into a canter and the curricle rolled down the lane leaving a cloud of dust trailing behind them. Marianne laughed in delight and gripped her hat to keep it from blowing away.

2. Cut Unnecessary Words

While Jane Austen's writing style is of another time in our history when people generally talked different, the way she phrased her sentences is often too wordy. Today's readers would never tolerate such wordiness from a new writer, and therefore, neither would today's publishers. Below is another example from Sense & Sensibility.

The sudden termination of Colonel Brandon's visit at the park, with his steadiness in concealing its cause, filled the mind, and raised the wonder of Mrs. Jennings for two or three days; she was a great wonderer, as every one must be who takes a lively interest in all the comings and goings of all their acquaintance.

It could have been simply stated: For several days, Mrs. Jennings continued to wonder about the reason behind Colonel Brandon's sudden departure. 

3. No Head-Hopping, Stay in One POV

The chapters often begin in an omniscient POV, giving a general description of the scene and the feelings and viewpoint of each character. At various times the scenes will swap between Elinor and Marianne's point of view, and on occasion, even their mother within the same scene. Writers today are not allowed to head-hop, which is switching from one character's POV within the same scene without a transition, scene or chapter break.

4. Be Consistent

This may have only been an editing mistake, but there are times when the girls' mother is referred to as Mamma and as Mama. The spelling variations are not always consistent. Writer's today are taught the rule of consistency. If we choose to spell something one way, stay with it throughout the story. For example if you start out spelling inquiry, you cannot later use the spelling of enquiry.

I have only listed a few cardinal writing rules, but these few are enough to cause a new writer of today to be rejected by most publishers. Jane Austen would not be published by today's standards without further editing. Because her work is well-known and considered a classic, today's readers still buy and read her work. She still sells more than most midlist authors of today.

What about you? When you read a Jane Austen novel, does it bother you to read through the wordiness and the difficult writing style? As a reader, you may not be aware of these writing rules, do you notice these issues in an author's writing?

Have you read Awakened Redemption

Don't miss this new Inspirational Regency by Jennifer Hudson Taylor. To learn more about Awakened Redemption, click here!


I never noticed this before. It has been a while since I have read a Jane Austen novel, but none of these things have ever bothered me. They may now that you have pointed them out though! It is crazy to think that some of the most well loved books would not make it to print if they were published nowadays. I guess different eras equal different standards. I wonder what people will think of today's popular authors in a couple hundred years!

Emma, I never noticed stuff like this either until I started writing and learning all the "rules". I wonder as well what people will think years from now. It's amazing how our language continues to evolve. Before 1995 the word "Internet" and "Web" meant totally different things compare to what they mean now.

Interesting! Didn't someone send the 1st chapter of P&P to a number of publishers several yrs ago? If I recall correctly, most didn't even look at it and only a few realized it was P&P.

I don't mind her "wordyness" as it is going somewhere. Unlike, say, a certain overrated Victorian windbag. I counted 72 words in a sentence of his that was just fluff. I care about the story, not the writing. So, as long as the writing isn't too jarring, I'm fine with it being not perfect by the rules.

Kirk, I had heard something similar that a writer got tired of the rejection letters and sent in a version of a well known classic, but I didn't know if it was just a rumor or not. I could see something like that happening.

Kirk, Thanks for the feedback on the writing rules. I'm always curious to know what others think about things like "writing rules".

Hi Jennifer (and Kirk) Yes, someone did send in P&P to publishers. It was me. It was in 2007 and it was for a light-hearted article for Jane Austen's Regency World magazine. The title of the article was called 'Rejecting Jane'. The wikipedia link is here if you wish to read more. .

David (Lassman)


Thanks for stopping by and clarifying what happened. I went to Wikipedia and read the info. Interesting how all but one of the major publishers failed to recognize Jane Austen's work. If they had read it, I can't imagine them not recognizing it.

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Excellent commentary on the mindless mill that is publishing today. I have picked up countless modern books set in another era, and it really bothers me when authors follow the "rules" absolutely (probably not really the author's fault, actually) and write in a very modern way. Of course it will happen, since we understand a different sort of language structure, but I think it would be so much better if authors could at least mimic the old style a little bit. It is much more interesting that way.

The funny thing is that the first novel to be published "Sense and Sensibility" did end up in the slush pile at the time. It had to be self published by Jane Austen's brother Henry Austen and his wife Eliza who put up the financial guarantee so that the publisher/printer Egerton printed the book at no financial risk to himself.

Only after the success of the novel did the publisher publish further novels at his own risk.

Luckily, publishing a book oneself had far less of a stigma than nowadays. Literary journals like The Edinburgh Review at the time did not care if a book was self published. The "difficult" literary style of the novels is due to the writing being based on a Latin model, as the author was familiar with Latin texts in the original language. The author was very interested in history and copied the style of the famous Roman historian Tacitus.