We're deep into the reading period for the Stonecoast Review and the New England Review. I'm enjoying these submissions and am always on the lookout for the one that whispers Pushcart.
Normally, I read fiction, and that's what I'm doing for NER. This time, though, I submitted a fiction piece to SCR, so I have the privilege of reading creative nonfiction. The same rules apply, and we look at technical elements and content.
For technical/mechanical elements, we look at everything: grammar, punctuation, word choice, formatting, structure, cohesion, and comprehension. Not every "rule" has to be followed as long as the author demonstrates that he or she knows the rules. But don't kid yourself: spelling always counts.
Content? That's easy. The story has to work. It doesn't have to feature huge, gut wrenching, or shocking scenes, but there has to be a story: something has to happen, even in a flash piece or a vignette. Whether or not the protagonist changes as a result of what happens is immaterial (to me) as long as the ending is both organic and believable.
Every reader has priorities: I look first at whether the author has chops: a mastery of the basics (see technical/mechanical, above). Then I look for a narrator with an engaging voice who tells an absorbing story about nuanced characters. Add realistic dialogue, a twist I don't see coming, and an ending that derives from the entire story and doesn't feel tacked on, and I see publication possibilities.
Tell it spare, with gorgeous syntax, and I hear Pushcart.