A teacher’s advice to students on revision & submission.
I sent this email last week to my “Writing Life Stories” students, who meet in person with me once a week and otherwise online.
I’m reading your new memoirs with enjoyment, appreciation, and a feeling of accomplishment as a teacher for what you’ve done. This semester, you’ve all made art from your experience. We’ve pondered and tried many aspects of writing—but we haven’t touched on publishing. I have some advice on that if you are interested in pursuing it. But first a caveat.
Last summer, attending an intensive writing workshop taught by a respected writer, I was struck by how stringently she separated writing from publishing. And by how sparingly she praised what we wrote. She was a nice person; it was just that we were there to make new work. The point was to keep making pieces, not to jump the gun and think about publishing them, not yet. I don’t think she thought in terms of whether she “liked” or “loved” an essay, but, rather, focused on whether it had some spark, some alive quality.
Most pieces, written in response to prompts, we filed for the future, to be struggled with or cannibalized back home. But everyone churned out one piece that she suggested we might read to the assembled workshops at the end of the week. Those we slaved on, late into the night in our dorm rooms. Then she tried to help each of us further realize its potential. By that time, the extra insight she could provide was powerful. The more frustrated a writer is with his own piece—meaning he has struggled hard with it on all levels and has turned it into an external object, a misshapen piece of clay he’s almost angry at—usually the more help an editor or teacher can provide.
As we near the end of our workshop, some of you may be ready to send off your most perfected pieces. They’ve been workshopped and rewritten several times. But know that while talent is common, the higher levels of craft are not. So make sure your essay is the best you can make it.
As a last stage, I recommend picking out three different essays you love by other writers and trying to emulate what you love in them in your own essay. Maybe it’s the colloquial snap of the language in one, the deft structure in another, the gorgeous sentences and metaphors in the third. Read one of them and then read yours aloud; you will be surprised by the tweaks that will jump out at you. Now repeat with the other two model essays.
Most literary journals are now online, or have an online component. Many of them use a handy submissions portal called Submittable. It’s easy and fun to use, and allows you to check on the status of your work under review. Follow the instructions. (Many journals charge a small reading fee for submissions, especially for contests—to fund winners’ awards—which is annoying but a fact of life.) Before submitting, spend some time reading the journal.
Here are some journals that specialize in publishing work by students (and probably by recent graduates):
In addition, here are a few others to look at:
Good luck! Rejection is common, and doesn’t mean your piece isn’t good. Rejection can spur you to try harder, to act on any doubts you have and further polish or revise your essay. Until, finally, you know your piece is ready. Ideally that comes before you send it out, of course, and maybe in time it will.
• Vela Magazine – Work by women writers only.
I think back to my purist mentor last summer. She put her emphasis so insistently on the practice because it’s real, it can endure, and it creates more writing. Like her, I realize, I have grown to EXPECT great work from my “Writing Life Stories” students. It no longer surprises me. But it does please me. Just wanted to say that, for me, working with you this semester has been rewarding and fun.
[My post last summer, “Among the Poets,” details my experience in a workshop with Rebecca McClanahan at Kenyon College.]