Each week, check this Monday posting for a selection of current calls for submissions, good writing advice from the interwebs, and legit writing job listings. Fear less, do more.
Calls for Submissions
Lunch Ticket, a literary journal from the MFA community at Antioch University in LA, seeks submissions for its Summer/Fall 2015 issue (Deadline April 30). According to the editor’s note, “Lunch Ticket’s mission is to publish work by under-privileged and under-represented voices, to promote social justice through publishing without hesitation or apology meritorious work that challenges the toxic status quo of oppression.” For this issue, they will consider fiction, creative nonfiction, poetry, writing for young people, translations, and visual art. Check out their submission guidelines here:
And now, something for my academic writers out there. You know who you are. Maybe you are a grad student who wants an academic publishing credential for the next step or for a new job…or you already have the job and you now need to start producing and cranking out those scholarly journal articles for tenure and promotion. This article from The Guardian has some good tips and insights. And remember, publishing as an academic isn’t just for fun – your job depends on it, so it’s best to figure out how to do it and then get to work as soon as possible.
Now this sounds like a fun job: Business Publications Writer for AAA East Central. Located in Pittsburgh, PA, the position requires a writer with a BA, proficiency with MS Office, and the ability to work independently. Job responsibilities will include research, writing and editing, collaboration, generating new ideas, photographing club events and assisting with executive speeches. Sounds pretty cool, eh? And I can vouch for Pittsburgh being a great place to live, work, and play – I grew up there. :)
No matter what you do for a living, chances are extremely high that you write on the job. Did you know that companies spend over $3 billion a year helping their employees learn how to write better? That’s a lot of scratch. And just because your boss hasn’t brought in a pro like me to help you improve your writing skills doesn’t mean you shouldn’t work on them. Why is that?
Because writing is considered a threshold skill that often determines whether you get promoted. Employers want employees who can write well, bottom line. You may get hired with average or sub-par skills because your expertise in other areas is extraordinary, but without showing improvement, chances are you won’t be tapped to move up the ladder.
What to do? Obviously, a single blog post about this issue should not be the end of your journey as you seek to improve your on-the-job writing skills. Start by making a list of all the written documents you produce on a daily, weekly, monthly, and yearly basis. An annual report is only written once a year, but you send emails every day. And if your inbox looks anything like mine, you have my sympathies.
The important thing to remember is to be clear, concise, and professional in all written communication, and that includes being a prolific proofreader BEFORE you send that document on its way. When you look at that list of writing you regularly produce, you should quickly realize that you need to allow for time to revise and proofread.
I recently asked my students how many of them proofread written projects before they turn them in for grades. Very few hands went up. Then I asked them how many proofread emails before sending them. Three quarters of the room raised their hands. I asked them what the difference was. They said with emails, someone on the other end cares what it says and how it is constructed.
As a writing professor, this is fascinating to me. We actually discussed it because I enjoy hearing students’ perspectives on such differences and the distinctions they make when writing. To me, their perception that professors don’t care about their written projects speaks volumes about how we handle writing across the university – and it doesn’t speak well. But also interesting was their distinct awareness that emails within and without the university setting matter more.
So imagine how important those emails are that YOU send every single day. If you aren’t proofreading every email, then you are missing out on an opportunity and are not giving this important and common form of communication its due.
Let’s fix that. Here are four tips to help you write stronger, clearer, and more professional emails at work:
1. Lead with a proper greeting that includes the correct use (and spelling) of the recipient’s name (Dear John, Good day Dr. Stevens, Good morning Susan) Sidebar: Note that I did not include a comma to set off the direct address in these greetings. Rules such as these are quickly being dropped in our modern world, and in emails, the non-comma form of direct address has become common. Grammar Underground has a good piece on this phenomenon. So if you just cringed at my lack of commas in the direct addresses, I would advise you to relax and adapt. :)
2. Be specific. People are busy, so respect their time and get right to the point of WHY you are writing. Don’t ramble, or lead in with a long explanation or background about the problem or situation. If you want to meet about something, then ask for the meeting (Good morning John! I’d like to meet next week to discuss (topic). Please let me know a good time on Tuesday or Wednesday that works for you. Thanks much!) You can verbally provide that background in the meeting. Or better yet, provide a handout with a bullet point list.
3. See #2. Ask for action. Say thank you.
4. Proofread for spelling, misused words, unclear statements, and punctuation errors. Fix those before hitting send.
If you follow these four simple tips with EVERY email you write, your written communication will improve tenfold, your recipients will no longer be annoyed with your emails, and your boss will think better of you. Try it today!
Each week, check this Monday posting for a selection of current calls for submissions, good writing advice from the interwebs, and legit writing job listings. Fear less, do more. And may we all have a productive and successful 2015!
Calls for Submissions
If you know a high school student who is a passionate, committed writer or artist, share this info: Jet Fuel Review is actively seeking submissions in nonfiction, fiction, poetry, and art from high schoolers for the Spring 2015 issue. They seem to want quality work that resonates with individuality, writing on the Editorial Tastes page, “Your work should be something that can only come from you, that stems from who you are and what you believe.” Deadline is March 15 and the submission guidelines are here:
I can vouch for the positive effect that writing your own stories can have. For me, it is healing and absolutely helps me to process thoughts, feelings, and conflicts in a much healthier way. My friend passed this article along to me and she is right, it is definitely worth sharing here. I hope that this validates your own personal writing efforts, or provides the encouragement necessary to get you started:
If you have 3-5 years of experience writing and publishing online content and have “a strong passion for animal welfare, environmental rights, holistic health, sustainable living and progressive issues,” then this full time Staff Writer position with Care2.com in their Redwood, CA office might be the job for you! Check out the link to the job ad below:
Imagine reading your favorite novel or creative nonfiction book (Cheryl Strayed’s Wild, perhaps, or Terry Tempest Williams’ Finding Beauty in a Broken World) without any sensory details.
In fact, I challenge you right now. Go pick up that book that you are reading. Flip to a page, any page. Now scan carefully for any and all sensory details.
Let us review what sensory details are: They are details that engage all five senses (Smell, Taste, Touch, Hearing, Sight). Now, I must say that as a writing teacher and coach, I see lots and lots of “sight” details in students’ writings. Visual details – how a place or a person or a thing looks – you’ve all got that down. It’s the other senses that are all too often neglected – to the detriment of your work. Sensory details bring scenes to life and allow readers to really be in that moment with the characters. Without sensory details, what could be an engaging, evocative passage that generates some kind of emotional response is, instead, bland, dull, and dry prose that doesn’t hold any reader’s attention. In fact, it may cause them to say,”See? I told you TV was more interesting and fun than books!” Heaven forbid.
So now that we are on the same page about what sensory details are, allow me to show you some examples to prove my point. I always find that examples are more vivid and convincing than straight lecture, so here we go.
This first passage was provided by Tawnysha Greene, a good friend of mine who has her first novel, House Made of Stars, coming out with Burlesque Press this year. I asked my writer volunteers to submit a passage from one of their published works with the sensory details in place (as it was or will be published) and that same passage with all sensory details removed. This first passage is from chapter 45 of T’s novel. In this scene, the father is teaching the narrator and her sister how to swim in a river.
Scene without details:
I open my mouth for air, look up. “Homing pigeons,” he called them as we drove to the river. “People take them to the valley and release them,” said Daddy, “and the birds follow them back. Sometimes, they beat their masters home.”
He points to them. I close my eyes, breathe in. I smell…everything Daddy says guides these birds home.
As T says, pretty awful, right? Of course her dialogue is strong, obviously, but watch what happens to this scene when she puts the sensory details in.
Scene with sensory details:
I open my mouth for air, look up and see the sky, a flock of white birds overhead. “Homing pigeons,” he called them as we drove to the river. “People take them to the valley and release them,” said Daddy, “and the birds follow them back. Sometimes, they beat their masters home.”
He points to them, and I can feel the vibrations of his voice through his hand. I close my eyes, breathe in, and the cold is less biting than it was before. I smell the damp earth, red clay on the riverbanks, and the yellow dust on the pine trees, everything Daddy says guides these birds home.
Now this passage is captivating, full of relevant sensory details that allow the reader to FEEL this place and this moment in a way that pure dialogue doesn’t allow. To read the full published version of this scene (that was originally a poem called “Homing Pigeons”), click this link.
This next passage was provided by another good friend, author Suzanne Samples. This passage appears in “Chekhov’s Toothbrush,” her award-winning short fiction piece that appears in the recently published anthology, Modern Shorts: 18 Short Stories from Fiction Attic Press.
Here is the passage without sensory details:
Before I can sift through the stack of papers in the corner, I freeze. Did she forget her keys? Drop the list? Leave her wallet? Will she find me digging through her closet?
It’s the cat. It’s always the cat.
The cat shoves her paw under the bedroom door. The same paw that knocked my toothbrush into the toilet and created this whole mess. Without a doubt, I know that the cat has knocked over the soda I left on the counter.
I will deal with that mess later.
The mess in front of me needs me more.
The action and movement is this scene is captivating and raises questions, but watch what happens when Suzanne adds the sensory details.
Passage with sensory details:
Before I can sift through the stack of papers in the corner, I hear a crash and freeze. Did she forget her keys? Drop the list? Leave her wallet? Will she find me digging through her closet like a mole rat searching for a worm?
I feel just as naked.
Bang. Drip. Fuck.
It’s the cat. It’s always the cat.
The cat shoves her jellybean-toed paw under the bedroom door. The same paw that smells of shit and pine-scented litter, the same paw that knocked my toothbrush into the toilet and created this whole mess.
The cat meows at me from the other side, taunting me to leave the potential clues behind. Without a doubt, I know that the cat has knocked over the sticky soda I left on the counter.
I will deal with that mess later.
The mess in front of me needs me more.
Sight, sound, scent, and even a humorous simile – these strategically-placed sensory details bring this scene to life, heighten the tension, and allow the reader to experience this moment with the character as it happens in a more engaging way. To read the entire story, you’ll have to buy the book, but for anyone who loves contemporary fiction, it will be a wonderful investment. Plus, the Kindle edition is only six bucks. Click here for Modern Shorts‘ Amazon page.
The final passage is from a friend I met at the Prose and Poetry Getaway in NJ last year – Trish is working on a memoir now, but has many publishing credits. She generously provided an opening passage to a vignette from her published memoir, They Live On: Saying Goodbye to Mom and Dad.
The vignette title is “High Heels.” Here it is without sensory details:
I awake in a facility. My throat tells me my tonsils have indeed been removed. I lie there waiting, not sure what will happen next. I drift in and out of sleep. I am seven.
Then I hear her coming. I instantly know that is my mother. She hugs me. I know that she has postponed or interrupted something important to be with me, know that I am more important to her than any unfinished business. She strokes my head and gives me ginger ale until I drift back to sleep.
Today, more than 40 years later, my mother now lies alone. It is she who awaits a visit, awaits someone to comfort her, to assuage her fears and loneliness. To give her a sip of water. I am the one who brings the outside world into her room. And I too soon leave her alone again.
You can sense the potential impact of these connected moments, but it feels like the author is holding us at an arm’s length, not letting us all the way in. Watch what happens when all of the senses are purposely engaged. It is akin to magic.
Vignette with sensory details:
I awake from an ether-induced stupor, alone in a cold, sterile facility. The pain in my throat tells me my tonsils have indeed been removed. I lie there waiting, not sure what will happen next. Still groggy from the anesthesia, I drift in and out of sleep. I am alone and scared. I am seven.
Then I hear her coming, hear her high heels clicking rapidly down the hall. I instantly know that is my mother. She breezes into my room like a breath of fresh air, exuding her typical high level of energy and self-confidence. She hugs me, and I can feel the excitement of her world of business and politics emanating from her professional garb. I know that she has postponed or interrupted something important to be with me, know that I am more important to her than any unfinished business. She strokes my head and gives me ginger ale until I drift back to sleep. But I can still hear the distant clicking of her high heels when she leaves.
Today, more than 40 years later, it is my high heels that click down a sterile hallway to where my 87-year-old mother now lies alone. It is she who awaits a visit, awaits someone to comfort her, to assuage her fears and loneliness. To give her a sip of water. I am the one who brings the sights and sounds of the outside world into her little room. And I am the one whose heels she hears getting fainter as I too soon leave her alone again.
Not only do the sensory details take it to the publishable level, but they infuse the vignette with power and credibility. The detailed passage is like a punch to the gut – you really feel this moment now with the author and it hurts – she has made us care by incorporating well-chosen and relevant sensory details. You can purchase Trish’s memoir from her site (linked above) or from Amazon if you’d like to read all 300 vignettes.
Notice in all of these example passages the light touch – the authors don’t go overboard and weigh down their prose with too many sensory details – that would be distracting. Instead, they deploy sensory details in a way that adds spice to an already strong and well-developed scene.
Just as you wouldn’t skip the cinnamon when baking cinnamon buns, please don’t skip those spicy sensory details that readers love. Your audience will thank you for including them. :)
When writing for publication (or just sharing), how often do you consider this question: “Who is my audience? Who is my ideal reader?”
Think about who that person is, whether a friend, or a relative, or a spouse, or a co-worker. Thinking about who your ideal reader is can focus your efforts, especially if you intend that person to feel something, or to think differently about some issue.
How best to persuade that ideal reader? What details will he or she respond to?
You may think, “I just want to write my stories and tell them the way that I want and readers will follow.”
Yes, you should write the stories that you want to write – and you should use your own style and voice. But if you plan on anyone else reading what you’ve written, you should think about your audience while you compose so that you have an audience once your work is ready to submit to editors.
Let’s say you want to write a memoir. That’s terrific. Now, who is your ideal reader? A 50-something white woman who stays at home with small children? A 30-something young man with a stressful career in a major U.S. city? A retiree who has survived a life-threatening disease? This is what I mean by knowing your audience. You need to understand who will buy your memoir and who will love it enough to not only finish reading it, but to recommend it to friends.
How about a guest post on a blog? What’s the focus of the blog? Auto detailing? Gardening? Self-help? Once you understand the blog’s overall focus, now you need to figure out who the ideal reader is for that blog. Will lots of technical details interspersed with conversational asides appeal to that reader? Or will a short series of humorous stories that subtly showcase a particular point make more sense?
One more example. Let’s say you want to write for children. Terrific. What age group do you want to write for? Who is your ideal child reader? Is this a story that will appeal to four-year-old boys who love outdoor play and rough-housing? Or is this a small chapter book for 11-year-old girls who suffer from low self-esteem? See the problem? You may want to just start writing – in fact, your entire social network may encourage you to do just that. But let me be your dose of reality: the first step you need to take is to figure out who your audience will be so that you don’t waste time writing down stories that no one wants to read because there is no clear focus on a particular audience.
Understanding your audience means understanding how to reach them, the words and structure to use that will keep them interested, and the organization and style that will appeal to them so that they keep turning the pages or keep scrolling down the screen.
You may think your story is fascinating, but once you understand your intended audience, you will have the knowledge to transform your story into something that others find fascinating as well.
Don’t skip this step: Know your audience to have more publishing success and reach people once you get published.
“I’ve never failed at anything in my life,” he said, earnest and nervously giggling. “And now I can’t fail. I have a family and a mortgage.”
“But what’s the worst thing that would happen? Do you really believe you couldn’t recover? What if you succeeded?”
“I have no choice now.”
I thought, how sad.
To have never experienced failure means you are completely unprepared for it. And to put such incredible pressure on yourself out of a sense of obligation to others to the point of feeling like you have no choice? To expect failure when you try for something? I’ve learned something valuable every time I’ve failed. Every. Single. Time. In fact, my prior failures were instrumental in getting me to this point in my professional and personal life. I wear my failures as badges of honor and proof of my survival and endurance.
Are you afraid of failure? Is that really how you want to live? How you want to make your decisions? From a position of fear?
I often have surprising conversations with people in lots of different contexts – as a teacher, a workshop leader, a friend. But when I hear someone give up on the idea of passion or greatness or career risk because they are afraid or feel trapped, that just makes me sad. I realize a lot of people do this – take the unfulfilling job or less-than career because so many people around them say variations of “that’s too risky!” Or maybe the individual looks around and believes there is too much at stake to take any risk at all. And later, when that unfulfilling career becomes untenable and the person is truly miserable, those same chorus of voices resonate with doubt, determined to make the person remain on a so-called “safe” path.
Worse than failing at something after you’ve tried is to never try in the first place. I’m sure I’m not the only one who was told as a child that my dream job was too risky or there was too much competition, so I should do something more practical. I wanted to be an actor. A stage performer. And at nine, I was admonished that there were too many people trying to have that career, it is a hard way to make a living, it’s very risky, and I’m probably not good enough to compete. I chose my other passion, writing, to which the response was basically the same, but my drive and confidence as a writer (even at nine) was so great that I was able to assert myself and stick with that objective despite the constant naysaying from all of those “caring” people.
I often wonder why families, in particular, seem so driven to crush the dreams of their younger members. The only answer I can come up with is fear. Some sense that taking risks is a bad thing – and that there are some sort of mythological jobs that are “safe” and “easy” to get and keep.
What is your experience with failure? With fear? With naysayers? There’s a line in the show (and movie) Auntie Mame that I absolutely love: “Life’s a banquet! And most poor sons-of-bitches are starving to death!”
Are you going all in with the banquet? Or are you starving? If I could make a recommendation, I would suggest that we all need to live our own lives, take risks, try to follow our passion, and stop listening to the voices telling us to be afraid. Don’t be afraid to risk or to fail. Rather, be afraid of living a life where you never even tried.