Writing original work is obviously the lifeblood of a writer. But that’s only one part of the equation if you want to be a published writer. Just ask my students. After teaching the genre of creative nonfiction in my Advanced Composition class for four semesters, and requiring that students not only write two pieces for publication (one short, one medium-length), but also requiring that they seek out literary journals beyond our academic walls to submit to, and then requiring them to actually submit their work, several have had their stories accepted and published.
These stories all began in my class. Some from random writing prompts or class conversations, some from deep-seated ideas that were finally given permission to be released through writing in a safe and accepting space. However extraordinary it is for college students to have competitive publications while still in school, I want you to think about how they achieved this accomplishment.
Are these students struck with natural talent and genius?
Do they have some secret stash of skill that they had prior to my class?
Am I really that good?
While I would argue that all of these students do have natural inclination towards language and writing – they are all frequent readers as well – they did not get published because of these facts. And I will acknowledge that I am a good teacher – I do help people get published, even outside of my classroom. But neither of these is the reason my students achieved publishing success. Their work was accepted for publication because they spent the time revising, receiving feedback, enacting that feedback, making more revisions, and polishing the sentences and structure to a high gloss – all within a fifteen week semester. Their acceptances came a few months later, well after the class was over.
I teach advanced writing this way, with a requirement to submit work to journals of the students’ choosing, because this is the writer’s life. Every student who enters my class has a chance to be published if they put in the time to revise and polish. I’m honest with them about this from day one and some really want it, so put in the necessary effort. Some just want a grade, and that is really okay. All of my students work hard, write, revise, and polish, but a few put in the time and energy to hit the next level. That’s all I want for them and for anyone who works with me. I want to give them the chance and the space and the opportunity to excel if they so choose.
I’m also honest with them about rejection. I encourage them to submit elsewhere if at first the piece is rejected, but I know that many of them don’t follow up this way, which is a shame. Lots of beautiful, poignant, funny, and devastating stories move through my classroom and many deserve to be shared with a broader audience. But that sharing will only ever happen if the writer is dedicated to the point of carving out time to revise every week.
Having time to write is one thing; having time to revise doesn’t sound fun, but is absolutely essential if you want to hit the next level and get published. There’s no way around this step. If you really want it…you want to be a published writer…then don’t skip this step.
When school is in session, I dedicate several hours one day each week, just for revision. It doesn’t matter if the text is an academic article destined for a peer-reviewed journal, a creative nonfiction piece for a literary journal, or a blog post for a web site.
I find the time to revise, and you should, too. You’ll be happy you did. 🙂
If you’re like me, you have some unresolved issues floating around in your brainpan. These unresolved issues have never been written about in any real or substantial way because family. I have been essentially holding my writer’s tongue for my whole life because of that nagging concern of hurting someone. However, this is the exact wrong impulse and the longer I live, write, and teach about writing, I realize almost daily how wrong that thinking is, and how detrimental not only to storytelling, but also to the spirit, the muse, the swirling neurons that become writing ideas.
What I have discovered is a revelation to me that I hope you will consider if you are in a similar headspace: Purging the blockage is necessary to move forward AND to generate fresh ideas. The unresolved issues create a block that only writing can release. For instance, I really want to write about my garden in a philosophical way. But I find myself unable to do so even when surrounded by its vitality, beauty, life, and color. During my last writing group meeting, it occurred to me that my unresolved issues are the thing blocking my ability to see clearly, and think in a philosophical and not entirely trite way about my garden. My writing group confirmed this and encouraged me to start writing to clear the blockage.
My mental block is slowly being worked out in a creative nonfiction piece that I hope will be published eventually, but even the writing of it is freeing my mind substantially from the burden. I can only encourage you to do the same. My colleague and friend has this great writing strategy that I now use sometimes – and used to create the bits and pieces for the longer anti-mental-block essay: She calls these bits and pieces “islands.” I just love this concept.
An island is a short snippet, an anecdote, a partially developed scene. A conversation. Something small, bite-sized. It may only take 15 minutes to write it out. Maybe you have a flash of insight about one moment in your story – write that island. Nothing else, just that one island. My friend has used this to great success – she showed me a large stack of printed paper the other day – the accumulation of islands she’s been writing for a couple of years now. The stack looks like a manuscript – at least in size and weight. She obviously has some work to do to bring these islands together into a longer, more cohesive piece, but what a genius idea!
However you decide to tackle your blockage, I can only recommend starting today. You will feel so much better. And with each anecdote, conversation, and moment that you write, you will feel physically lighter as the burden starts to lift. The idea of writing everyday is a romantic one and, some would say, a practical necessity for anyone who wants to be a writer. I say, do what you can when you can, but keep at it whenever you can. And don’t let the blockage fester – release it for your own benefit, even if it never sees an editor’s inbox.
Start the purge today! 🙂
In my classrooms and workshops, I strive to create safe, welcoming writing communities where individuals feel free to explore ideas, stories, and concepts without judgment. After all, we need those spaces to get started. The judgment – of editors, professors, critical friends – will come later. But in the beginning, we need that soft, friendly embrace where anything is possible and everyone loves you. Let’s go there together.
When my schedule allows, I will post writing prompts for you to play with. I encourage you to write something and to share those initial efforts in the comment section, or even your response to the prompt – tell us what happened when you sat down to write. After all, some of these prompts will lead you down a path toward publication – I’ve seen that happen often enough to be confident in that statement.
Give it a try! 🙂
Writing Prompt: What’s Your Thing?
Close your eyes and think about one thing that you know how to do so well, you are an expert. You can do this thing almost without thinking. You may have never received any formal training in this thing, but this is YOUR thing. You’re so good at it that friends and family admire you for it and sometimes ask your advice about how they can do it.
Really envision yourself doing this thing. Maybe it was the moment that you first discovered this thing. Maybe it was the moment you became skilled enough that this thing became second nature. Maybe it was a recent moment when you did this thing and something extraordinary happened as a result.
Now open your eyes and write about that thing. Any way you want, any moment you want, just start writing. See what happens.
“Thank you for sending us your brief essay ‘Handlining for students’. This one came very close, up to the final round of decision making, in fact, but we’ve decided to pass.
I don’t know if that makes you feel good or if such ‘close but no cigar’ news is just hard to hear, but we have been blessed with a large number of excellent submissions lately, and hope that you understand that we can only publish a small fraction of the material we receive.
We hope that you will consider us again”
I received the above rejection in January 2013 for a piece that I wrote in the Fall of 2012. Publishing takes time and as you likely have heard, rejection is part of the game. However, falling apart and giving up when your work is rejected is the wrong response. (Note that I said your WORK was rejected…not you…an important distinction.)
Editors and editorial boards have many personalities and quirks and likes and dislikes, in addition to the myriad goals they might have for a given issue or series of issues. Yes, your work may not be up to their standards, but it is also likely that the reasons your work was rejected is because it just didn’t fit. This is a hard reality to swallow because writers have a penchant for internalizing wounds. And often, we perceive rejection of our writing as a wound. That’s not healthy, so you need to work on that and start concentrating on those positive rejections.
(Did she just say positive rejection?)
Yes, I did. A positive rejection is like the one I shared here. Notice the second sentence – that’s the important piece that elevates this rejection above a form letter:
“This one came very close, up to the final round of decision making, in fact, but we’ve decided to pass.”
If your mind is in the right space and you are willing to accept that there are different types of rejections, then focus on the first two parts of that statement. My piece came “very close,” it made it to the “final round”…stop.
That gives me great hope. In fact, it inspired me to send it, unrevised, to another publication. They responded in a similar positive way – my piece was debated and discussed, but ultimately didn’t make it. In fact, this second journal also added that they would like to see more work from me in the future. That’s the golden ticket of rejections – an open door to submit more work.
Note the final sentence in my positive rejection above: “We hope that you will consider us again.”
You may think editors say this to every writer. Trust me, they don’t. They only make such statements when they really do want to see more of your work.
Every writer needs these type of rejections because newly opened doors and people who like what you write are your ticket to future publications. I can’t tell you how many people I know who get this kind of golden ticket rejection and stop. They don’t submit the positively rejected piece anywhere else and they don’t submit anything new to the editors who asked them for more. If we work together and you try to do this, I won’t let you.
When you write for publication, strive for polished, clear prose, but don’t revise it to death. You don’t want to kill the passion and spark of your initial idea, but you do want to revise enough to get a positive rejection. Because that is an important accomplishment and necessary step toward publication. The positive rejection assures you that you are doing something right, and reminds you to keep going, no matter how much it stings.
Persistence, perseverance, and positive rejections, people! 🙂