By Cheryl Wilson Smart
Maybe getting writing published comes easy for some, but it hasn’t for me. I didn’t sit down at my laptop, write the lovely words, and send them away on golden butterfly wings as the literary world shouted, “Yes! Yes!” The publications are visible. What isn’t visible is the work that leads up to that first publication, painstakingly climbing the ladder one rickety rung at a time, over a period of months, even years. No rung can be over-stepped, some are more rickety than others – study, read, write, research, strategize…submit your work. Then rejection. Piles and piles of rejection, so much rejection you wonder if you can even write at all (last time I checked, my number was closing in on a hundred). It’s a long, slaving time before that first story, essay, or poem hits. When it hits, other publications follow you get noticed. Soon, there’s a flood of emails, Facebook messages, texts and phone calls all geared toward one question –How’d you do it?
The question of how I did it was posed to me so often; I began teaching publishing tricks one-on-one. I spent hours sitting across hopeful and attentive writers picking my brain for the secret. Soon, I was holding workshops, speaking to crowds, sharing my tricks for getting published. So, what gets writing published? Good writing, of course. Equally important though is a savvy strategy for presenting your work.
The writing: It’s true that degrees open doors, particularly those geared toward studying the craft of writing. But that’s not to say there aren’t other avenues toward finding success in writing. If a formal education in writing is not possible or desired, writing workshops and writing groups are a valuable alternative, as well as a good companion to formal education. Nothing strengthens writing like strong critique from other writers. At least half of getting work published is to offer something worthy of being published. The way to create something ready to be published is to study writing and practice. A lot. And revise. A lot.
Starting small: Every writer has those moments where we’re sure we’ve written the most beautiful thing and surely the New Yorker or the Atlantic or Southern Writers Magazine (J)will publish it immediately! Slow down, amazing writer person. You may get there, but it’s a process. Remember the ladder? Say you’ve been climbing that ladder. You’ve studied your craft, honed your writing skills, you have a polished draft to send out. But where? Research! Literary journals are a tremendous resource to emerging and established writers. Go to your library, read every lit journal and magazine you can find (search in Unbound Periodicals), see which ones are a good fit for your writing. Send your work there. If you’re writing apples, but peddling your apples to orange dealers, you’ll only frustrate yourself and those to whom you are sending work. Make the time, read the journals, target the ones appropriate for your writing, make a list, then be brave and send your work. Other resources for researching literary magazines and journals is Duotrope, CRWROPPS, (Creative Writers Opportunities List), New Pages, and The Writer's Chronicle. These are your research tools. And don’t forget online journals and magazines. Publishing through online-lit journals and magazines is the quickest way to get your name in the literary circle. Try them.
Cover letters and bios: Once you’ve earned a few publications, its fine to say, “Here’s my stuff. Thanks for considering it.” If you’re anxiously seeking a first publication, however, be creative. Humor the editors, offer something anecdotal, and tell something interesting about yourself – can you tie carhopping in the eighties to writing? Of course you can, you’re a writer. Think of your cover letter as a dangling carrot. Most editors see hundreds, even thousands of submissions. Say something in your letter that will make an editor want to open your submission first. Be just as creative with your bio. A bio is a synopsis of your life as a writer – where you’ve been published, awards you’ve won, where you’ve studied. Blah-blah-blah. Bios are more intriguing when they trace other segments of your life. Do you have a pet chicken named Princess Fluffy Butt (that’s a real chicken name, Google it, you know you’re going to). Do you collect airline barf bags, unused hopefully (also real…Google).
Back to rejection: If you’ve chosen writing as your path (or it chose you), rejection is the stone on the path that bruises your heel. Toughen up. Usually rejection doesn’t mean your writing isn’t good, it may mean your work is not a good fit for where you’re sending it (See above: Research!), it may mean your writing needs more revision, it may mean the pages are full already. As Sylivia Plath noted – “I love my rejection slips. They show me I try.”
Helping others: Writing is gratifying. Getting writing published is marvelous. Writers are not in competition with one another, we are in it with one another. Help fellow writers – especially emerging writers – find their way to success. That was my motivation for this blog post.
Cheryl Wilson Smart is a final year MFA candidate studying Creative Nonfiction at the University of Memphis, where she is recipient of the 2015 Creative Writing Award in Nonfiction. She is current Managing Editor, past Assistant Managing, and past Nonfiction Editor of The Pinch. She has publications in The Collagist, Appalachian Heritage, Cleaver Magazine, Word Riot, The Citron Review, Little Patuxent Review, Pine Hills Review, Apeiron Review, and others. Her essay, "Horses in the Wrinkle" has been nominated for The Best American Essays 2016. See cherylsmartwriter.com to read other works.