For fledgling writers, submit your best work with caution

by Beacon Staff • October 13, 2011

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strongBy: Morgan Baker // Beacon Columnist/strong

Almost every semester, I come across some gems. Some are more polished than others, but each is unique, brilliant, and something others might find valuable.

When I find such a piece of writing from a student in my magazine or creative nonfiction class, I encourage the writer to send the piece to a magazine, newspaper, or literary journal. Sometimes they get published, sometimes they don’t, but the experience is always educational.

This is not to say that the only students who should send work out are those tapped by teachers.  Any, and all, student writers should send their material out if, and when they have reworked, rewritten, and revised their pieces until they are sure they cannot improve it.

Students should recognize, however, that what might get an “A” in class doesn’t necessarily get published in the real world, because editors and teachers do not share the same mission.

While teachers and editors both look and hope for stellar writing, teachers are here to encourage, motivate, and lead, while editors want finished products. Teachers can sometimes be forgiving when they discover typos in student work, and sometimes they grade based on improvement over the semester.

Editors don’t care how much you’ve improved, and they aren’t forgiving.  Typos represent laziness.  And you’d better know your genre. Editors want to put together the best publication they can with excellent essays, poems, articles, and stories that match their publication’s editorial mission.

Last year, Dinty Moore’s literary website, Brevity, was bombarded with submissions as part of the requirements of several writing courses, including a community college system-wide first year writing class. Almost 300 students sent in work that most knew wasn’t up to par and even admitted so in cover letters. Their eagerness to be published was not difficult for Moore to understand.

“As a writer who has often submitted work out of wishful thinking more than reality, I understand the urge to get the work out there, into the submissions stream,” he told me in an email.

But it’s important to wait out the impulsive urges. Writers at all levels need to be judicious about sending their material out.  It’s important to recognize in your own work that which still needs to be revised and that which is ready for submission. Most writers, myself included, know when their writing needs more fine tuning if they’re being honest with themselves.

When editors and teachers talk about rewriting and revising, they don’t mean writers should send out a second or even a third draft. They mean writers should rework, rework, and rework their pieces some more until they can’t find an awkward sentence, redundant thought, or mismatched tense. After you’ve done that, stick it in a drawer for an hour, a day, or a week, then look at it again, and read it aloud. If you still think it sounds fabulous, send it.

“Take your best essay and read it out loud to yourself, or read two pages of it, then read two pages of an essay just published in the magazine you want to submit to,” Moore said. “If your ear tells you that your work is just as tight and vivid as the published essay, then send away. But listen to your sentences, not your good intentions.”

However, even after proofing and rewriting, writers should be prepared for the almost-inevitable rejection letter.

The unfortunate reality is that most submissions get rejected more often than they’re accepted. As a freelancer, I claim many more rejection letters to my name than acceptance letters. But if I had let denials stop me, I wouldn’t have anything in print.

As I tell students in magazine writing and creative nonfiction, however, the sure-fire way to not get published is to keep your writing to yourself. If you get turned down, pat yourself on the back. You’re taking that first step to becoming a professional writer.

While the argument can be made that students shouldn’t submit their undergraduate writing to publications because they’re still learning their craft, I think they’ll write better when they produce for a “real” market rather than a class.

While an “A” is great validation, nothing compares to seeing your name in print and getting paid.  That is real motivation.  My first feature story was published when I was a graduate student.  That was by far more exciting than the grade I received for the same piece in class.  I have the article framed in my study, but I can’t remember the grade.

While I don’t think there’s any harm in submitting to publications while you’re a student, I do think this is precious time you have now to write and just write. You should take advantage of having teachers and readers around you to coach you. Write and revise, write and revise, and then if you really want to see what the submission process is like, go for it.

emMorgan Baker is a part-time professor of wrting, literature, and publishing and a Beacon columnist. Her work has been published in The Boston Globe and The New York Times Magazine./em