Last year, I interviewed a publishing journalist and freelance writer about job opportunities in writing. Her advice to me: “Employers want to know your life has been moving towards this job, that you have a real interest in this area and it’s not just a whim you came up with last week. They want to see you’ve made tracks.”
Publishing is no different. When you send a manuscript off to publishers, part of what they’ll read is the cover letter (more on that later), and part of what they’ll look for is whether you’ve had any publishing experience. This is true whether your manuscript is a sheaf of poems, an article for GQ or a novel for adolescents. The more experience you have, the more likely they are to take your work seriously. Below are some good ways to start making tracks toward publication.
[DON’T BE PICKY] Any publication is good publication, including your hometown newspaper, your office newsletter or the church bulletin. Even if it doesn’t have your name on it, someone somewhere knows you wrote it, and connections happen in strange ways. Publishing, in the vast majority of cases, is not like modeling: Atalent scout is not going to swoop down on unsuspecting you as you sit (unsuspectingly) in a cafe, minding your own business. On the other hand, a talent scout (a.k.a. editor) may well swoop down on an article you wrote in a paper you thought had a circulation of 12. There are obviously no guarantees, but the more you write, the better your chances of getting noticed.
[JUST WRITE] Write literally anything, and do your best. Do all your writing consciously. Even emails. Of course, use common sense; most people don’t have two hours to spend on a one-line message. But if you are interested in being a writer, you must take writing seriously; you must seize every opportunity to practice. You must learn to love words wherever you find them, and pay attention to how they’re put together. Hear the music of sentences. Care about grammar, not because you’ve swallowed stickler-juice, but because you have a deep respect for language. Many rules can be broken in writing, but they can only be broken well by those who know them. Don’t get the apostrophes wrong. Learn punctuation. And do all of this not just because someone could be watching: Do it because words matter, no matter who they’re for.
You will find that time spent writing is never wasted. Be willing to struggle for 10 minutes with the word order in a sentence. Or for half an hour. It will be time well spent, because you will come out of it knowing words better, knowing your own voice better. Even that horrible paper for school that was like pulling teeth to write was worth it, because you were paying attention to words. In all of this, don’t forget to have fun. You don’t learn to walk by running marathons; don’t beat yourself up when a piece of writing simply falls apart and everything sounds awkward. Be silly sometimes in writing. Play with the words. Try new things. Taking writing seriously does not mean getting depressed about it. Taking writing seriously, at its core, is about fascination, about the giddy joy of being able, sometimes, to say exactly what you mean.
[AND READ] Read for two reasons. One, because you love to, and reading good writing is essential to doing good writing. And two, because few things annoy editors as much as submissions that show total lack of knowledge of the publication. Magazines each have a different style and feel; even publishing houses have a style to them. It’s usually easier to get an essay, article, story or poem published than a book. Most writers start there. So take a day and go to the library or a local bookstore. If you write short fiction, ask the librarian which journals and magazines publish stories, and start reading them. Pick one you like and subscribe, or find some way of reading it on a regular basis. Friends are useful here: If you have a small group of interested people, you can each subscribe to one publication and pass them around.
The library can be overwhelming. Any clues you can get to narrow things down will be helpful. One place to start is the writers you like; especially youngish, recently-established writers are helpful. Get a book of their poems, essays or stories, and look either in the front or the back; somewhere there will be a list of periodicals where some of the material in this book was first published. Check those out for starters.
For the most part, if you like what an editor publishes, he or she is likely to like what you write. And if you frequently think, “I could have written this,” or “I wish I had written this,” as you’re reading, that’s a good sign. Find magazines or journals that publish the kind of writing you want to do, and submit there.
[AND THEN SUBMIT]
Know where to send your writing. Be guided by your tastes in reading. Be aware that generally speaking, the bigger the circulation (for magazines, newspapers and journals), the harder it is to get a submission accepted. The bigger they are, the more experience (i.e. published work) you’ll need to get them even to give you the time of day. Take poetry as an example (a bad one if you’re wanting to make money): The Atlantic Monthly gets around 60,000 submissions a year. Your cover letter to them would need to prove you’re worth paying attention to; otherwise, they just don’t have the time. So start small and move up. But every now and then, send a submission somewhere totally out of your league. Just for the heck of it. You never know.
References. As almost everywhere else, relationships are invaluable. If you’ve taken any classes with local writers, ask their permission to use their names in your cover letter. In your reading, you should also pay close attention to editorials, particularly those little blurbs the executive editor will usually write for the beginning of a magazine/journal. If you can make some small connection to one of those editorials, that’s good. For example: in a recent piece, an editor wrote about “thesaurii” (plural of thesaurus). In the cover letter for my next submission, I’m going to ask him whether that really has two ‘i’s.
Cover Letters. Generally, these should be somewhat official in form, but there’s no hard and fast rule. Put your address at the top, the date, and start “Dear Atlantic Monthly Poetry Editors, To Whom it May Concern:” or something similar. If you know the name of the editor who might be reading your submission, include it in the “to” line. In the body of the letter, talk a little about yourself. List publishing experience, and mention what you like about their publication. If you can, list a few specific pieces you enjoyed reading that were published recently; this will prove to them you actually know what you’re talking about. The letter doesn’t need to be long, but make sure your writing isn’t sloppy (get someone to proofread). Take your cue from the tone of the publication, and don’t be afraid to use humor if it seems appropriate.
[AND CLEAR OUT A DRAWER FOR REJECTION LETTERS]
Because you’re gonna get a lot of them. Even on your best work. The single most important factor in your publishing career will be whether you keep sending out submissions even after getting turned down. When you read yet another “Thank you for submitting. We are sorry …” just remember you’re in good company. Most serious writers really do have a large drawer full of rejections. Dr. Seuss is an example: His first book, And to Think That I Saw it on Mulberry Street, was rejected by 26 publishers.
The world of publishing is a good place for Winston Churchill’s advice: “Never, never, never, never give up.”[Stephanie Gehring is a 23-year-old self-employed portrait artist, high school math tutor and freelance writer. She spent the first 16 years of her life in Germany and lives in Portland, Ore.]