Publishing Advice: The Best and The Worst
By Becky Tuch
There is a lot of advice out there for writers trying to perfect their material and send it out into the world. But how much of the advice we receive is in our best interest? What should we heed, and what should we discard? I asked some writers and editors for the best and worst of publishing advice. Here is what they said:
Stace Budzko, writer:
BEST ADVICE: “Keep hope in the mail.” - Pamela Painter
This speaks to the idea that no matter how brilliant our stories may be, in the end the effort to publish is often left to stupid luck. So, try we must. With thought. Relentlessly.
WORST ADVICE: “Your story is too unconventional, too ambitious.”- Rejection letter received on the same day the story was picked up by another journal
This speaks to the perception that there is a standard way to do creative things. If so, where would the world be without the DIY attitudes of EE Cummings, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Radiohead, et al?
Randy Susan Meyers, author of THE MURDERER’S DAUGHTERS:
BEST ADVICE: My agent’s insisting that I revise my manuscript yet one more time before we sent it out. There are a few things I’ve never regretted afterward: exercising, cleaning the house, and improving the manuscript one more time.
WORST ADVICE: When I told myself “how bad could it be?” to say yes to my mother-in-law’s request to read my work-in-progress. I am now and forever known as writing ‘sex novels.’
BEST ADVICE: Make sure to always have a story in the mail to add hope to any rejection.
WORST ADVICE: Your cover letter doesn't matter. It might not matter much, but let's face it, we're creatures of impressions, so I think it's always a factor, even if small.
Ethan Gilsdorf, author of FANTASY FREAKS AND GAMING GEEKS:
BEST ADVICE: Don't publish too early in your career. It'll go right to your head, and more importantly, get your expectations all outta whack. Also, make sure the piece -- the poem, story, essay, whatever -- is ready. You don't want to publish something that later you'll regret, or that you weren't all that proud of.
WORST ADVICE: Don't publish too early in your career.
Rob Arnold, writer and managing editor of FENCE:
BEST ADVICE: Embrace the pain of rejection. The sting you feel when a poem or story or essay is rejected is the sting of authenticity. It means that, even if the piece isn't quite ready for publication or doesn't quite fit in with a magazine's aesthetic, it matters. It means you care, that you've invested yourself in your writing. If rejection didn't hurt, how else would we, as writers, know the process mattered? That the words we put to page are worth being placed in others' hands? So let it hurt. Let it matter. Then keep writing.
WORST ADVICE: Name dropping and "networking" will help you get published. In fact, most editors and writers—and humans, it turns out—are highly attuned to ingenuous over familiarity, and it probably hinders more than it helps. Instead, let your work speak for itself. When you do get published, you'll know why, and that publication will mean much more than one gained through perceived social pressure.
BEST ADVICE: My personal favorite piece of great writing advice came out of a workshop I was in many, many years ago. My piece was on the table. One of the instructors turned to the group and (through gritted teeth) said, “It’s clear this woman can write, but why is she writing this shit?” That was a pivotal moment for me – I learned that narrative requires a worthy topic.
WORST ADVICE: This came, rather indirectly, from an old and aged family friend. As a young thing in my twenties, gin and tonic in hand, I timidly confessed I wanted to be a writer. The older woman swirled her scotch on the rocks and told me she'd always wanted to be an opera singer. I was stunned; she was renowned for her inability to carry a tune. So I blurted, "But you can't sing!" She smiled a crooked little smile and said, "Precisely, my dear. Precisely."
Jenna Blum, author of THOSE WHO SAVE US:
BEST ADVICE: Do. (As in, keep going.)
WORST ADVICE: Don't. (As in, don't give up your day job to write.)
Leslie Greffenius, writer:
BEST ADVICE: Send your work only to places where you are sure you would like to be published.
WORST ADVICE: Your work doesn't have to be perfect (in your own eyes) before you send it for publication.
Don Lee, author of the forthcoming THE COLLECTIVE:
BEST ADVICE: When you think a story is absolutely, positively ready to go out, wait. Leave it alone for a while—at least two weeks. Then look at it again, and have some friends look at it. No doubt there will be something that could be better. When you get to the stage where the only thing you're doing is putting in commas and then a week later removing them, it's ready.
WORST ADVICE: Don't listen to any advice that tells you to describe your work in query or cover letters with language that will "hook" the reader. It'll only backfire on you, making you (and your work) sound insipid. Don't try to "hook" readers with some type of zinger in the first paragraphs of your stories, either.
Edmond Caldwell, author of HUMAN WISHES / ENEMY COMBATANT:
BEST ADVICE: An Ad Reinhardt quote that isn't publishing advice – “Art is art. Everything else is everything else.”
WORST ADVICE: I can't choose a single worst. All publishing advice is bad advice, and most writing advice is really publishing advice.
Becky Tuch is the founding editor of The Review Review.