The other day I spoke to a woman who told me she wrote a creative non-fiction essay for the first time in her life. Francesca was now trying to get it published in wide-circulation magazines and was getting a lot of rejections. “What should I do?” she asked me.
“Well, you have to ask yourself this key question,” I told her. “What’s more important to you: re-writing the essay to fit the needs of the magazine or writing the essay just for you?”
Francesca hesitated. Then she said she wanted to publish it as it is.
Well, that’s the answer that everyone wants to hear but that rarely happens.
When you write, ask yourself: what’s more important? To publish the essay, which means that you’ll need to do a lot of studying of magazines and what they print, or simply reap the joy from writing the essay?
Both answers are correct. Neither answer is wrong. But you can’t write an essay or a story or an article and want a magazine or newspaper to print it if it doesn’t meet their editorial needs.
Every magazine has a style. If you want to publish a piece in Commentary, let’s say, you need to look at what the editors want. They don’t publish cartoons. They don’t publish articles on fashion. They don’t publish articles on kale chips. They publish serious –how else can I put this? – commentary. And short stories.
So, Francesca has a choice. As writers, we all do. We can decide to write for ourselves and enjoy the process of writing, or we can study the market and then write the piece to fit its needs.
Let’s say you want to write a story for The New Yorker. Go to the magazine and look at the stories. Take Margaret Atwood’s brilliant story, “Stone Mattress.” The first sentence reads: “At the outset Verna had not intended to kill anyone.” Now, as an exercise, write a story using that sentence as your first sentence. (But change Verna to Stevie or Charlotte.) Set your timer for as long as you think you can sit and write uninterruptus. Let’s say, thirty minutes. Get pen and paper ready. (Or computer but that’s harder for this kind of exercise.) On your mark, get set, go. Write and write and write. Don’t stop to correct. Don’t stop to think. Let your muse do the thinking for you.
Then stop and put it away. When you have time again, start from where you left off and keep going. You will have a different story then Atwood’s. (You will also have to get rid of that first sentence.)
If you’re dreaming of writing an article for The Wall Street Journal, study their style. In an oped piece, you need an opening sentence stating your position, two or three points, and a closing argument. You need less than 700 words. You need to get to the point. You need to say something that nobody else has said. “Paid Maternity Leave is Good for Business,” claims Susan Wojcicki. “I was Google’s first employee to go on maternity leave…” She had a point to make and she made it.
The key to writing success is to ask yourself, What do you really want? Then decide, what am I going to do about it?
This rule also applies to life. We have to look at the situation we’re facing. We might not like it. But we need to accept it and then decide what we want to do about it.