Updated March 2023
Here at Writer’s Relief, our clients come to us because they want to get published. So we often find ourselves in discussions with writers about the difficulties of writing for the market. A writer who is considering writing for the market might feel his or her creativity is being undermined by the desire to get published. Will editors like this poem even though it’s full of poetry turnoffs? Is my short story so long that it will be hard for an editor to justify publishing it? Is my essay too explicit or erotic for many lit mag editors’ tastes? Should I change what I’m doing so that people will like it more and I’ll be more likely to get published? Some writers become so caught up in questions of marketability that they no longer have confidence in their writing. But there IS a way to write what you want without driving yourself crazy with questions of marketability. Here are our suggestions.
A Three-Step Approach To Writing For The Market And Submitting To Literary Journals
Step One: Write.
In Peter Elbow’s book Writing With Power, he points out that writing a first draft is a generative, creative process. It’s a building up, a layering, an exploration during which you forge into new territory. A first draft of a creative writing piece is strictly about creating—not about second-guessing, self-editing, or censoring.
It’s also not the time to start thinking about things like marketability, publishing trends, or even word count. When you sit down to write a first draft, just write. Let impulse and emotion rule. Follow your every whim down every path. Often, your best work will happen when you’re not trying to force it—so put thoughts of future readers aside.
Step Two: Edit.
Peter Elbow also notes that, unlike the creative process, the editorial process is not primarily generative in nature: instead, it’s critical, self-aware, and intellectual. Editing is about stripping down, honing, and polishing—as opposed to creating and building up.
So you might think that the time to start considering the needs of the publishing market should happen during this second step—but you’d be wrong! It can be dangerous to edit with a particular publisher in mind if you’re thinking of publishing in literary journals, because doing so could cause you to rein in your natural voice. You should edit carefully, with your left brain fully engaged, but don’t edit for anyone but yourself. We’ve said it before, and we’ll say it again: You are your most important reader.
When you edit, make choices that feel natural, right, and authentic. Forget questions of who you’ll submit to or who might like your WIP (work in progress). Just follow your instincts toward the choices that are going to make your work the best it can possibly be.
Step Three: Evaluate.
Once you’re happy with your work, it’s time to consider where you might submit your writing for consideration. You’ll also need to consider what you want. Are you adamant about not changing a single comma? Or are you prepared to balance creative decisions with career decisions?
Ready To Make Submissions? Here Are Your Options:
Option One: Don’t make any adjustments to the piece, even if it is a “difficult” piece to publish due to word count or just a lack of trendiness. If you go this route, understand that the number of markets available may be limited and that you may have an uphill battle. But it may be a sacrifice worth making, since the rewards can be especially satisfying if you succeed. You can always try approaching the markets that are open to your type of work, then make changes later on if those submissions don’t work out.
Option Two: Make some adjustments—tweaks that are in line with your vision and integrity as a writer—in order to ensure that a good number of markets will be open to your work right from the start. Maybe your short story could be just a little tighter. Or your poem could be modified to fit on one page. Maybe your thriller could be just a little longer to hit the genre-fiction word count sweet spot. If making these sorts of changes doesn’t compromise your creative vision, go ahead and edit (but save your original draft just in case you don’t like your changes!). Then, begin submitting with the confidence that you have maximized your opportunities.
QUESTION: As a writer, how do you balance staying true to your own voice with marketability?