How Are You Ever Going to Learn?

December 1, 2014 § 11 Comments

"You could tighten that sentence, boy."

“You could tighten that sentence, boy.”

It’s easier than ever before to get published, and maybe that’s a bad thing. Sure, it sucks to be on the wrong side of a portal guarded by the triple-headed Cerebus of Agents, Publishers and Bookstores slavering and barking at the dauntless New Writer. But the function of gatekeepers is quality control, and the long and tedious journey to publication also helped writers refine their work.

Many of us (me! me!) keep blogs, and it’s our daily prerogative to release our thoughts in more or less-finished states. We send out work to literary journals and commercial magazines. We go to conferences and Tweet our little hearts out to make ‘connections,’ to get noticed, to get published. Sometimes we give up, format the doc ourselves, upload to Createspace and transform into someone-with-a-book-out with the press of a button. But along the way, we can lose sight of the purpose of the journey–not just to get published, but to get good.

And how can we keep our eyes on the prize of quality work when we’re poor, hungry, and sick to death of hearing ‘no’?

At Medium, E. Stephens laments the loss of the journalism apprenticeship:

…it does seem logical and obvious that a writer who is able to spend years sharpening his or her craft, who has an editor constantly critiquing their work and helping them sharpen and polish their prose, and who has a modest amount of financial support while doing so, will more often than not produce better work than a writer with no such backing, no such availability, and no editor.

Grad school costs. Classes cost. The constant submissions, the constant rejections cost our psyche and our esteem without actually helping us get any better (when was the last time you got helpful feedback on a rejection? When was the last time you had time to give helpful feedback to an author who wasn’t there yet?).

Stephens traces the history of the artistic apprenticeship of writers in journalism, and laments the loss of that path.

Read the essay at Medium.



Allison K Williams is Brevity’s Social Media Editor.

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§ 11 Responses to How Are You Ever Going to Learn?

  • suekush says:

    Just as I was prepping to give my creative nonfiction students an “inspiring” lecture on the the writing life. What do we tell the children who were born to write?

    • Allison K Williams says:

      Write anyway. And try to have a day job that you don’t care about doing well at, gives you a lot of empty thinking time, and where it’s easy to steal photocopies.

      I’m not kidding.

  • Ugh, on a day I’ve had two rejections, finding out it’s easier than ever to get published is a particularly hard blow! Ha.

    (But I understand your point, and agree with it).

    • Allison K Williams says:


      But then again, it’s easier to publish ourselves–it might well be harder to get someone else to publish us? Especially now that writing is sort of a trendy hobby?

  • Yes!
    I’ve been flogging my manuscript for more than 2 years – the many (generous) rejections from thoughtful agents have certainly helped me hone my craft. And I keep at it.
    So I have scant sympathy for the almost daily visits, calls, emails I get at my bookstore job – from people who have self-published a book and now righteously believe they deserve not only a spot of precious store real estate but an event.

    • Allison K Williams says:

      Augh! Yeah, that’s such a rotten thing, where the sense of entitlement is detached from the reality of publishing. Stand firm, fellow writer 🙂

  • Jan Priddy says:

    The last useful feedback I received was after an essay was accepted. The feedback on rejections is often useless. One reader told me the narrative voice of a character was too old for the story. *sigh* That’s why I’d chosen to write in third person, so that the poetry could happen. Sometimes I know a story or essay will not appeal to a young reader—the reader who is the first reader for a journal. I think: This will never get past the 20-year-old to someone who cares. But then again, should I be writing for everyone, including that young person?

  • Jess Alter says:

    It can be a lonely world as a content creator. I agree that mentors to help us hone our crafts would be a miraculous boon. Most of us are left to turn to our equals. However, I’ve found that turning to others in the grinding slog toward mass-market publication helps. I also voraciously read those polished works which have enjoyed mentorship. It helps, too.

    Now, I’m off to read the article from Medium which you linked here.

    Thank you so much for an interesting and informative read, Allison!

    • Allison K Williams says:

      You’re welcome! Yeah, I think for me the best thing to do has been to attach myself to my friends who are a step or two ahead, for manuscript reads, support, and introductions to their agents.

  • dhonour says:

    It’s exhausting. The whole of it.

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