Learning to Fish: the Under-Labor of Writing

June 25, 2019 § 15 Comments

By Katharine Coldiron

As online writing communities proliferate, new writers flock to groups that include members of all experience levels, asking some of the same questions over and over again. Some questions are difficult to research independently—seeking a consensus of opinion or a specific sliver of information—but other questions could, and should, have been Googled first.

Starting to write is overwhelming, I know. Annie Proulx I am not, and yet even I have been asked “how do I know where to submit my stories?” more often than I can count. Just because I’ve done it before. I suspect that new writers are often so worried about starting that they want to talk to another human being about it, even if that human being isn’t particularly impressive. In grad school, I was asked so many times where and how to submit short stories, I wrote a series of blog posts about the question and related ones. In online groups, I refer curious new writers to this series of posts at least monthly.

I’m hardly the only person to write helpful blog posts aimed at beginning writers. Any online search reveals a boatload—a yachtload—of opinions about market and submissions. Maybe this is part of the problem; maybe there’s simply too much out there, so overwhelmed young writers post “How do I know where to submit?” instead of sorting through Google results, knowing that a human will offer a narrower, less intimidating place to begin.

That troubles me. Online communities are poor substitutes for the kind of genuine mentorship that can give a young writer the aesthetic foundation and emotional stability to persist in a difficult career. Plus, dashing off a post with a broad question betrays a desire for the easiest way. It shifts the labor of research onto the answerers, rather than the questioner. It’s akin to skipping a seminar, then asking at the next class, “What’d we do last week?” It’s the student’s job to find out and make up what she missed, and—crucially—not to waste the time of the other students, who are ready to get on with that week’s class.

This is the labor underneath writing: research, trial and error, reading. Hours of browsing online content to see if your work is a good fit. Honing queries, word by word; mourning lost opportunities (and determining to do better next time) due to not reading the submission guidelines down to the last comma; poring over prize-winning collections and pieces to figure out what makes their work different from yours. Pitching and following up. Writing interview questions. Crappy spreadsheets.

It’s hard, annoying labor, but it’s not possible to outsource. You have to learn how to do it. Most of learning how to do it happens on your own.

Asking other people to do or explain the under-labor of writing will make you more helpless and, ultimately, less successful; it will mean always buying fish from the grocery instead of catching your own.

If you have no idea how to fish, then of course you need to learn from the ground up. But would you go directly to Kevin VanDam, the greatest living bass fisherman, to learn to cast a line for the first time? No, you would not. You’d probably start with YouTube tutorials, or a library book, or someone’s dad. When your skill level grows beyond what you can figure out on your own, then you seek help.

A writer asking general questions of a community of experts when he hasn’t put in enough effort to learn the answer on his own demonstrates that he doesn’t work independently very well. That’s a real problem for a mostly solo profession. It also shows that the writer has minimal understanding of the time and work publishing takes, how much research writing involves, how frequently it requires sorting through overwhelming noise for the harmonies that make the work sing. Writing is a profession like any other, and learning a profession takes time and effort. Enough lazy, broad questions online and expert writers will stop answering. Then all of us lose out on the value they add to such communities.

(Incidentally, a writer who is discouraged from asking more directed or complex questions by this message of “figure out the basics before you seek help” is missing the grit and perseverance necessary to be a writer. Feeling rejected, overwhelmed, and lost is a daily condition. Get past it.)

The early stages of being a writer are full of such uncertainty, so many questions, and it seems impossible to know what you’re doing. But no one guidebook will tell you what you need to know. No number of answered questions will prepare you for being inside the profession. At some point you have to get a rod and reel and go, learn in the moment what it feels like to have a fish on your line. That experience will only bring up a whole new set of questions, some of which might not appear to have answers you can Google as easily as your early ones. Voila, the community will be there to help.

Ask your questions, by all means.

But do your research first.

Katharine Coldiron’s work has appeared in Ms., the Washington Post, NPR, LARB, and many other places. Her novella, Ceremonials, is forthcoming in 2020 from Kernpunkt Press. Find her at kcoldiron.com or on Twitter @ferrifrigida.

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§ 15 Responses to Learning to Fish: the Under-Labor of Writing

  • Tricia says:

    Brava! A needed reminder. I’ve seen those sorts of questions, too, and have reactions similar to yours when I do.

  • Most troubling, to me, is the frequent response when I answer such questions—impatience, because I make it sound so hard. It is hard.

    • Allison K Williams says:

      Yep – I think many early-career/aspiring writers vastly underestimate how difficult it is to publish.

  • stacyeholden says:

    Great advice, here. Thanks for writing about what needs saying…

  • I agree. Recently a man asked me for tips on marketing his new book. I sighed, however one does that in an email. I’ve been collecting marketing advice for ten years. I have a folder on my computer with dozens of pages of links to articles about marketing. I studied and did the hard work and now have that resource. In the end, I emailed him my entire folder, hoping he would use my links to do his own hard work. My comment here makes me sound grumpy and unhappy to help, but I have donated hundreds and hundreds of hours to helping others without a complaint. It’s just that as I read your post, I realized that others could and should be doing some hard work, too. Thanks for the perspective. It’s freeing.

  • Andrea Van Dinther says:

    It seems to me a good portion of the time people don’t really want to be serious writers. They want to be part of community, close to serious writers, close to the Kevin Van Dams. They join the community for the proximity, not because they are ever going to really dig in. They ask the question for attention, not because they really want to follow the direction. On a surface level they hope there is a silver bullet, but really they just want to talk to Kevin, to feel close to the community leader. And, the serious writers need the fry, the smaller fish (yes, that is a different metaphor) to feed the community of readers. The community feeds both directions.

  • Nina Gaby says:

    On many levels people are looking for connection. Many of us have other professions, no MFA alumni group, our circumstances may be limiting, and the reaching out has nothing to do with laziness. Colleagues can help far more than Google- how many times have we all gotten a tip that landed us a publication or a blurb based on the specificity of the question or the timing of its being asked? How many times has a synchronous bit of kindness or knowledge from another writer made a huge difference? It is a mean world right now, and I am appreciative of others’ generosity and I’m happy to help if I can. And if I’m irked by a question or can’t help, I scroll on by.

  • lear4752 says:

    I’m impressed by the generosity in the responses here, especially the comments about people looking for community. I believe that individuals asking questions often don’t know what to ask; they are essentially “fishing” for direction, especially with extremely vague or generalized questions. Rather than trying to answer directly, providing ideas about how to research an answer are usually appreciated. Just suggesting what phrase to google, or providing a website link that explains a basic concept is great. Everyone will find out on their own how hard it is to write and publish; in the meantime, we can each be encouraging of each other. Great discussion. Thanks.

  • Aine Greaney says:

    Great post. Brava for writing it. It is a solitary activity and there’s no substitute for the hard–often clerical-styled–work that accompanies the process.

  • Katharine Coldiron says:

    Thank you so much, everyone, for your support, and thanks especially to Nina for making the important opposing argument. I’m grateful for this conversation!

  • lgood67334 says:

    Thanks for confirming that all the time I spend rewriting and “browsing” in literary magazines is time well spent.

  • Sandy Kline says:

    Wonderful post. Someone needed to say this, and I’m so glad you did!

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