The Secret Class

May 9, 2023 § 6 Comments

How to make regular writing a given.

By Julie Marie Wade

Whether you’re a writer just beginning to submit work for publication, a writer who has fallen out of the submission habit and is looking to build it back, or a writer who submits regularly and has been widely published, the ideal—and the struggle—we all share is to keep generating new work. No matter how busy you are with the demands of authorship, not to mention the demands of the rest of your life. 

One strategy I’ve used since college is the phenomenon of the “extra class.” At 19, I told my friends I was registered for a fifth class, a secret class that met on the silent floor of the library. I didn’t mention that the syllabus consisted entirely of focused time to write, or that it had exactly one student enrolled—me.

It was common for us back then to leave a note on the whiteboards posted on our dorm room doors, letting people know where we were and/or when we would be back. If you were “in class” or “at work,” I’d noticed, people didn’t ask too many questions. They accepted that these activities were essential, not optional. But if you said you were playing Frisbee on the quad or hanging out in the Student Center, your friends were likely to come and find you. They understood these were just fun things people did to “kill time,” by their nature both joinable and interruptible. 

Not so with a class.

I meticulously scheduled my secret class on my calendar, some semesters for two longer blocks each week and some semesters for three shorter blocks each week, depending on my actual class and work schedule. But the practice was the same, and it sustained me. I had built in a time to write when I knew no one would interrupt me, or even come looking for me. This was time set aside beyond homework, beyond the other responsibilities and requirements of my life, and by calling it a class, I didn’t have to defend its value to anyone. 

I came to look forward to my secret class, sometimes nearly giddy as the time approached, and I found the ideas for what I would write next percolated more readily during the intervals between those sessions. With anticipation came increased productivity, both during the time set aside for the secret class and also during the time outside it, and I was able to generate far more work than even what my creative writing professors required. I can still remember walking to the library, nearly breaking into a sprint, the words beginning to flow before I could even write them down.

For the nine years following my college graduation, I carried on the tradition of the secret class, through three successive graduate programs. As before, my peers took a class obligation seriously; there was no need to justify the time I was unavailable. Even now, as a professor of creative writing, my secret class has become the “extra class” I teach rather than the extra class I take—and it still functions precisely the same way. 

For folks whose lives aren’t already organized around academic classes, this concept is equally applicable. Maybe you go to a yoga class or play in a recreational sports league or wait for your children at their weekly swim practice, for instance. There are things in your life, in all our lives, shared on the family calendar; activities taken seriously enough that no one would expect you to miss them, barring an actual emergency. 

You paid in advance.

You’re doing it for your kids.

Your teammates are counting on you.

It’s important for self-care. 

These are all excellent reasons to explain serious time commitments, and what we have to remember is that writing isn’t any less important than any of them. Our creative output has intrinsic worth, not contingent on payment or publication—though without a consistent investment of time, it’s harder to pursue payment or publication for the intrinsically worthwhile writing we do.

When we schedule writing as an un-missable commitment in our lives and head to a discrete location to honor it—or when we carve out time to be home alone and schedule specific writing intervals that allow us to turn off our electronic summoners and devote ourselves entirely to the practice at hand (I find that setting a timer keeps me from looking at the clock and allows me to focus even more fully on my words), we retrain our minds to expect the consistency that a sustained writing practice requires. These intervals don’t have to be long, but they do have to be regular. Once we can count on their regularity, we’re able to maintain this core writing practice no matter how much work, authoring and otherwise, supports everything else in our lives. Instead of “maybe getting around to it” or “hopefully I’ll have time soon,” writing becomes a given of every week, month, quarter, semester, and season—or however you measure time.


Learning to make time for writing? Join Julie for the CRAFT TALKS webinar, Making Time, Making Art: Navigating the Writer/Author Divide. More info/register here. $25 ($15 early bird).

JULIE MARIE WADE is a member of the creative writing faculty at Florida International University in Miami. A winner of the Marie Alexander Poetry Series and the Lambda Literary Award for Lesbian Memoir, she is the author of many collections of poetry and prose, including two collaborative essay collections written with Denise Duhamel and Brenda Miller. Wade’s newest projects are Fugue: An Aural History (Diagram New Michigan Press, 2023) and Otherwise: Essays (Autumn House Press, 2023), selected by Lia Purpura for the 2022 Autumn House Press Nonfiction Book Prize.

Finding Inspiration in the I & the Eye

April 25, 2023 § 4 Comments

Connecting with readers through heart and head.

By Suzanne Cope

More than a decade ago, in the haze of finishing my dissertation, I came across a listing for an interdisciplinary food studies conference in my city of New York. Prior to my intensive graduate program I had written about my community garden and food memories, and was excited to get back to more personal writing. But I was also excited to try out the new research skills I had honed over the previous few years.

On a hot June afternoon a week later, I was walking through Harlem on a food tour led by a conference member, learning about the complicated history of soul food and gently paging through old menus at the Schomburg Library archives. I marveled at the stories all around me. Those few conference days helped me realize that there were people making a career researching the history and cultural significance of food, more often than not inspired by their own stories and heritage. The personal connection inspired the research. The research illuminated the individual experience. I had found my people.

Fast forward a few years and I had published my first book, Small Batch: Pickles, Cheese, Chocolate, Spirits, and the Return of Artisanal Food, that brought modern researched narratives together with social history, and launched my journalism efforts to help promote that book and stay connected to my audience. I still wrote and published personal essays, but I was finding more opportunities with researched-based work. My sweet spot—my favorite pieces to write—used the “I” as a jumping-off point for that research. These were the articles that also got the most responses from readers, and led to my next book Power Hungry: Women of the Black Panther Party and Freedom Summer and Their Fight to Feed a Movement. 

While the genre is broad, this integration of the personal “I” and research—what I call the “eye”—falls under the umbrella of narrative journalism. But one doesn’t have to be a trained journalist—or even an academic—to bring research to personal narrative. The balance of hard fact and lyrical reflection depends on the writer. Often, I’ve found that my exploration of one “eye” is deepened by the other.

Our personal stories are powerful and important, and while not everyone writes to be published, the impetus to write is most often to connect. I often tell my students that a goal of effective writing is to find that balance between unique < –-> universal—a continuum I am sure I didn’t invent, but the genesis of which is long lost. This double-sided arrow is a multi-directional that has guided me for well over a decade. Research—which can take many forms: academic studies, deep dives in the archives, internet searching, family photos, travel, interviews—might provide the unique OR the universal in this construct. Either way, the personal stories provide the inverse.

I was just starting to play with integrating research into my personal writing when I came across a submission brief that said something like, “please no more essays about dead grandmas.” I was, in fact, writing about my own dead Nani. The magazine wasn’t saying that my, or anyone’s grandparents were not worth writing about—but rather that a story that might feel so unique to the writer was starting to become too universal to the reader. Research is one way to help push the writer to tell that story toward something that feels more unique. That might feel counterintuitive, but I know it worked for me.

My current book project is inspired by my fierce, feminist grandmother who moved from Italy to the United States as a child to escape fascism. I am not detailing her life at all; rather, I am researching and writing the story of four women who became instrumental in the fight against the Nazis and fascism during World War II. I imagine if my Nani had not left, she might have been among them. And while there is almost no “I” in this book beyond the prologue, it still comes from a very personal place. I identify with this culture and heritage, and of course imagine what my Nani—or I—might have done if we were in Rome or Florence during this time. This personal connection helps me recreate historical moments on the page—of the women carrying secret documents past Nazi checkpoints or planting hidden explosives amongst the German tanks parked in an ancient piazza.

Once we open ourselves to the idea that almost any story can be enriched by adding both elements of the personal and the researched—the I and the eye—we also open ourselves to a broader audience. We connect with our readers through the heart and the head.


Want to explore your story with research? Join Suzanne for Weaving Research into Personal Narrative Writing, a CRAFT TALKS webinar May 10th at 2PM Eastern. $25 ($15 Early Bird). More info/register here.

Suzanne Cope is a narrative journalist and scholar, author of POWER HUNGRY: Women of the Black Panther Party and Freedom Summer and Their Fight to Feed a Movement and Small Batch. She has also written for The New York Times, Washington Post, The Atlantic, BBC, CNN, Aeon, LitHub, LARB, among others. Dr. Cope teaches at New York University.

Rejection Is (Still) Not Feedback

April 18, 2023 § 12 Comments

By Allison K Williams

Five years ago, I wrote about rejection:

Rejection is not feedback.

Rejection is not feedback.

No really. Rejection. Is not. Feedback.

As writers submitting our work, we often get mad at ourselves and the process when our work is rejected. It’s easy to feel they thought my work was terrible, or I’m a bad writer, or I’ll never be any good.

None of those things can be determined from any single rejection.

The process of reading work for publication is not the process of reading to give feedback. When journal editors read, yes, they are evaluating the overall quality of the work. But they’re also asking, Does this fit our mission? Do I personally like it? Did we already accept something similar last week? They are assessing where the work fits in the overall structure of the magazine and its mission. A piece that isn’t the right fit must be let go, regardless of how good it is.

Our job as writers is to display our work to its best advantage, with skilled craft and professional format on the page. To enlist friends and fellow writers and teachers and mentors to give us constructive criticism, and to incorporate the notes that help us write the best essay or story or book we can. To do many drafts until we truly feel a piece is ready to send out. And that’s where our control stops. Like owning a clothing store, we can’t make the customer want our particular sweater–we can only be ready with an excellent sweater when they walk in, or a rack of options we’ve prepared to appeal to a selection of shoppers. We must focus on knowing our buyers, reading their journals, finding out about their taste and style and mission and what else they recently bought–not agonizing about why one person didn’t want one thing.


Last year, I wrote about rejection:

Author after author asks on Twitter, in writing groups and workshops—why can’t they just say what’s wrong? Make a checkbox or a copy-paste? At least tell me, is it the writing or the story or what? It would take thirty seconds!

[Editors and Agents] don’t actually know what’s wrong with your book. They only know where they lost interest in the first pages. Maybe they don’t want to spend time with the hero. But if that problem gets solved on page 50, then “Your hero is unlikeable” could send an author into a long and fruitless revision, when the feedback they really needed was “Cut pages 1–49.”


What I wrote is still true. But what’s even truer is that very often, an essay rejection isn’t based on your actual quality of writing. Reading hundreds of essays sent in for workshops, working with clients, I’ve noticed key elements that are self-sabotaging many essays. None of them is bad writing. Every one of them can be fixed.

Watch for:

  • Topics that aren’t new, or lack cultural relevance. If your work engages with an issue or topic that’s a hot conversation now (yes, even literary essays!), you’re more likely to catch an editor’s eye. This doesn’t mean you have to write about the latest hashtag. But part of what made The Crane Wife go viral was that women’s sense of doing all the emotional labor within relationships had become a larger conversation.
  • An essay that’s a remembrance or a eulogy. Writing to honor your dead is a beautiful and important practice. It may not result in publishable work. Share it with your family, with the deceased’s other loved ones, on your blog or newsletter. But the dead lack meaning to those who didn’t know them. Your larger emotional context is rarely visible to the reader.
  • Openings that give away the ending, or heavily foreshadow. Once you’ve told the reader what it’s all about with something like, “I had no idea this would be the worst day of my life,” they lean back. They stop engaging and start skimming, because they feel like they know what’s coming. Instead, start with a situation, mood or action that’s the opposite of the ending, or at least very different, so the essay takes the reader through change.
  • Endings that wrap up with a tidy little bow or an explained moral. For literary work, allow the reader to deduce their own meaning from the cumulative effect of the essay without telling them what you meant. End with an image, or a thought that suggests expansion of the primary idea. For commercial work, your essay needs a tidy little bow–but it’s still not “and that’s what I learned from this whole experience.”

Submitting work often feels like dropping our words into a black hole. But editors often discuss on social media what they’re seeking. Reading the magazine you want to appear in is research, too. Rejection isn’t feedback–but as your skill and ease with writing develop, you’ll be able to give yourself the feedback you need.


Allison K Williams is Brevity‘s Social Media Editor and the author of Seven Drafts. Want to find out more about why your work is being rejected (and what to do about it!) Join her for the CRAFT TALKS webinar, Moving From Rejection to Publication April 26th at 2PM Eastern time (registrants also get the replay).

True Flash

April 11, 2023 § 13 Comments

Is there a recipe for writing successful flash?

By Heather Sellers

I love reading flash essays—true stories that fit on a page or two, the shorter the better. I love how they often work as double-duty shapeshifters, serving as both stand-alone pieces and  parts of an arc in larger narratives. I’m thinking here of Claudia Rankine’s Citizen, Beth Ann Fennelly’s Heating & Cooling, A. Van Jordan’s M-A-C-N-O-L-I-A, and Abigail Thomas’s Safekeeping. It’s like having a pile of gorgeous photographs, wonderful in their own right, that also spring to life as a film.

These small, honed pieces are delicious to read. Something about their brevity seems to make them not only inviting to fall into, but extra memorable.

But writing flash essays and micro memoir is maddeningly, shockingly difficult. One needs to have the skills of a talented, experienced poet—a gift for compression, metaphor, language, syntax, and powerful voltas—along with the story-telling chops of a gifted prose writer.  I’ve watched myself and my students struggle to figure out the secret sauce: Why do some flash pieces sing, while others seem flat, lifeless, both too much and not enough?

Can we develop a taxonomy or recipe for writing successful flash? Or is this kind of work like photography—you simply have to take 100 or 1000 shots to get one great image?

Pitfalls abound, and most of them are familiar as things that plague all of our writing.

  1. If the piece is about what it’s about, it’s probably game over.
  2. If something isn’t happening off the page, the reader will probably not engage deeply enough.
  3. If there’s not a turn of some kind–a twist, a surprise, a reversal, an insight, something that happens—the piece remains an anecdote, not a story.  If there’s no flash, it’s not flash.

Many wonderful micro memoirs are created by collage, or from lists, or pure dialogue. This is a wily form.  It all comes down to the flash—an event you make happen in your reader’s brain as they read your piece. It’s an aha, a realization, a knowing that was, until we read the piece, secret in us, and now it’s illuminated, awake, and we have it.  And it’s quick.  There’s not a paragraph of processing, a long passage of reflection, or any kind of explanation.  The flash is an experience created by words, but it doesn’t live in the words. I think that’s why these pieces are so popular. It’s all about the reader, and the writer’s work, like the magician’s, is completely invisible, unseen by the viewer. 

There are techniques we can practice to conjure flash. In my experience, practicing writing these kinds of pieces in a sequence produces the best results; I usually have to write ten of them to get one that has some kind of spark, some potential combustion.  And, I have to focus, deeply, on what is just out of view. It’s not about writing what you know, it’s more a leaning into vulnerability and tiny details, and seeing what comes forward.

Here are some of the techniques I use to generate flash essays. 

Work within strict limits: one page, or exactly 250 words. One-word titles, right justified margins.  Set up your rules so you have a nice tight boundary to work within. Stick to the rules ruthlessly.

Write in a series. My previous collection, Field Notes from the Flood Zone, began as a series of micros, each one drawn from the observations in my daybook, what I see and overhear and do in each day. Writing during the pandemic, most of my days were spent staring out my window at the street and walking around in my garden.  The isolation I experienced in 2020 powerfully amplified my hunger for company and heightened my powers of observation—I have never watched plant and animal life so closely, ever. I created a piece every day for many months. I’ve created series based on a single word, and another series prompted by skirts I’ve owned, for example. Letting go of the pressure of the one-off allows you to delve into your subject matter, and to simply practice capturing what’s ineffable in a moment.

Cut and cut again. In my experience, flash is an analog form. I draft my pieces by hand. I type them up, print them out, and then cut the piece in half, and then often in half again. Print, rinse, and repeat. I have to see the words on the physical page and be able to move them around. It’s not so much a writing project, creating flash, as it is sleight of hand, a taking-away.

Read aloud. I’m trying to get things on the page that will make things happen off the page. This requires a superpower: bilocation. You have to be in the piece and in the reader’s head at the same time. When my ear takes it in, my brain has a better sense of what the reader is going to absorb. My ear is my best editor: most of what I write does not need to be on the page. Thank you, Ear!

Find your process for setting out these lines, creating these little beauty traps, and allowing the reader to assemble the project mentally in their own space. It’s the coolest thing. Ever.

I would love to hear your tricks and techniques for composing successful flash.


Heather Sellers directs the MFA program in creative writing at the University of South Florida. Her most recent book is Field Notes from the Flood Zone. Writing flash, or want to? Join Heather for her webinar, Write Tight: Creating Compelling Flash Fiction and Micro Memoir April 19th at 2PM Eastern time (replay will be available).

Getting Over Over-Editing

August 31, 2021 § 11 Comments

I love being an editor. I love pointing out craft fixes that immediately make this book and all an author’s subsequent writing better. I love pointing out major structural overhauls…and inspiring them to do that work. Most of all, I love how analyzing other writers’ work helps me improve my own.

How did I get to be an editor? After an MFA and years of tidying friends’ work for free, I hung up my shingle and congratulations me, I’m in business. While there are certificate programs for copyeditors and online courses for story and structure editors, we’re not like therapists or dentists. There’s no licensing to give us permission—and no regulatory board to make sure we’re honest and competent.

I’ve heard from plenty of authors who’ve had bad experiences with professional editors or writing coaches. The scammed/mistreated/poorly edited authors aren’t usually willing to speak publicly, and I don’t blame them for being embarrassed or intimidated. But plenty of authors have told me privately about money lost and feelings bruised. Since I can’t out specific people (hearsay), I’ll tell you my own editing sins—and how to avoid them as a client.

Overwhelm. Early in my editing career, I tried to fix every single thing that could possibly help a manuscript. Pages went back crawling with red ink and hundreds of margin comments. No no no, Previous Me! Editors should do one stage at a time. Feedback on commas comes after story and structure. In a developmental edit, I’ll point out some repeated sentence-level mistakes for the author to fix globally, but it’s my job to limit the amount of editing to what an author can handle in one or two more drafts.

Don’t let this happen to you. Know the difference between developmental editing, line editing, copyediting and proofreading. Be honest with yourself about what your work needs, and specific with the editor. It’s OK to say, “I only need feedback on the story,” or “What I really need help with is making my sentences stronger.” The editor may say your work needs a different level of editing, and you’ll be able to decide if you agree.

Over-criticizing. Editors don’t just point out what’s wrong; they reaffirm what the author is already doing beautifully and inspire them to build on those strengths. Unless you’ve hired a straight copyedit or proofread, your editor should recognize moments like “this sentence is great” or “the way you handle this theme works well because X.” Now, my own editorial cheerleading balances out comments like “WHY DOES SHE GO BACK SHE KNOWS HE’S TERRIBLE HUGE LOGIC ISSUE HERE!!!” but I was a lot worse at that balance ten years ago.

Don’t let this happen to you. Get a free or paid sample edit. Look for the editor’s tone—how does it make you feel? If your sense is, “Wow, I didn’t see that and boy is fixing it going to help!” this might be your editor. If you feel discouraged beyond that initial “Crap, there’s more to do than I thought…” (which is very normal!), think about whether this editor is the right fit. Try applying fixes they suggest in the sample to your whole book, and see if that feels like improvement.

Over-ruling. There’s grammar, and there’s writing in your natural voice with consistent word patterns that make sense for the character, situation and setting. “Rules” against run-ons, comma splices and ending sentences with prepositions can help readers smoothly navigate your prose, or they can make your natural voice sound stilted and prim. Finding my own barometer for voice—“Like you’d tell a friend, but better”—saved myself and my clients hours of analyzing commas and awkwardly reframing sentences. “Correct” is only useful when a grammatical convention serves the book.

Don’t let this happen to you. Learn enough grammar and punctuation so that when you violate a convention, you’re doing it on purpose. Identify key elements of your own voice and amplify those as you gain confidence in your work. If an editor strips away your phrasing in the name of “correctness,” you’ll know it’s happening and be ready to push back.

Over-scheduling. Yeah, I still suck at this one. I’m often late returning manuscripts, compensating for my guilt by trying to do an extra-good editing job. I’ve learned techniques to speed up line editing, make margin commenting faster, and communicate better when I’m running behind (most clients aren’t mad, they just want to know what’s happening!), but I could still allow myself more cushion time.

Don’t let this happen to you. It’s OK to nudge your editor! More than once, even! Email a week or so before the deadline to ask if they’re on schedule, giving them an opening to tell you up front if they’re not. Let them know if you have a planned retreat, time off work, or a deadline.

My clients have given me grace for my mistakes, and I’m honored to be a small part of their journey to publication. Improving author communication, setting clear expectations, and educating myself to deliver useful, encouraging and thorough editing are daily practices, ones that serve what truly feels like my life’s work. I’m grateful to be able to do it.


Allison K Williams is Brevity’s Social Media Editor and the author of Seven Drafts: Self-Edit Like a Pro from Blank Page to Book. Want writing news, events, and upcoming webinars? Join the A-List!

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