When thinking about writing for a new publication, especially one that feels like an aspirational reach, it is easy to feel overwhelmed and unworthy. One way that I reduce the target to manageable mental proportions is by focusing on something simple and measurable. I start with a really bean-county thing… word count. That may seem like a ridiculous vector from which to approach an intellectual undertaking, but it makes more sense than you would think. Editors will only publish things readers will read, and word count matters. I like to look at the shortest and longest pieces in a publication and aim toward the shorter end. Few readers have gotten to the end of a piece and said “Whew, I wish that had been longer.” Editors also can find more places to put shorter work.
The second thing I look at is structure, specifically how pieces tend to begin. A quick run through 30 or so issues of The New Yorker, for example, will reveal a remarkably stylized tendency to open pieces a certain way. If ever a magazine had a house style, The New Yorker would be a classic example, so this study, while mechanical, can also be helpful. Do I want to imitate that house style? Well, why not… after all, imitatio as an artistic discipline has a long and respected history. In one sense we probably don’t do it enough. I haven’t yet been published in The New Yorker, but my sole submission received a personal note back from a very famous editor saying I should try again soon, so I may have been on to something. After looking at beginnings I map a couple of key pieces, especially ones the periodical considers examples of its best published work.
Another concrete variable is topic. Literary magazines such as VQR, The Michigan Quarterly Review, Ploughshares etc. often follow topical patterns. Authors who learn to look ahead and see what’s coming up can write for these and possibly improve chances as well. Scholarly journals can be highly topical, and often won’t return to the core topic of a major article for as long as two years.
None of these alone or even taken as a group guarantees much of anything in terms of publication, but for me it helps to map the terrain in which I hope to navigate.
One year ago, on September 19, 2009, I began something called “60 Days of Journal Article Writing.” You can follow this link to the beginning at the bottom to read the whole thread.
Since then, in one calendar year, I have written two richly researched scholarly articles following Wendy Belcher’s system from Writing Your Journal Article in Twelve Weeks. I’ve also gotten to know her a tiny bit through e-mail and my participation as a guest editor on her newsletter while she’s away on a Fulbright in Africa.
Think about that for a moment, though. A year ago I wasn’t sure I really knew how to craft journal articles, since my job focuses on books. Now, twelve little months later, I have one on submission at a key journal in my field awaiting a decision, and a second is ready to go. Instead of starting on a third I’m going to turn back to the book that they were written to support, but the year has not taken me away from the book at all. Writing those articles made me sharper, stronger, more prepared to tackle the book on its own terms. Placing it at a university press will be much easier with key articles in place at the right journals.
What a great year, and a superb way to start the fall. Please write to me if you want to get rolling on this same track of 1-2 scholarly articles per year and a book every three years.
Sometimes we speak about emotion as though it’s a good thing. When it comes to writing, however, it can be a real detriment. There’s a perhaps-overly-cited quote from Truman Capote that says in part,
I seem to remember reading that Dickens, as he wrote, choked with laughter over his own humour and dripped tears all over the page when one of his characters died. My own theory is that the writer should have considered his wit and dried his tears long, long before setting out to evoke similar reactions in a reader. In other words, I believe the greatest intensity in art in all its shapes is achieved with a deliberate, hard and cool head. (Conversations, M. Thomas Inge, ed., University Press of Mississippi, 1986)
Whether or not Capote practiced what he preached, I tried his method when revising an article recently for resubmission. Instead of waiting for inspiration or even thinking about it very much, I went through mechanical steps to turn it around in the week I had allotted to the task. Type, type, type, no feelings pro or con. It worked! I thought fondly of all the regular-guy-and-gal types going to their jobs as plumbers or electricians or auto mechanics (my family background is more similar to this than to the ivory tower), and how nobody asked them this morning how they feel about it. They just do their jobs, and so should I.
The emotion that followed the work was great. I had a sense of exhilaration combined with pride in a job done properly and on time. Will it get in the journal? I can’t really tell you, but I can say this — it’s in the editor’s hands now and not mine, and it went there sans drama. :-)
On the blogger site we offered a popular series on writing and publishing a scholarly article by blogging our way through the book Writing Your Journal Article in 12 Weeks byWendy Belcher. Since then Dr. Belcher has been in touch, and she included the blog series in her monthly newsletter. Thus inspired, we’ve decided to try again with a new article, but instead of counting days, we’ll count weeks, and we’ll reduce the number of weeks from 12 to 9 since three of the weeks in the workbook focus on preliminaries, on journal internal politics, and on editing tasks for nonnative speakers of English. We understood all of that the first time around, so this second pass will start with Week 2 of the workbook and proceed to Week 10.