From Category: Essays on Writing
In this essay at The Review Review, creative nonfiction writer Megan Galbraith discusses the unavoidably subjective and emotional nature of memory, and the delicate balance between preserving family ties and telling your truth.
As a past judge of the Tom Howard/John H. Reid Fiction & Essay Contest, I've been asked to provide some advice for contestants. I'm half-reluctant to do so as I don't really want to influence anyone's short story. Your story is your story, and you should write it the way you feel called to write it.
However, it's fair that you should know something about the way I think, so here goes:
I love short stories. Writing them and reading them. I believe the short story allows a writer's craft to be honed in a special way, and I enjoy seeing the different ways that different writers approach their stories.
All the rules you have ever learned about writing are important. You should know them, master them, then work around them. People will tell you it is important to show, not tell; they are right—yet sometimes you should tell, not show. People will discuss whether to write in first or third person, from a specific or more omniscient viewpoint—all this is interesting but, in my experience, it is the story that tells the writer what viewpoint to write from, not the writer who tells the story. People (including me) will tell you never to write in the second person—yet I once wrote an entire novella in the second person and it worked (won an award and was published).
In his wonderful novel, My Name Is Asher Lev, Chaim Potok says much the same thing about painting: "This is a tradition...Only one who has mastered a tradition has the right to add to it or to rebel against it."
I tell my students that character is the most important element in fiction. You should know and love your characters. Plot is what happens when characters interact with one another or situations. This is true not only of psychological and literary stories, but of science fiction, thrillers, westerns, even mysteries (where the temptation to distort characters to fit the plot is particularly strong).
Atmosphere may also be important to a story—the way a place, a situation, and the story itself feel. Texture may be created through a few key phrases, through the words you choose.
Walter Pater said that all art strives toward music, and there is a great deal of truth in that. The rhythm of a story—pacing, timing, speed—is very important. I find it sometimes helps to think of my stories in terms of musical composition.
Avoid cliches—not only in words, but in thoughts. Try not to be too self-absorbed—take your craft seriously, but don't take yourself too seriously.
I do not want to overly influence any writer—it is the individuality of your work that makes it interesting. But here are qualities I am looking for in essays:
- Have something to say.
- Say it in a way that makes readers see differently or understand differently—that provides a new angle or a new insight, without necessarily doing acrobatics to try to be different.
- Say it with style—a style that has texture, that readers can savor.
- Make it memorable—words, phrases, thoughts, images that will stay in readers' minds for days—perhaps years—that will give them something to ponder.
- Develop it beautifully (whether the subject is beautiful or not)—with a quality that carries readers along with you, whether elegantly or on a bumpy (but meaningful) road.
May you break any of these guidelines? Of course. Surprises are always welcome. Write what you feel called to write the best you can. Enjoy writing—I'll enjoy reading it. Good fortune!
Jendi Reiter judged the War Poetry Contest sponsored by Winning Writers from 2002-2011 (the contest is currently inactive). She shares her advice on reading thousands of war poems.
Weekly column by former US poet laureate Ted Kooser presents contemporary American poems and a short discussion of the techniques that make them effective. This series is designed to be reprinted for free by newspapers and online periodicals (with attribution), in order to create a vigorous presence for poetry in our culture. You may also sign up for free weekly emails. Sponsored by The Poetry Foundation and the Library of Congress.
In this essay on the blog of Sundress Publications, an innovative small press, poet and writing teacher Amorak Huey surveys the work of some contemporary poets who use humor effectively, and reflects on the overlap between these genres. "Humor and poetry both rely on verbal surprise, the pairing of the unexpected. Humor in poetry works best when it's juxtaposed against some other mode: anger, insight, sadness, tenderness. Poetry happens when a poet presses up against the limits of language when it comes to capturing the human condition. Poetry is utterance, is act, is disruption, is the reaching for that which is understood but previously unarticulated. Humor is these things as well...Humor, like poetry, is how we cope with the fact of our aloneness in this world."
Master poet Willis Barnstone explores the act of translation, "a friendship between poets...a mystical union between them based on love and art. As in ordinary religious mysticism, the problem of ineffability exists: how do you find words to say the unsayable?" Barnstone singles out for praise the translations of Mary Herbert, Hölderlin, Pasternak, Rilke, Valéry, Lowell, Moore, Pound, Quasimodo, and Bishop.
Poet and classical scholar Joseph Salemi (see bio and poems) probes the limitations of contemporary free- verse confessional poetry.
See how a judge weighs poems in this essay by Virgil Suarez. Mr. Suarez, an accomplished poet in his own right, has judged over a dozen contests. "It keeps me in touch with the poetry that is being written at the moment.... Nothing better to keep the blood pumping."
In this blog post from 2018, May Peterson (a/k/a M.A. Peterson), a romance and fantasy novelist and fiction editor, explains that an important goal of "sensitivity reader" edits is to remove inadvertently offensive details that don't advance the vision of the story. All character description is selective, so authors should be glad to prune away careless errors that could dilute readers' connection with the book.
Writer and illustrator Austin Kleon is the bestselling author of the creativity guide Steal Like an Artist and other books. His free weekly e-newsletter (archived on his website) features 10 links to writing, art, and other media that he finds worthwhile and relevant to the moment. An example of Kleon's playful, down-to-earth writing advice: "When I am beginning a new project, I often ask myself, 'What's something you despise in the culture that you wish were otherwise?' and I go from there."
Disability in Kidlit is a multi-author blog that reviews portrayals of disability in books for children and young adults. In this 2015 essay, speculative fiction author Elizabeth Bartmess surveys common stereotypes and limiting depictions of autistic children in fiction, and how they contribute to mistreatment in the real world. This piece is a must-read for fiction writers in all genres who are developing a neurodiverse cast of characters.
Mr. Jarrell (1914-1965) was a leading American poet and critic. These are his blunt yet compassionate reflections on judging badly written poetry.
Launched in 2015, the Book Review Directory is a growing list of bloggers who review books in various fiction and nonfiction genres. The site has three goals: to match authors with reviewers, to raise the profile of book review blogs, and to help readers find new books in their areas of interest.
Hard-hitting essays on the state of contemporary poetry, by poet and critic Joan Houlihan. Among her targets: incoherent experimental poetry, free verse that sounds like prose, and famous names who are past their prime. She is also founding director of the Concord Poetry Center which offers conferences and workshops in Massachusetts.
Poetry is imprisoned in the cozy cells of academia and specialty publishers. Most people are oblivious to it. "The traditional machinery of transmission - the reliable reviewing, honest criticism, and selective anthologies - has broken down." It's time to unleash great poems again on the public. Here's how. Reprinted from The Atlantic Monthly.
Detailed guidance for poets from the Comstock Writers' Group. Make your poetry submissions look professional. See poetry as an editor sees it. All poets should read this before actively submitting to contests and journals.
In this installment in the Craft Capsules essay series at Poets & Writers, Cameron Awkward-Rich, a Lambda Literary Award poetry finalist and professor at University of Massachusetts-Amherst, talks about his revision process. Any elements of the poem that he can re-create from memory are essential, he has found. "What I like about using memorization as a diagnostic is that it says nothing about the “quality” of a poem, so it discourages thinking about revision as 'fixing.' Instead, what determines whether a poem is finished is the relationship between us, the poem and I."
Jeannette Ng is a medieval studies scholar and author of the British Fantasy Award winning novel Under the Pendulum Sun. In this article for Medium, she discusses how to write responsibly outside your demographic. Some tips: stop looking for fail-safe rules, think critically about your motives and sources, and compensate the people who are teaching you about other cultures.
Dorothee Lang, editor of BluePrintReview, an English-language online literary journal based in Germany, began this blog in March 2010 to review new books of poetry and prose from small independent presses. The site looks beyond the usual university press prizewinners to showcase innovative writers and publishers.
In this essay for the online journal The Rumpus, widely published poet and teacher David Biespiel makes a good case for playing to one's strengths as a writer and spending less time fixing weaknesses. The troubleshooting emphasis of most writing workshops, he says, leaves writers feeling demoralized, and takes energy away from turning their good skills into great ones. Instead, try to become more of what you already are, and work on what you enjoy.
Dead Darlings is a novel-writing advice blog by alumni of GrubStreet Boston's Novel Incubator. Brief, personable essays cover a variety of topics from inspiration to revision, publication, and marketing. There are also interviews with authors of notable new books.
Poetry has been dying all its life. Newsweek just added its nail to the coffin ("Poetry Is Dead. Does Anybody Care?" 5/5/03). The doomsayers are dead wrong, writes Don Hall, but "no one wants to believe me."
Insightful blog about poetry and disability includes brief reviews and discussions of contemporary poets writing about the subject (Floyd Skloot, Jim Ferris and others), plus contests and resources.
Award-winning poet and journalist's weblog features essays on contemporary poets, contextualized with reflections on politics and culture.
Prizewinning poet William Waltz investigates why there are more writers than readers of poetry. Today's highbrow poets, he ventures, should plumb their playful side. "Despite the messy state of affairs today, the poetry world is primed for (and maybe on the verge of) a roaring comeback. And, although many poets seem content to write poems that only connoisseurs and mothers could love, a growing populist movement seems bent on dragging poetry back into the mainstream."
Rene Denfeld is the bestselling author of the novels The Child Finder and The Enchanted, as well as a journalist, nonfiction author, and death penalty investigator. In this 2017 essay at LitHub, she discusses how to depict sexual violence and trauma responsibly, from a perspective that humanizes victims and restores their agency, rather than exploiting and objectifying them.
Curated by DIAGRAM editor Ander Monson, Essay Daily is a space for ongoing conversation about essays and essayists of note, contemporary and otherwise. They mostly publish critical/creative engagements with interesting essays (text and other), Q&As with essays or essayists, and reviews of essays, essay collections or book length essays, or literary journals that publish essays. Query before submitting.
Poet and memoirist Mary Karr muses on the resemblance between poetry and prayer as "sacred speech" that eases the soul's isolation. Karr also describes her recent conversion to Catholicism from a secular upbringing that made a religion out of art and literature. "People usually (always?) come to church as they do to prayer and poetry—through suffering and terror."
In this 2022 critical essay from The Point magazine, Phil Klay examines the moral and aesthetic conundrums of bearing witness to war through poetry. Klay is a fiction writer, essayist, and US Marine Corps veteran of the Iraq War.
In this 2023 column for Lit Mag News, poet and freelance journalist Noah Berlatsky advises cultivating long-term relationships with sympathetic journals and presses. Traditional career advice tells you to treat lesser-known venues as mere stepping-stones to more prestigious publications, but if the latter opportunities don't materialize, perhaps you're just depriving yourself of satisfaction in the career you actually have.
In this essay from the blog of the literary journal Ploughshares, poet Lizz Schumer surveys foundational works of the disability poetics movement, and what they meant to her self-concept and aesthetic development. Authors cited include Vassar Miller, Kenny Fries, Jim Ferris, Karrie Higgins, and Sheila Black.
Updated daily, this site features short craft essays on writing and marketing your flash fiction.
Jane Friedman's blog features expert advice about today's publishing industry. This guest post by Jennie Nash, the chief creative officer of Author Accelerator, challenges the conventional wisdom that group feedback is always helpful for learning to write. Among other issues, she observes that peers may lack expertise, and that the fear of failure in a social setting may hold writers back from taking necessary risks.
In this article from the May/June 2009 Poets & Writers Magazine, award-winning poet Sandra Beasley discusses the growing prestige of online publication and the advantages it offers for disseminating your work. Recommended journals include Blackbird, Coconut, and Drunken Boat.
In this artistically produced video from The Atlantic magazine, acclaimed short story writer George Saunders shares his advice for writing a story that is compassionate, surprising, and open to fresh meanings. "Revision is a form of active love; it's love in progress," he says, touting the benefits of listening to your characters rather than controlling them. Saunders is a frequent contributor to The New Yorker whose collections include Tenth of December and Pastoralia.
In this 2017 essay from Current Affairs, Brianna Rennix takes a skeptical look at popular experimental devices in contemporary literary novels. She argues that these tricks have become cliché, interfering with the genre's unique potential to entertain and provoke empathy. For fun, test your MFA syllabus or this week's New York Times Book Review against the Postmodern Novel Bingo card: "Entire chapter is just a list of ironic brand names"; "Tepid marriage ruined by unsatisfying infidelity"; "A lumbering comedic setpiece is suddenly interrupted by horrific violence"; and more.
In this article from the self-publishing and marketing service BookBaby, science writer Dawn Field shares eight tips for giving useful feedback on a manuscript.
In this article from the Fairy Tale News blog, Tahlia Merrill, editor of Timeless Tales Magazine, shares six tips for ensuring that your remixed fairy tale adds something fresh and interesting to the original. For example, she suggests reading multiple versions of the fable to pick out intriguing details, or considering a different setting or point-of-view character.
William Zinsser (1922-2015) was a widely published journalist who wrote for periodicals such as The New Yorker, The Atlantic, and The New York Herald Tribune. His seven books on the craft of writing include On Writing Well. In this article from The American Scholar, where he was a regular columnist, Zinsser gives sound practical advice about how to structure your memoir, and stresses the importance of recording your family story, whether or not you seek publication.
In this essay from The Atlantic's 2010 fiction issue, novelist Richard Bausch argues that writers' manuals are a poor substitute for honing one's aesthetic sense through immersion in great literature. "One doesn't write out of some intellectual plan or strategy; one writes from a kind of beautiful necessity born of the reading of thousands of good stories poems plays… One is deeply involved in literature, and thinks more of writing than of being a writer. It is not a stance."
Cultural essayist and journalist Jude Ellison S. Doyle (Dead Blondes and Bad Mothers) describes how they taught themselves the conventions of writing their first comic book, the feminist horror comic MAW (Boom! Studios, 2021), as well as tips on working with illustrators and editors.
This essay honoring the poet William Stafford reflects on how literature can foster mutual understanding and empathy in order to break the cycle of violence. This article appeared in the April 2011 newsletter of the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE). The link below will open a PDF.
Fiction writer Erika Dreifus publishes the Practicing Writer e-newsletter, a monthly roundup of markets, contests, and writing advice, in which these interviews first appeared. Featured authors include Kimiko Hahn, Tayari Jones, Ellen Meeropol, and Dinty W. Moore.
This literary blog features profound reflections on creativity and spirituality, along with more practical advice about good writing habits and marketing your work.
Poet Kate Greenstreet blogs at Every Other Day, where she's compiled an archive of over 100 interviews with contemporary poets about the road to first-book publication and how it changed their life (or not). Highlights include advice from Steve Fellner, author of 'Blind Date with Cavafy', on how the right title can help your manuscript get past the contest screeners.
In this 2018 piece from Ruminate Magazine, a faith-informed literary journal, essayist Catherine Hervey discusses ways to flesh out literary characters through the details they notice about a place and the memories that overlay it.
Poet Sina Queyras runs this blog about the theory and practice of poetry criticism. Lemon Hound's "10 Questions for Reviewers" series interviews prominent poet-critics about their goals and techniques. The "How Poems Work" series features a poem by a prominent contemporary author, plus a critique by one of his or her peers.
In this article, creative writing professor Cathy Day proposes the concept of "literary citizenship"—the skills and habits that we can all cultivate to build a stronger and more generous literary community, whether or not we are published authors ourselves. Day observes: "the reason I teach creative writing isn't just to create writers, but also to create a populace that cares about reading...I wish more aspiring writers would contribute to, not just expect things from, that world they want so much to be a part of." Good citizenship includes reviewing books you enjoyed, letting writers know you appreciate their work, and buying books and literary journals.
In this interview from the Spring 2021 issue of DMQ Review, poets Lisa Gluskin Stonestreet (Morse Poetry Prize winner for Tulips, Water, Ash) and Annie Kim (Word Works Washington Prize winner for Eros, Unbroken) share their manuscript craft tips and intuitive strategies for discovering how poems speak to one another.
Writing professor Karen Craigo's poetry books include No More Milk (Sundress Publications, 2016) and Escaped Housewife Tries Hard to Blend In (Hermeneutic Chaos, 2016). In this blog post, she shares strategies for setting boundaries and time management when asked to mentor emerging writers. A very useful read for people on either side of the mentor-student relationship.