Dear Writer

Dear Writer, How Do I Get Paid?

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By Amanda Zieba

Dear Writer, 

I’ve been submitting my work to literary journals for a while now, and I’ve been lucky enough to get published in a few of them! While this totally boosts my confidence as a writer, the journals also aren’t paying for my work. Now that I’ve been published a few times by non-paying publications, I’d love to try and get paid for my work. Any suggestions on getting published in a paying market?


A Writer with a Mortgage

Dear Writer with a Mortgage,

How do you make money as a writer? Now there’s a million-dollar question, right? If you are anything like me, you’ve probably Googled this exact phrase (a few times) only to come back up from the black hole of the internet feeling even more lost and confused. Get rich quick schemes and advertising gimmicks blur your vision from the real goal… earning money from doing something you LOVE.


The answer is simpler than you might think. The first step to making money as a writer is to write. In a minute I’m going to show you all sorts of great websites and platforms that will actually pay you for your written work, but in order to be successful with these opportunities, you have to have written something to submit. There have been times when I see a contest or a submission call and draft a piece on the spot to send. Sometimes it works, but more often than not, if I dust off a piece from the past, look at it with fresh eyes, adapt it as necessary and send in writing that was NOT contrived, forced, and rushed, my success rate is much higher. So, keep that in mind as you browse through the below opportunities. Always keep writing. Even if there is not a deadline in sight… keep writing. Not only will this very obvious advice help you to improve your craft on a daily basis (yes, daily!), you also never know when a journal entry, poem, long-winded rant – I mean essay – will prove useful in the form of a submission.

Now that we’ve got that taken care of, let’s get down to the business at hand. How do you make money as a writer? Below you will find several paying markets for writers of all genres and levels of expertise. The great thing about most of the opportunities listed below is that they are on-going throughout the year, so no matter when you feel the urge to submit (or the mortgage payment is due) there will be a paid writing opportunity ready and waiting for you.

Funds for Writers

C. Hope Clark is a mystery writer, but her larger claim to fame is her award-winning website Funds for Writers which sends out (and archives) a weekly eNewsletter featuring “30 paying opportunities in the form of contests, grants, freelance opportunities, and publishers/agents.” Delivered each and every Friday, this eNewsletter is the perfect way to quickly learn about paid writing gigs. In addition to this weekly treasure trove of submission calls, C. Hope Clark also pays writers $50 for articles about making money as a writer. Here are two pieces that I wrote for her several years ago. My next articles in the newsletter, reprints from my own site, will appear later this year. Her most recent contribution to the paid writing community is a book titled: Writing Contests with Hope where I’m sure she’ll tell you even more ways to earn money as a writer.

Freedom with Writing

Freedom with Writing is another similar site. You can either sign up for their weekly email or browse their website for paid writing opportunities that match your genre or topics of interest. Submission calls are organized into groups and presented in batches of writing opportunities. For example, their website currently lists: 10 Themed Calls For Short Stories that Pay $100 to $300 and 10 Publishers that Pay Writers $200 Per Article.


If you are a fiction writer and like writing prompts, then the weekly Reedsy email is one you are definitely going to want to sign up for. Reedsy is a company that sells self-publishing resources, so most of their efforts go toward marketing their services, but every Friday morning, they also deliver an email with five themed writing prompts. Pick a prompt, write to it and submit it within the week. Reedy’s editors will pick one submitted story to post on their blog and also pay you $50. I know this opportunity is legit because back in March 2017, I won.


Submittable is a submission manager platform that also lists hundreds, probably thousands, of submission opportunities. The site is also used for admission to camps, scholarships applications and a variety of other limited-quantity type events, so the entire site isn’t devoted to writing. But a large part of it is. My favorite thing about this site (other than its ability to help you keep track of where you sent in your work and the results) is that you can search by topic, genre and type of opportunity. Parenting. Science Fiction. Grants. Awards. Nonprofit work. Chapbook. Juried. Native American. Thriller. If you are an impatient kind of writer (aren’t we all!) you can browse by due date and select something that has a quick deadline to decrease your wait time. Again, this is where having a cache of pieces in the wings is helpful. An hour of searching could uncover a dozen opportunities to submit (and get paid for!) things you have already written! Go check it out. Pick out a handful, and toss your hat in the ring.

Women on Writing

Women on Writing is a website that holds contests for flash fiction and creative nonfiction all year round! Varying pay levels for prize winners and publication opportunities await the winning writers. I have made it into the second round of judging (top 20) in the contest before, but no prize money yet. I submitted for their Spring Quarterly Contest, so fingers crossed! The great thing about this contest is that you can pay an additional $10 with your entry fee for a critique of your piece. The opportunity to get unbiased feedback is so rare, and to do it at such a bargain price is unheard of!

Our Wisconsin

For the nonfiction writers of the guild, Our Wisconsin is a magazine that “celebrates all that is great about the Badger State.” You can see their list of departments that run articles each month here and their contributor guidelines here. Payment for publication in this magazine is not publicly stated, however, the website does say, “Story and photo packages that we print covering a page or more in the magazine are compensated with an appropriate freelance writer’s fee. Short submissions we print that are a few paragraphs in length, or photos we publish that cover less than a page in the magazine, are compensated with our thank-you gift of a freshly baked Amish pie.” How very Wisconsin.

You can find a list of Wisconsin Magazines to reach out to individually here. The Wisconsin Writers Association put together this list of contests and publishing opportunities that can be viewed here and Author’s Publish website created a list of 32 Literary Journals that Pay which you can see here. The Wisconsin Council of Writers gives out awards, accompanied by a monetary prize annually, and the Wisconsin Writers Association has also curated a list of paying awards.

Really, all it takes is a little patience and time to dig for the opportunity that is a good fit for you… and writing… and the ability to wait.

I hope that this list will get help you find a way to be paid for doing what you love. Don’t forget to share your success and exciting news with the guild once the paycheck arrives! If there’s something we love more than writing, it’s sharing the joy that comes from it with writing friends!

Happy writing,

Amanda Zieba

Learn more about Amanda and her writing by clicking this link!

Dear Reader - March 2019


Dear Writer, I just had a piece critiqued by my workshop group. While they gave me a lot of good feedback, some of their feedback is steering me away from my original vision for my piece. Should I ignore their advice, or are they right and my original idea is flawed? How do I know what’s right?

Sincerely, A Story Torn in Two

Dear A Story Torn in Two:

Writing workshops are tremendous.

These groups--comprised of folks united in a common goal of getting better at putting words on the page--are usually the first spot where our stories, poems, essays, etc., land. Until now the only other people who've seen our writing are the occasional friends or family members we've foisted our work on, begging for any kind of feedback.

But people are busy. No time for the fine-tooth-comb deep dives. We get the cursory, "It's good," or in the event someone really didn't like or understand the piece, we might be on the receiving end of the distinctly Midwestern, "That's different."

So we set out in search of like-minded souls who have stories of their own to share, who like us have had a piece rattling around the inside of their heads long enough, who have taken a story as far as they can on their lonesome. And though workshops provide myriad benefits, they aren't without their pitfalls.

A big challenge is that writing workshops are filled with writers, and sometimes* writers tend to approach a text as writers instead of readers. As we read through a piece of writing, the machinations of our own creative engines** creak to life, and when we come across elements that aren't working for us, we begin to think of ways we'd fix them. That's fine. But when giving feedback we need to rein it in a bit. Maybe develop the equivalent of one of those tiny stop signs which appeared at the bottom of standardized test pages, warning us we'd reached the end of the section. Most of the workshops I've participated adhered to three basic guidelines for giving feedback***, which helped foster that diminutive mental stop sign:

  1. Identify what you think the author intended with this text (this part of the process is invaluable, as it lets the author know if what they were going for landed with their readers). 

  2. Identify what's working well for you in this piece (huzzah for validation!).

  3. Identify areas which caused you to stumble or where you had questions (if a majority of group members point out the same parts or have similar questions, it's a usually a good indicator of something getting lost in translation between the brain and the page).

During workshop, folks would go around the circle, or whatever shape we happened to be meeting in****, and speak to the above guidelines. Whoever's piece was being discussed would listen and take notes, and afterward, have the opportunity to ask clarifying questions.

While it can be a bit overwhelming to receive that much information in one go, there's an unspoken rule***** inherent in writing workshops which helps keep things manageable: after thanking everyone for their insights, you get to return to your piece of writing and can then listen to or ignore as much or as little of the feedback as you want to; you get to decide what's going to help you the most.

So embrace your original vision. Hold onto it with all the fervor and excitement you had from the outset, and use the advice from your workshop that'll best help you to tell the kind of story you want to.


*Okay, often.
**That sounds really pretentious. Apologies.
***This is neither the only nor best way to structure workshop, just what's worked for me.
****Generally, I've found circles or ellipses conducive constructs for effective feedback. Oftentimes comfy chairs were involved.
*****Though maybe it should be spoken, or even bellowed at the top of every meeting. 

P.S. Or, to put it much more succinctly, Neil Gaiman writes, “Remember: when people tell you something’s wrong or doesn’t work for them, they are almost always right. When they tell you exactly what they think is wrong and how to fix it, they are almost always wrong.”

Dear Writer - January 2019


Dear Writer, 

I’ve been working on a piece for a while now. I’ve been thinking about it, writing it, revising it, having friends give me feedback, etc. But I feel like no matter how many times I come back to it, or how many different ways I try to write it, something doesn’t seem to be working. I’m afraid that it might be a lost cause, which is painful because it seemed like such a good idea. How do you know when to abandon a piece? How can I tell if I just need to step away from the piece for a little bit, or if it’s not worth coming back to? 

Banging my Head Against the Keyboard

Dear Banging My Head Against the Keyboard,

I know the feeling! And I’m afraid there isn’t a good way to know, in my experience, if a piece is truly, unequivocally dead, or merely (to borrow from Miracle Max) “mostly dead.” I’ve been dancing with some stories and longer ideas for over a decade, and haven’t been able to tell what’s what with them completely, no matter how long I let them languish.

But, I do have some ideas. Perhaps they will be helpful. 

First, stepping away from a piece need not be abandoning it. If it helps you to think of them as totally separate acts, then go for that interpretation. When I am sitting with a piece that just isn’t working, some time away often does seem to help. And the nice thing about it is that you can step away for as long as you like. Perhaps after a few weeks or a month you feel refreshed and ready to take another swing at it. During that break, you may even come up with a new idea that helps it come together better. 

Or perhaps you never feel called to revisit the piece and move onto completely new projects. That’s okay. Letting go of an idea can be immensely freeing. It is your work, and yours alone, and only you can decide what is worthy of your attention. And just because a piece is not completed does not make the process of working on it not valuable. You’ve no doubt learned things from this process, and those lessons, those small joys, and colossal struggles, cannot be taken away no matter what happens.

I have another thought: submit the damn thing. Send it places. See if anyone likes it. See if you get a personalized rejection letter. See if someone wants to publish it, or wants to work with you on editing it. You never know. One of the biggest joys to me of publishing a piece, even in a publication with a tiny readership, is that once a story has a home like that, I feel like I no longer have to think about it. It is “finished” in a way that is outside my control, and that frees my brain up for other things. 

Even if it is not accepted, there may be some value in letting it exist outside of yourself, having it be exposed to an audience that isn’t close to you. See if it has legs. See how far it can travel. You can always keep tinkering if you like. 

The glorious thing about abandoning a piece of writing is that it doesn’t disappear. You can pick it back up again whenever you like, or never again, and either choice is fine. As long as you keep writing, keep reading, keep working, keep experimenting, you are living the writing life. And that is, as Julie Schumacher puts it in Dear Committee Members, “despite its horrors, possibly one of the few sorts of lives worth living at all.”

I imagine this may not be the practical advice sought, but when it comes to stories, practicality can only take us so far. 


Dear Writer - November 2018


Dear Writer, 

I keep hearing people talking about a writer’s “voice.” What exactly does that mean? And how do I know if my writer’s voice is any good? And if it isn’t good, how do I find my voice?

Lip Syncing to my Own Words

Dear Syncing,

I, too, have wondered what the hell people were talking about when they talked about finding one’s own “voice.”  When I was starting out as a writer, it seemed to me to be the kind of thing teachers said when they couldn’t think of anything else to say about my work.  I mean, how could I not write in my own voice?  Whose voice was I writing in, if not my own?  The mailman’s?  Some roving phrenologist’s?  Did I somehow inadvertently sound like that guy sitting alone at the end of the bar, drinking Jack and Cokes and shouting out wrong answers to Jeopardy?  Should I write the way I talk, I wondered—should my work be full of sentence fragments and mild stuttering and swear words?  Or should I write the way I sound to myself when I’m thinking?  What an incoherent and obscene jumble that would be!  

But then I started thinking about voice as I read the work of other writers, and of course, I noticed a few things.  First, some writers are capable of doing all sorts of voices—they’re regular impressionists, now writing from one character’s point of view, now another, then again in a kind of neutral, authorial tone, two books later in a completely different voice again.  Other writers seem to have a distinct style that they use in story after story, book after book.  Think of the great stylists of the early-to-mid 20th century—Hemingway, Faulkner, Joyce and Woolf, for starters—you’d know their work anywhere.  But is voice the same as style?  Is that what we’re talking about?  

Well, yes and no, to my way of thinking.  I think ultimately voice is made up of a few things: diction, which is to say the words you use, the size and scope of your writer’s vocabulary.  Do you use simple, common words, or big, fancy Latinate words?  Or some mix of the two?  There’s also syntax—how you string a sentence together.  We all do it a little differently, it seems to me—we fall into syntactical patterns that become, over time, stylistic markers for our work.  I like multi-clause sentences, as you can probably tell, with lots of punctuation (and even the occasional parenthetical statement).  But I also like to mix in some short sentences.  Fragments, even.  Good writers pay attention to rhythms, too—where the natural, spoken emphases come in a phrase or a sentence.  And then there’s tone, of course—some writers manage to keep a very neutral tone, while others may sound angry or sardonic or urgent or conspiratorial, and so on.  

Ultimately, though, I think I was right to begin with.  For better or worse, whatever you write, you write in your voice.  Even if you’re trying to imitate or parody someone else, unless you’re an unusually brilliant mimic, it will still probably sound like you trying to sound like someone else. That voice may change over time—you may find ways of doing things that work better and seem more natural or more compelling—but no matter what, you’re going to sound like yourself, and, with a little luck, a better, smarter, more entertaining version of yourself.  

And maybe that’s how you know if it’s any good: would you, as a reader, want to spend an hour with that voice?  A day?  A week?  Could you be naked with that voice?  Would you want to hear it when you’re eating, or in bed, or sitting next to a crackling log fire with a nice scotch on the rocks?  Or would you find it tedious, annoying, full of clichés and lifeless dialogue?  Does it natter on with too many big words and extraneous commas, perhaps?  Is it, as Dorothy Parker is supposed to have said, not a book to be set aside lightly, but one to be thrown with great force?  If even you can’t stand the sound of your own voice, it may be time to re-think your career as a writer.  But if it seems okay to your ear—mostly in tune and on key, as it were—then maybe it’s time to get feedback from your smart friends (don’t bother showing it to your dumb friends; they won’t get it), from other writers, and from teachers and agents and editors, too, if those opportunities arise.  With time and work and constructive feedback and lots and lots of reading and thinking about how other writers do things, that voice will develop of its own accord, like a bodybuilder’s biceps develop with weight training.

All of which is a long way of saying, just write the story.  Or the poem.  Or the essay.  Don’t try to sound like someone you’re not.  Don’t try to sound a particular way, even.  Just be you, telling a story.  That’s your voice.  If people like it, it’s good.  If they don’t, then maybe try to sound like someone else, and see how that goes. 

Best of luck,
Jon Loomis

Dear Writer - October 2018


Dear Writer,

I finished the first draft of my poem/short story/novel/essay over a year ago. Since then, I’ve revised it on my own, and I’ve incorporated feedback from my workshop group. Three drafts later, here we are. I love the idea of being done and moving on to writing something else, but I’m terrified that the second I submit my piece for publishing, I’m going to notice some obvious issue in my work. How do I know when my piece is done?

Yours truly,
Third Draft’s A Charm

Dear Third Draft’s A Charm,

Almost three years ago, I saw a call for contributors to an online publication that I had been reading and admiring for years. While my confidence in my craft was still developing, I figured I had nothing to lose by simply submitting something. I researched past articles to get an idea of the content they published, and I jotted down ideas I hoped would feel unexpected, compelling, and would make me stand out among the other applicants. After lots of consideration and even more trepidation, I settled on and submitted my sample piece about my love of the movie The Sound of Music. To my surprise and joyfulness, the two sisters who started the publication were impressed and asked me to join the writing team. My experience with them was my first encounter with the power of creative communities, and I continued to contribute regularly for about two years.

The first piece I published with them was a sort of love letter to my mother, which, looking back now, was neither particularly fresh nor compelling, and it certainly had room to grow. That being said, at the moment of publication, it meant something to me, to my fellow writers, and most importantly, to my mom. Additionally, if we aren’t constantly seeking growth, then we really aren’t challenging ourselves as artists. It is important to remember that sometimes a piece can appear technically or stylistically unfinished, yet the heart of what you are seeking to say shines brighter than any fumbling or doubt you experience. As cheesy as it sounds, sometimes it is all about trusting your gut; it can be more valuable than all of the workshop critiques and machete-style revisions combined.

Of course, the finality of submitting something for publication can often feel terrifying, and it is almost inevitable you will second guess your work after pressing “send”. Ultimately, though, I would argue it is better to take the risk of sending something off than to force your work to float in the in-between because, honestly, it is rare that a piece of writing is ever truly “finished”, especially in the writer’s eyes. I used to think if I published or submitted something, then that piece could be filed away in a drawer to take a nice, long nap, but I have learned that is almost never the case. There are poems I have published that look completely different now than they do in the book and that’s okay! Our work, like ourselves, is constantly growing, and we can honor that while also giving it a chance to be recognized or left alone. At the end of the day, you will never truly know if something is finished, but you can take the leap to find out if someone else thinks it is!

Katy Hackworthy

Dear Writer - February 2017

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Dear Writer,

I am a few years into taking writing seriously and I mostly have rejections to show for it. When my family asks me how the writing’s going, I always just blush and reply, “Good.” In the back of my head I am thinking something different. In fact, I wonder if I can even call myself a writer! Just about every place I have submitted to has rejected my work with nothing more than a form letter. It’s hard to say what I am doing wrong, but to put it bluntly, it feels like everything. How can a writer who is both young in age and in experience keep going when it feels like the deck is stacked against him?

Young & Not Having Fun

Dear Young & Not Having Fun, 

I started writing sporadically in middle school, right around the same time I began to take running seriously. I’d run, I’d write, and I’d hope I was improving, at least a little, in both realms.  After logging enough miles, I began to see a clear correlation between the two activities.  First, running helped me develop my work ethic, something that comes in pretty handy when trying to find time to write. Since we were hitting 60+ miles a week, I had to run in the morning in addition to afternoon practices just to hit my mileage. Although I didn’t continue running competitively beyond high school, the chance to see how hard work can pay off did wonders for my writing life.

There were other similarities, too.  In particular, how distance running may seem like a solitary sport (like writing!), but the truth is, you’re always part of a team. While competing we were a team of “individuals”, though throughout the most important part—the training—we always suffered together, strengthening the bonds between us. When one person was down, we knew what they were going through because we had all been there ourselves.  We knew how to fix one another when we felt broken. 

Upon entering college, I left running behind and focused my efforts exclusivity on creative writing. In an attempt to prove myself, I’d submit everywhere, only to get rejected.  At which point I’d scream my head off at open mics only to make a fool of myself. Suffice is to say: those were some rough times in my life. Without any sort of team to fall back on, I started to question if I had made the right choice.

Up until that point, writing had always been fun. Bringing in the competitive notion of submitting sprouted so much unneeded stress that I just stopped writing creatively for a few weeks before I realized I was wasting my time by not writing. 

With a few things changing in the years following my initial experience as a writer, the most important was putting myself out there. Not always in terms of submitting or reading, but going out into the community and meeting other writers who either went through the same thing, or were going through it at the same time. Knowing that I was not alone in this endeavor to try and make something of my work reminded me of my cross country team. Regardless if you ever had a team, there is a community of writers out there who want to help you. Luckily, in the Chippewa Valley, we are full of them, and not to mention, experienced writers willing to give craft talks or workshops because they were once in your shoes.

Young & Not Having Fun, I hope we cross paths someday so we can go through this together.  For now,  just know that you are not alone.  If running taught me anything, it’s that life should be measured in miles rather than sprints.  Enjoy the journey, enjoy the scenery, and remember: we’re only young once. We should not waste it worrying.


Dear Writer - January 2017

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Dear Writer,

This is it. This is the year I start writing. The year I decide to put pen to paper and tell the story that’s been burning inside me for a long time. But how do I get started? And more importantly, how do I keep going, once I get started? 


Dear #NewYearNewMe,

This is wonderful news一welcome to the world of words and writing. There’s nothing more rewarding than watching something that existed solely in your mind find its voice on paper. And, since the frigid temperatures and snow are probably keeping you indoors, there’s no better time to write. 

Your question is one that I’m sure many writers (and those who have made other kinds of resolutions) are wondering about. You’ve made the decision that 2018 will be the year of writing. But how do you do it? How do you find the motivation after an eight-hour day at work or after a full day of classes? After all, your desk isn’t nearly as comfortable as the couch, and your couch is likely positioned in front of the TV, which also, probably, has Netflix. Oh, the temptation…

I’m so glad that you’ve decided to be a writer, and that you woke up on the morning of January 1st still excited by the idea. But it’s not enough to say you want to be a writer. You also need to put in the work. You need to find the motivation even if it doesn’t seem to be there. Writing isn’t something you do my accident一you really need to sit down and make it happen.  

So, #NewYearNewMe, how do we make writing a seamless part of your life? How do we make sure that this resolution is successful and doesn’t end up like most expensive gym memberships come February (hey, no judgement! We’ve all been there)? 

My first suggestion is to schedule time into your calendar. Yes, I know that this isn’t the sexiest piece of advice I could offer, but it’s the most important. There will always be a reason not to write. You have homework. You had a long day at work and all you want to do is binge-watch reruns of your favorite show. Your house or apartment needs cleaning, or you need to make a meal for your family, or you need to bring the kids to various activities... 

There will always be something that you could be doing instead of writing. And while all of those things are important, if you’re truly committed to bringing your stories or poems or essays to life this year, you need to treat your writing like it’s important, too. 

That means scheduling in writing time, just like you would pencil in other obligations. To start, pick two or three days a week where you can set aside an hour to write. Maybe you’ll exceed that time, or maybe you’ll only get to work for half an hour一that’s okay! So long as you sit down and write some words, that’s all that matters. Whether you write a poem or an essay, or you write a letter or postcard to your best friend, write something. Set up recurring meetings in your Google calendar or iPhone, and get notifications or reminder emails sent to you so that you hold yourself accountable. 

The next thing you need to do is to find your tribe. Find the people who will help keep you accountable. The people who will be your cheerleaders while also giving you constructive (and positive!) feedback to help you grow in your writing. The people you can call up or email when you’re having writer's block, or need help deciding on which direction to take your story. 

Chances are, if you’re reading this, you live in or near the Chippewa Valley region in northwestern Wisconsin. If you do, that’s great news for you, because the perfect writing community exists right where you are. 

With the Chippewa Valley Writers Guild, you can easily find writing groups to join (or start your own!), and attend free Craft Talks that cover a wide range of topics that will enhance your writing. Remember, a strong, positive community is crucial in keeping you motivated in your work. So while you’re adding your writing time into your calendar, make sure to pencil Guild events into your calendar, too. 

So #NewYearNewMe, that’s what I have for you. You already have the most important parts of all of this (the words and creativity). Now all you need to do is set that schedule, find your people, and get to work. I can’t wait to see where your writing takes you this year. 

Good luck, and Happy New Year,


Dear Writer - December 2017

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Dear Writer,

No matter how hard I try, I just can’t do it.  I just can’t put the words to the page.  Maybe the problem is the pen, or the paper, or my nook where the work is supposed to be done.  Or maybe, just maybe, the problem is me.  Can you help?  I just I can’t do.  No matter how much I want to, I just can’t encourage the words to come.

Can’t Write

Dear Can’t Write,

In my early years, the summers always seemed so hot: the air hanging heavy on my neck and shoulders like cotton candy.  Back then was an era in my life when CD advertisements for late White Stripes, early-Raconteurs era alternative rock were adhesed to my ceiling.  Being fifteen has a sort of way of skewing the perspective you have on your current moment. Somewhere, a piece of notebook paper with a quote from Kerouac and a brief note explaining why I had to run away was ready to be tacked to my bedroom door on a middle of the night exodus for California, or somewhere.  I wanted to be like Kerouac, take flight across the Midwest and not stop until I had traded the heft of humidity for the weightlessness of the Pacific Ocean.

I never did run all the way away, nor did I really want to  (full disclosure: I super love my parents and their patient support of my life as a writer) and why would I want to?  Those days, I had so much time.  Any misplaced discontentedness I invented as a weird multi-modal element of my own creative writing could have been energy saved for now that I am facing the crushing workload and deadlines of a PhD program in English.  Back then I could have literally spent hours writing whatever I wanted instead of figuratively spending hours reading Immanuel Kant.

While I never strayed too much further than the driveway, I did occasionally ‘sneak out,’ stealing away into the quiet dark of our rarely traveled suburban road.  We lived by woods, and in the shadows of an infinity of chinquapin and bur oak trees, chestnuts, and evergreens I sought a void to be filled with pages and pages of writing.

I would climb out my bedroom window, leap off the shallow roof, and creep across our front lawn like so many deer trying to sneak bites of my mother’s hostas without alerting our dogs.  Under the yellow globe of a tired streetlight I would sit, legs crossed on the old concrete, notebook open and pen furiously writing.  There was an older kid who lived across the street that would sometimes be out on his own act of rebellion, patch-covered jacket, spiked hair, Anti-Flag or Sex Pistols CDs playing in his Discman; often, he would smoke cigarettes while I read what I was writing.  Other times he would just share the glow with me.

Now, just as much as then, I’m seeking my own private revolution.  So strong is the urge to figuratively sneak out from the confines of the various lives we each live—school, work, planning a wedding, the endlessly disheartening political news cycle, traffic—and just fill a notebook.  Literally fill a notebook.  That’s a thing I used to do.  Now I look out my office window, thinking about how I don’t have time to be enjoying this view, let alone not having time to fill a literal notebook with writing.

As a teacher of creative writing, I’m always telling my students to just write.  We spend class time writing.  Sometimes, they get into grooves and their heads bob up and down in rhythm with their pens or keyboards.  Other times, I do not know what they are doing; these are the only times I have written this semester.

I know it is a hollow suggestion, advice I haven’t let myself indulge in, but I’ll offer it to you anyway, Can’t Write: find the glow of whatever your space is.  Fill it with your body so that you may use your body to fill something with words.  Just write.  Just write.  Just write.  Don’t mistake mythologizing your process, or the process of your idols, such that you cannot write in your spaces.  I did follow Kerouac to San Francisco, eventually, and then I followed myself back into the Midwest.  It turns out the snow is a far greater muse than those literary giants.  Now that I am living on my own, there’s no bedroom to sneak out from.  But when I duck my planner’s rigid schedule, even for a moment to jot down a line or two, the time I find to write is just as exhilarating as the places I write.

And anyway, no matter what world is around you, the place where you’re writing is always the same: you, the pen, and the page.  A phrase I often use to my students and myself: stop running, start writing.


Dear Writer - October 2017

Dear Writer,.png

Dear Writer,

It seems many writers have 'writer's block.'  I have friends who are always staring at a blank screen, and they get more desperate when they fail to write what they are thinking. But that's not my problem. I love the writing, but I always have trouble knowing when to stop. I'm usually well over a word limit by the time that I'm done writing. Can you help me with this problem, or at least convince my editor that I need more space for my stories.

Whole Lot of Words

Dear Whole Lot of Words,

Congratulations on not suffering 'the block.' I know writers who would trade spell check for such a gift.

As to not being able to fit your 700-word masterpiece into a 500-word bag, you are not the Lone Writer. And there are assignments requiring more space, for example a topic requiring deep background. But the common problem is not the story but the storyteller. One way to sabotage a word limit is the Cinnamon Syndrome: If a recipe calls for a teaspoon of cinnamon, two teaspoons must be better.

No. A sports editor once supervised a reporter who wrote great feature stories filled with interesting detail and anecdotes. But that same writer's deadline stories given the same treatment were overwritten. Whole phrases and in some cases paragraphs could be wiped clean without touching the heart of the story. “The wet, gray sky hung low, the wind continually impacted the flight of the ball during pass plays and the field itself turned to soup, impacting the Raiders' vaulted ground attack” would find publication as “Blustery weather and a muddy track stalled the Raiders' offense.”

It's a game story requiring crisp, active prose. Every paragraph, every sentence, every word should be essential or be gone. Apply this test to everything you write, whether an article on landscaping or a short story. Does a detail or idea advance your story, or do they exist because you are in love with them? There are times when a detail or idea may have fit when you wrote it, but stories change. Revisit everything. If it doesn't move it, remove it.

When I edited magazines, more than half of my writers' stories came back racing well past the assigned word limit. And there was this note: “I think I wrote long. Feel free to edit,” illustrating both problem and solution. The writer wrote long and should own up to it and state it clearly, “I wrote long,” saving two words. And “Feel free to edit?” Well, yes, I WILL feel free to edit. I am the editor. It's what I do. You wasted another four words. You used nine words where three would serve. And going through the article, I find this problem repeated: Nine words where three would serve. The edited story was a leaner, cleaner piece.

Whole Lot of Words, you can solve your word-limit angst AND become a better writer. Hopefully you're familiar with Strunk & White's Elements of Style. Find your copy and read it again. This is the Bible of Composition, and the First Commandment is “Omit Needless Words.” Now exercise your new muscle. Retrieve a piece you've already written and get a word count. Edit out 20 percent of the words. Seek and destroy unnecessary adverbs and adjectives. How many times did you use the word “that?”

If 20 percent seems harsh, consider advice offered students in a freshman English class by the late Laurence Perrine, professor at Southern Methodist University and author of numerous books on literature. “How can you achieve this well-tuned, economical, smooth-operating style? The answer is simple. For every 300 words you write, cross 100 out. When assigned a 500-word theme, write a first draft of one thousand words; then cut out the fat without losing the meat. This apprenticeship is rigorous, but it brings results.”

Finally, Whole Lot of Words, let's revisit your letter. How's this?

Dear Writer,
My stories always go over the word limit. Can you help?

Good luck,

Dear Writer - September 2017

The Guild is thrilled to feature a brand new monthly column!

Here’s how it works: each issue, a local writer will offer a question pertaining to the writing life.  Then, our anonymous columnist (who we affectionately call “Writer”!) will attempt to respond.  The answers won’t always be perfect, but they’ll always be heartfelt.  And they’ll always be meant to bring our community a bit closer.

Dear Writer,

I’ve been thinking about writing you for awhile now, but I was always afraid I’d never quite be able to briefly put my question into words.  You see, my problem’s pretty complicated, but it’s also one shared by a lot of us.  After some serious soul-searching, I think I’ve managed to boil it down to a single question.  Here goes: why does my writing suck?

Boohoo Me

Dear Boohoo,

Once upon a time, back when I was an undergraduate and the words were easy, I wrote a story about a boy who fell in love with a girl in chemistry class.  Upon reading my final product, I immediately knew one thing for sure: my story was awesome!  In fact, it was probably in the top ten best stories ever written in the English language.  It had everything: love, drama, and even a nice extended metaphor related to human “chemistry” and the scientific version.  Yes, it was one for the ages, and when it was picked up by a magazine a few months later, I was hardly surprised.

Fast forward a couple of months, whereupon rereading it, a few new facts came to light.  First, my story was not awesome.  In fact, I’d wager to guess it’s probably in the top ten worst stories ever written in the English language. Yes, on the surface it had everything—love, drama, and more!—but all that story had was surface.  Which is another way of saying: it had about as much depth as a puddle.  The characters were flat, the plot was contrived, and my extended metaphor couldn’t have been more transparent if I’d tacked on a title like, “Chemistry, like Love Chemistry, Get It?”

Anyway, I guess most of my readers got it—all four of them.  While that tenth-tier now-defunct online magazine had seen fit to publish the piece, I sleep easier knowing that story’s pretty well hidden in the bowels of the internet.  Though not hidden enough for my liking.

I won’t sit here and tell you that your writing doesn’t suck.  Not because I don’t want to (I do!), but because it would be disingenuous to make an assessment based solely on the caliber of the writing revealed in your question to me.  What I can tell you is that many writers worth their salt are stricken with similar bouts of self-doubt.  To my mind, that’s a good thing.  A “writer” who thinks he churns out pure gold is a “writer” who I can only refer to as a “writer” in quotation marks.  True writers (note the lack of quotation marks) understand that the struggle is part of the process.  And that the longest, hardest struggles often end with the greatest sense of accomplishment.

Which is to say: if you think your writing sucks, you’re in good company.  The best company.  

Now back to the keys, my friend,