Writing is a private affair. One mind, one hand holding a pen; or two hands hovering over a keyboard. It’s almost always carried out alone. And when the pages are written, then what? This is a key question because it defines a crucial divide between writers who write for publication and writers who write just for themselves.
Writing for yourself is fine. We all write for ourselves first, really. If we don’t love our words, no one else will, either. There’s nothing wrong with being your own unique audience. Maybe you’re not ready to share. Maybe you want to keep what you’re writing all to yourself because it’s more comfortable—and more freeing—like keeping a diary where you can say whatever you want without fear of rebuke.
But if you want to write better, you’ve got to let someone else read you.
The question is, who?
There’s Aunt Marge, who loved your earliest attempts. But please, if you share with her, don’t rely too much on her opinion. The woman might make the best pineapple upside-down cake in the Tri-State area, but as a literary critic, she probably leaves something to be desired. She’ll tell you you’re brilliant because she adores you, and while that might leave you feeling all warm and fuzzy, it’s not what you need.
There’s your writing group if you’re in one. These are probably your peers, assuming you’re all at more or less the same level of experience. They’ve been trying to wrestle their own words around, so have some idea of what’s what. But they may not. They may respond viscerally and say something like “I don’t like your character, she’s too mean.” That may be true—your character could be a witch among witches, but it’s not a useful remark. If you hear that your pacing is too slow, or things wrap up a little too neatly, that’s helpful. If each person in your group has a different issue with your story, it’s nearly impossible to focus on a way to improve it. However, if they home in on the same problem—a place where each lost the narrative thread, for instance—that’s worth listening to.
When is it time to put yourself in the hands of a stranger? When you’re serious about getting published. It’s a big hurdle, and a lot of writers get stuck on it. You can’t believe the excuses I’ve heard from people who don’t want to send their work out. “The system is rigged.” “With thousands of submissions, mine will never make it.” “Editors don’t really read everything that comes their way.” What these statements all boil down to is a fear of being rejected. Writers hear “No” more than most people in most other professions. And yes, you should think of writing as a profession because that’s exactly what it is. It’s not easy to screw up your courage and launch your file into the ether, but there’s no other way to get your story in front of a reader you’ve never met. Editors will often give you valuable feedback about why your story didn’t make the cut, and if that happens, take their words to heart. Remember that they read a lot of work, and can tell good from bad. Look at your pages through their lens. This is how you learn.
Now, what about sending to a contest? A unique hurdle there is the entry fee. A lot of writers resent being asked to pay it, but consider this: most publications operate on a shoe-string, and every dollar helps. If you don’t feel charitable, you need to think about a press’s bottom line, how they make ends meet, and so on. Many of them are run by volunteers with day jobs. Are a few dollars really so much to ask? Some contests require as much as twenty-five dollars or even more, and I agree, that’s steep. If you can’t swing it, then don’t. But if you can, you’re contributing to a good cause. And what’s in it for you? Well, obviously you could win, and that’s always lovely. But if you don’t win first place, you might be included on a list of Honorable Mentions or Finalists and you can feel you’ve achieved something important. Kudos count in writing, just as in anything, and so do bragging rights. It’s nice to remember these favorable results when that inevitable sense of discouragement sets in.
What this all comes down to is that I hope you’ll think of your writing as something to share, especially now when we’re all isolating and staying home as much as possible. Art connects us and brings us together. Do your best work, be brave, and hit “Send.”