If you read the acknowledgment pages of many novels, nonfiction books, short story collections, and poetry books, you’ll often see where earlier excerpts were published. This can tell you several things, including that the publications listed:
May be something you would like to read
May be markets for your own work
Often, first publications or excerpts appear in literary magazines. If you’re working on your own book or collection, literary magazines may be an important step in your reading, researching, and publishing journey.
For example, in World of Wonders: In Praise of Fireflies, Whale Sharks, and Other Astonishments, Aimee Nezhukumatathil’s 2020 book, the acknowledgments include literary magazines such as Brevity, Diagram, Ecotone, and Georgia Review.
Bully Love, Patricia Colleen Murphy’s 2019 poetry collection, lists acknowledgments for Hawaii Review, Heliotrope, Indiana Review, and many other publications.
Finding literary magazines
Finding information about the literary magazines listed on an acknowledgments page is an online search away. However, reading the stories, poems, and essays they publish can get tricky. The spectrum of literary magazines ranges from fully online to print-only magazines that publish zero content online.
Reading online literary magazines can be as easy as signing up on their websites, but reading print-based magazines may involve ordering print or electronic copies of individual issues. Some magazines offer pdf versions of recent back issues that may be available for reduced prices and quick access.
Don’t skimp on reading. An important part of the submission process is familiarizing yourself with individual literary magazines. Research what they’ve published. A friend of mine from grad school didn’t do this, and he ended up with a publication that he finds embarrassing to this day.
Submission windows for literary magazines may vary from one week to year-round. A few don’t accept any unsolicited work. Tactics to find these submission windows and writers’ guidelines start with a magazine’s website. If the magazine offers a newsletter, sign up to receive alerts about content, contests, submissions, blog posts, and (yes) fundraising.
Another tactic to find submission windows and guidelines is to “follow” publications in Submittable, an online submission management platform. Once you follow a publication, you’ll build a dashboard-like “Following” screen within Submittable that you can skim for “opportunities.” Some of these opportunities are solicitations to buy copies of magazines, but the majority are submission portals for fiction, poetry, creative nonfiction, comics, plays, contests, and more.
Setting your intentions
Many writers set quotas for themselves when drafting or sending out work. However, fewer writers seem to set reading quotas, such as to explore one new literary magazine each week. Or push your weekly reading to include at least one short story, essay, or set of poems from a literary magazine.
This intentional exploring and reading of literary magazines can yield inspiration, which contributes to your writing, revising, and submissions process. You’ll also gather valuable information about the literary marketplace, including where to find copacetic writers and editors.
For help, check out “Resolve to read a literary magazine,” a recent effort by the Community of Literary Magazines and Publishers. Click through the CLMP membership directory for reading and submission options as well as discount subscription bundles.
I’m happy to share that my flash nonfiction piece “Handwashing Dishes” has been published online by TheSoutheast Review.
The Southeast Review, established in 1979 as Sundog, is a national literary magazine housed in the English Department at Florida State University, Tallahassee, and is edited and managed by its graduate students and a faculty consulting editor.
I especially appreciated working with Nonfiction Editor Liesel Hamilton, a Ph.D. candidate in nonfiction writing. She asked smart questions during the editing process, and her attentions truly made the piece better.
What is flash nonfiction? “I am including creative nonfiction work up to 2,000 words, though the great majority of what is discussed is briefer: 500 to 1,000 words, and sometimes even fewer…. [L]ike literary fiction and poetry, the nonfiction we discuss is marked by the distinct, often peculiar, voice and sensibilities of the author and these works examine the deeply human—and often unanswerable—questions that concern all serious art…. [T]he work itself is individual, intimate, exploratory, and carefully crafted using metaphor, sensory language, and precise detail.” (xiv) —Dinty W. Moore, The Rose Metal Press Field Guide to Writing Flash Nonfiction
The chapter “Memory Triggers and Tropes” by Rigoberto Gonzalez of Rutgers University was especially helpful in drafting “Handwashing Dishes.” The prompt Gonzalez wrote starts with a useful distinction:
“Recall a memory that has emotional (not sentimental) value for you. To differentiate, an emotional response is attached to reason or thought and makes you ask (and want to answer) who, what, where, why, and how; a sentimental response is attached to feeling and simply asks those same questions without seeking to assess or investigate them.” (35)
Emotional vs. sentimental
The idea of a memory with emotional value immediately made me think about the dishes. They helped me unlock the memory of flying across the country to check on my mother’s welfare after being called by the Phoenix police. I needed to write about the state of my mother’s kitchen and family memories I’d been trying to make sense of for years.
As I drafted and re-drafted the story, finding the right point of view held me back. A straight reportage third-person version (she/they) seemed too detached and clinical. Meanwhile, a first-person version (I) was too much about me. The second-person point of view (you) offered a balance between emotional distance and experiential immediacy that fit.
Two chapters from The Rose Metal Press Field Guide to Writing Flash Nonfiction focused on writing in second-person. When I read Dinah Lenney’s chapter, “All About You,” I saw similarities in our approaches to second-person narration.
Hey, you! (second-person narration)
We both started with research. I remembered the second-person point of view in Jay McInerney’s novel Bright Lights, Big City from grad school. Lenney of the University of Southern California offered a longer list. She included “Carlos Fuentes, Marguerite Duras, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Samuel Beckett, Jhumpa Lahiri, Rumer Godden, Edwidge Danticat, Junot Diaz, Italo Calvino, William Faulkner, etc.” (100).
But what about specifically nonfiction examples? These were more elusive. I added Mary Karr’s Cherry: A Memoir to the list because the book starts with a second-person prologue.
In Lenney’s chapter, she used her flash nonfiction “Little Black Dress” as an example while pointing out what using second-person narration allows a writer to do. She writes, “it slows down the pace of things so that the story happens to you and your reader at about the same time—both of you there, in the middle of whatever it is, however delightful or excruciating” (102).
This slowing down that Lenney refers to helped me see the bigger picture connected to a scene worthy of a squalor documentary. It wasn’t just a weekend of trying to set things to right, there were things that couldn’t be fixed simply with a clean kitchen.
Research (library databases)
The key was further research. I read about the work-related trauma that can impact medical professionals. Mom used to tell me operating room stories—mangled motorcycle riders, disfiguring cancer surgeries, and aneurysms where blood pooled on the floor. She and many career nurses work through physical hazards, such as back injuries from lifting heavy patients, as well as mental trauma. Research into the toll of the health care professions acknowledges the effects of these traumas and helped me see the connection to my mother.
The combination of research into Mom’s work as a nurse—as well as into the craft of flash nonfiction and second-person narration—helped me make sense of lingering images from her house. To borrow language from Rigoberto Gonzalez, the flash nonfiction form allowed me to highlight a “moment of awareness or awakening that will resonate for a lifetime” (34). The writing helped me get closer to answers that had eluded me.
Manoa: A Pacific Journal of International Writing (University of Hawai’i Press)
1999 to present
2020 (Vol. 32, No. 2)
Note that database content can change quickly. In other words, due to budgets, contract negotiations, and legal and financial wrangling, publications can pop into and out of Project Muse and other databases. What you were looking at yesterday, might not be there today.
For my students, I recommend they download any database document (including bibliographic information) if they even think it might be useful in their work. Note that these downloads are for personal use only.
About Project Muse
Project Muse is an online database available through many college and university libraries. The database offers access to articles, poems, fiction, nonfiction, and other content published by a variety of journals, including select literary magazines.
In terms of market research, database access to full-text content is valuable because once you’ve read what a magazine is publishing, you can sense whether your writing might find a home there. Also, it never hurts to mention a memorable piece you read from the editor’s magazine when writing a cover letter.
TECH NOTE: How to search the Project Muse database
Databases offer multiple points of access, but the following is the quickest way I’ve found to search for and read content from the magazines listed above using Project Muse.
NOTE: Content isn’t often labeled as fiction, nonfiction, or poetry, but the page numbers offer useful clues. A one- or two-page article is more likely to be poetry, and a 10- or 20-page article is likely to be fiction or nonfiction.
Pondering “Giving Tuesday” donation requests and everyday submission fees at lit mags
Writers don’t earn much for publishing their work in literary magazines. In fact, after you add up the online submission fees and the costs of old-school printing and postage, many writers actually pay to have their work published.
However, publishing can build a writer’s social capital. It’s a different type of earning. Publishing is a status symbol, of sorts, that can verify your topic or your writing is good or interesting or digressive or [insert another adjective]. For writing teachers, especially those on the tenure track, publications listed on a vita show a teacher’s relevance and contributions to their field, which helps them get hired or promoted or keeps them employed.
More literary magazines are offering an honorarium beyond “paying” in contributor’s copies and bragging rights. Often honoraria run $25. A few magazines, such as those with commercial or foundation backing, pay professional rates. These mythical outlets may pay $250 to $1,000 or more, but their fiction is liberally sprinkled with agented submissions.
Science fiction, fantasy and other genres
Genre publications, including science fiction and fantasy, seem to take writer’s payments more seriously. Publications can’t be considered professional or “qualifying markets” by the Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America unless they pay at least 8 cents per word, among other criteria.
This professionalism goes both ways. Many science fiction, horror, and other genre publications pay their writers, but they may require exclusivity. Their writer’s guidelines may prohibit simultaneous submissions, but in return, they often make their decisions (to publish or not to publish) in days or weeks, rather than months.
SFWA members frown on reading or submission fees. “The Egregious Practice of Charging Reading Fees” is the title of a 2018 SFWA blog by John Walters, a hybrid author who has published more than 20 books. Walters critiques the literary marketplace’s submission fees and their impact on disenfranchisement and diversity.
Poetry has value
As for poetry earnings, think back to the blog “Poetry Has Value” where poets shared monthly tallies of their submission fees and income. For example, Erika Dreifus, author of Birthright: Poems, earned $517.65 from her poetry publications in 2016. However, she did this by pursuing free markets for her poems.
“Thanks to my Poetry Has Value posts, I can tell you that I sent out 134 [packets of] poetry submissions in 2016… Had I spent $3 each time, I’d have shelled out $402 on submission fees. Which would have left me with $117.65,” Dreifus wrote in “Making Poetry Pay: Five Ways to Increase Your Poetry Income,” which was published in The Writer’s Notebook in July 2017.
NOTE: The free monthly Practicing Writer e-newsletter from Erika Dreifus includes “fee-free (and paying) calls and competitions—plus other resources—for writers of fiction, poetry, and creative nonfiction.” More information is at: ErikaDreifus.com
Where is the money in literary publishing?
So, what happens when you follow the money in literary magazine publishing? Like a big shining billboard, there is Submittable.
Submittable, a “submission management software” company based in Missoula, Montana, gives writers an online platform to submit their creative work to publications. Costs for printing, postage, and SASEs (self-addressed stamped envelopes) have morphed into online submission fees. Magazine staff members use the Submittable platform to accept or reject work online. Stacks of mail and full recycling bins have turned into burgeoning electronic queues.
“Since starting, Submittable has partnered with over 11,000 organizations to promote calls, accept, review and take action on over 50 million submissions and applications from over 4.5 million users,” wrote CEO Michael A. FitzGerald in November.
Fifty million submissions…
Some of those submissions were free. Other submissions cost $25-plus. Most of them were about $3. Some of that money went to the publications and some to Submittable. If you read Tahoma Literary Review’s “What We Pay (and how we do it),” you’ll see that in spring 2020 Submittable’s cut of each submission was 5 percent plus 99 cents. This is on top of a yearly fee, which can be $999 for Submittable’s “basic” level.
For Submittable, what does this look like in rough numbers? • 50 million submissions @ $3 apiece = $150 million * 5 percent = $7.5 million • 50 million submissions * 99 cents = $49.5 million • Total: $57 million (This estimate doesn’t include Submittable’s base fees.)
Not bad for a company, originally called Submishmash, that FitzGerald started in his basement with Bruce Tribbensee and John Brownell in 2010.
FitzGerald stepped down as Submittable’s CEO in November 2020 to continue his treatment for colorectal cancer. Thor Culverhouse has since taken over as CEO, but the transition and the recent global recession brought to light hints about the financial side of Submittable. As reported in the Missoulian newspaper:
In July 2019, the company raised $10 million in venture capital.
In April 2020, Submittable laid off 30 of its 130 Missoula-based workers.
I’ll add that, during the pandemic, literary magazine submissions may be up, if the quick closing of metered or free submission windows is any sign.
Why “Giving Tuesday” made me think about this
Even before “Giving Tuesday” I started receiving donation requests from literary magazines that I submitted work to over the years. I don’t mean to put a negative spin on this, but some of these magazines last communicated with me via a boilerplate message like, “Thanks for your submission [and submission fee], but we’re not going to publish your work. We’re so busy that we have nothing more to say right now. Good luck.”
About those $3 submission fees, my math shows: • $1.86 stays with the magazine • $1.14 goes to Submittable Note that it’s not unusual for a higher-tier magazine to receive 10,000 submissions a year.
Nonetheless, I saw a stark contrast. The donation solicitations were annoying, especially those from magazines that hadn’t communicated regularly through newsletters or other avenues. But these literary magazines needed donations, grants, subscriptions, and submission fees to keep publishing. We’re talking about budgets of thousands or tens of thousands of dollars.
Meanwhile, a company that “partnered” with these sometimes-struggling publications talks about fees and venture capital on the order of millions of dollars.
And writers? Maybe they made $500 through their writing last year, if they worked hard and avoided submission fees.
An update from Submittable
Keriann Strickland, director of product & content marketing for Submittable, contacted me to provide additional information about their business and fees. Here’s what she wrote:
First, you caught an error for us; thank you. Michael’s [former CEO Michael FitzGerald’s] blog post should have said nearly 20 million submissions [instead of 50 million].
As the blog you quote mentions, we’ve expanded from our literary roots into many other industries and use cases. That total submission number represents all of those industries/use cases (not just literary journals)—most of them without submission fees.
In the minority case where an organization charges fees, you’re correct that we charge $0.99 + 5% of the total sum collected—4% of that goes to our payment processor (we use a 3rd party for security and compliance standards). More on that break down here: https://www.submittable.com/features/fees-and-payments/
In partnership with CLMP [Community of Literary Magazines and Presses], we also offer special discounted plans for literary journals at $39/month or $290/year (well below our basic pricing https://www.submittable.com/clmp/).
Vintage postcard: Beautiful bridge on Pennsylvania’s Turnpike in the Bedford Narrows.
One of the authors I worked with described his home as “El Rancho Indebto.” That description — from author Daniel Gray’s books, such as Adobe ImageStyler In Depth — has stuck with me even though it has been years since I’ve worked in educational publishing.
Dan had a way of twisting words to make them more interesting amid chapters on how to apply the techniques of web design and develop software expertise. I have to apologize in arrears for probably thwarting some of his descriptions. For example, I remember him writing the lesser-known “stop on a nickel,” and I might have changed it to the tired, old “stopped on a dime.”
In any case, finding the right words, the less tired words, the memorable words, can bring your writing to life. It’s a constant battle I’ve fought by seeking the telling details that deepen scenes.
In my search for the right words, I’ve accumulated a few trusted books that go beyond the thesaurus and Google searches. Books I continue to turn to include:
Random House Word Menu by Stephen Glazier – Struggling to describe the lights and mirrors in a setting? This reference gives you a list, along with short definitions, to help you decide if your setting has a gaslight or a torchiere. A pier glass or a looking glass. See the “Lamps and Mirrors” section.
The Describer’s Dictionary by David Grambs – The subtitle is “A Treasury of Terms & Literary Quotations for Readers and Writers.” Want to give a character a trademark ring or pendant? Scan the “Common Emblems and Symbols” chapter. Consider the implications of whether your character would wear a peaceful ankh (a “loop-topped cross”) or a human skull, “as a symbol of mortality, death’s head, memento mori.” This book is half word lists and half literary excerpts so you can see how authors have employed these details.
DK Ultimate Visual Dictionary – This book is all about images and labels. Want to know the name for that little chute between your character’s nose and lips? A philtrum. (As an aside, some believe the width of this chute is an indicator of a person’s fertility.) Need your character to encounter a horse and touch its leg or head? You might want to know the difference between a fetlock and a forelock. A fetlock is a joint somewhat similar to a human’s ankle, and a forelock is the hair between a horse’s ears that often falls forward like bangs.
Why turn to books when there’s Wikipedia, Google, and other online resources? The more curated content found within these reference books (whether paper or ebook) can save you from falling into a rabbit hole (or as Dan Gray might say, a woodchuck hole) of clicks.
Davis scanned 2,000 books, including bestsellers, prize winners, and books commonly assigned in U.S. high schools and colleges. She used a language processor to see what body parts and adjectives were most commonly used to describe male and female characters. The interactive visual aspects of the Pudding essay allow you to test some of your assumptions about gender and descriptors. (Thank you to Jane Friedman’s “Electric Speed” newsletter for recommending this article.)
Vintage postcard: Federal building at night, Chicago World’s Fair 1933
I’ve rarely entered writing contests. At $20 to $30, most entry fees seem too high. Granted, some publications do ease the sting by sending you a copy of the issue containing the winning entries or a year’s subscription, but still…
When you could pay a $3 reading fee for 10 general submissions versus one $30 entry fee for a contest, the economics win. The return on investment for contest entries often seems too low.
My view of contests was reinforced when I read about the Writer’s Digest contests in Jane Friedman’s book, The Business of Being a Writer. “When I worked for Writer’s Digest, the revenue from competition entry fees approached a million dollars a year,” writes Friedman. “The number of contests was a budgeted line item in the revenue forecast, and if the projected number was not achieved on time, the contest deadline was often extended to collect more entries.”
This gave me a new perspective on contests that announce they’ve extended their deadlines. Are they just trying to bring in a certain amount of money?
For this contest the regular entry fee is $30. I figured that to generate $1 million, the contest would need more than 33,000 entries distributed over the nine categories. Yes, the contest offers a $5,000 grand prize and several other higher-dollar prizes, but when I recently saw this year’s short story winner my first thought was, So that’s what a hundred-thousand-dollar story looks like (at least in terms of entry fees).
Here’s what I was thinking (mistakenly):
$1,000,000 (approximate entry fees) ÷ 9 (the number of categories)
$111,111 (entry fees per category)
NOTE: This assumed that all categories received a ninth of the entries, or about 3,703 entries, at $30 apiece.
Okay, upon further examination, my math was really wrong because the Writer’s Digest competitions website also lists separate competitions for self-published books, popular fiction, short short stories, self-published ebooks, and poetry. These other contests must be part of the organization’s revenue projections, and I’ve only been looking at the Annual Writing Competition.
The one number I may be close to right on is that $1 million in contest revenue would require more than 33,000 submissions at $30 apiece, not counting expenses for prizes, administration, honorariums for judges, and so on. Nonetheless, the odds of winning or placing among 33,000-plus submissions doesn’t give me any sense that the odds may ever be in my favor, no matter how good or bad my writing is.
I apologize for picking on Writer’s Digest, but their contest just happens to be the one I read about recently. I don’t think their contests are alone in being a “profit center,” to quote Friedman again. I also doubt their odds are unusual among big contests.
Better odds in local and regional contests
When considering contests, I look for better odds. I’ve found this in local and regional contests, especially those held by nonprofits. These contests may attract a few hundred entries instead of thousands.
For example, the annual Wisconsin People & Ideas contests for fiction and poetry received 69 fiction entries and 585 poems in 2014 (the most recent year that I could find reported entry numbers for). The odds were much better for fiction (1 winner in 23), whereas the poetry odds were much tougher (1 winner in 195).
The regular entry fee is $20, and cash prizes range from $500 to $100 for the first- through third-place, respectively. While both the odds and the potential ROI for this contest seem more attractive, entries are limited to Wisconsin writers.
NOTE: In addition to cash awards, the Writer’s Digest contest offers introductions to agents and other benefits that are difficult to place a cash value on. Similarly, Wisconsin People & Ideas, a publication of the Wisconsin Academy of Sciences Arts & Letters, offers winners benefits such as a residency, publication in the journal, and a reading during the Wisconsin Book Festival.
Acceptance rates for general submissions
Acceptance rates of 1 to 2 percent seem common among many literary magazines, based on what I’ve read through the years.
Here are a few of the acceptance rates literary magazines provided to Peck:
Colorado Review 1.06% acceptance rate
Flash Fiction Online 0.7% acceptance rate
Rattle 0.717% acceptance rate
Tahoma Literary Review regularly provides acceptance rates on a page titled “What We Pay (and how we do it).” For example, the fall/winter 2018 issue received 1,225 submissions, of which 25 were published, which is a 2% acceptance rate (if my math is correct). If you’re interested, the TLR website breaks the submissions down by category.
Final thoughts (for now)
In the end, contests may offer a bit more recognition, money, and perks, but their entry fees could quickly drain your budget for marketing your creative writing. On the plus side, contests offer a deadline, which may help push a project through to completion. Remember, however, that deadlines may be extended to attract more fee-paying competitors.
Vintage postcard: Tractor at work in an orange grove near Fullerton, California.
The last of the candy holidays is almost here. Each of these holidays comes with bowls and bags and boxes and general excesses of candy:
The sugar bender starts with Halloween
Skips Thanksgiving for Christmas
Continues through Valentine’s Day
Peaks again at Easter (No, not Peeps.)
And finally slides home at Mother’s (and Father’s) Day
A box of chocolates could be an acceptable gift on any of these holidays, except maybe Halloween. But on All Hallows Eve, the big neighborhood news is often which house is giving out full-size candy bars (not to mention the health-conscious house offering apples and oranges and thus to be avoided).
These holidays each have their confectionary oddities that can linger for months:
Halloween—Orange- and black-wrapped peanut butter taffy
Christmas—Bitter green-striped candy canes
Valentine’s Day—Tie: wax lips and box after mini box of pink and red Nerds
Easter—Palm oil “chocolate” bunnies
Mother’s Day—Mystery chocolates in a box with no flavor diagram
My apologies if any of these are your favorites, but most of them appear on “worst of” lists.
No matter how cringey these candies may be, they have nothing on the sweets in my favorite scene from Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow. I read the novel during a grad school semester when I was assigned to read a book or more each week, and at 759 pages, Gravity’s Rainbow was a bit of a challenge. I may have been loopy with exhaustion the first time I read the candy scene, but it still makes me laugh today:
…He reaches in the candy bowl, comes up with a black, ribbed licorice drop. It looks safe. But just as he’s biting in, Darlene gives him, and it, a peculiar look, great timing this girl, sez, “Oh, I thought we got rid of all those—” a blithe, Gilbert & Sullivan ingénue’s thewse— “years ago,” at which point Slothrop is encountering this dribbling liquid center, which tastes like mayonnaise and orange peels.
“You’ve taken the last of my Marmalade Surprises!” cries Mrs. Quoad, having now with conjuror’s speed produced an egg-shaped confection of pastel green, studded all over with lavender nonpareils. “Just for that I shan’t let you have any of these marvelous rhubarb creams.” Into her mouth it goes, the whole thing.
“Serves me right,” Slothrop, wondering just what he means by this, sipping herb tea to remove the taste of mayonnaise candy—oops but that’s a mistake, right, here’s his mouth filling once again with horrible alkaloid desolation, all the way back to the soft palate where it digs in. Darlene, pure Nightingale compassion, is handing him a hard red candy, molded like a stylized raspberry … mm, which oddly enough even tastes like a raspberry, though it can’t begin to take away the bitterness. Impatiently, he bites into it, and in the act knows, fucking idiot, he’s been had once more, there comes pouring out onto his tongue the most godawful crystalline concentration of Jeez it might be pure nitric acid, “Oh mercy that’s really sour,” hardly able to get the words out he’s so puckered up, exactly the sort of thing Hop Harrigan used to pull to get Tank Tinker to quit playing his ocarina, a shabby trick then and twice as reprehensible coming from an old lady who’s supposed to be one of our Allies, shit he can’t even see it’s up his nose and whatever it is won’t dissolve, just goes on torturing his shriveling tongue and crunches like ground glass among his molars. Mrs. Quoad is meantime busy savoring, bite by dainty bite, a cherry-quinine petit four. She beams at the young people across the candy bowl. Slothrop, forgetting, reaches again for his tea. There is no graceful way out of this now. Darlene has brought a couple-three more candy jars down off the shelf, and now he goes plunging, like a journey to the center of some small hostile planet, into an enormous bonbon chomp through the mantle of chocolate to a strongly eucalyptus-flavored fondant, finally into a core of some very tough grape gum arabic. He fingernails a piece of this out from between his teeth and stares at it for a while. It is purple in color.
“Now you’re getting the idea!” Mrs. Quoad waving at him a marbled conglomerate of ginger root, butterscotch, and aniseed, “you see, you also have to enjoy the way it looks….” (116-17).
Slothrop encounters many more candy abominations before and after this in the full version of what has been called the “Disgusting English Candy Drill.”
Okay, so let’s see if we can get a writing prompt out of all this:
Intentionally or not, characters may weaponize holiday foods, treats, and other delicacies. In turn, the characters receiving the comestibles may struggle with how to be polite, how to at least try the food, how to escape with or without explaining, how to stay true to their own rules for eating, and so on.
Another potential aspect of this drill is encountering a food so consuming (no pun intended) that paying attention to anything outside of the food becomes difficult. It’s as if the volume is dialed up on the food and down on the world.
Write a scene or memory where struggles with food are at the forefront so that issues among the characters/people can only leak around the edges. Don’t forget to call on sensory details in working with the food. Note the different ways of eating and tasting (Pynchon incorporates the soft palate, nose, tongue, teeth, molars, eyes, and more in just this portion of his scene). Besides spoken words, how do the characters communicate through the handling, offering, and eating of the food (for example, power, rejection, resignation, surprise, etc.)?
I’d be interested to hear whether this prompt yields any useful results. Please post your comments.
Chicago World’s Fair: Looking through Morocco with the Belgian village in the background
Problem: You have a longish essay or shortish memoir (say, 13 single-spaced pages) that you want to revise, but you don’t know where to start.
Solution: Try flipping the techniques you probably learned in college English.
Rhetorical analysis is a mouthful and uses criteria that date back to Aristotle. The underlying concepts, however, are familiar and accessible: ethical appeals (ethos), logical appeals (logos), emotional appeals (pathos), and right time/right place (kairos).
For my English 101 and 102 students I compare rhetorical analysis to dissecting a piece of writing. While biology students dissect creatures (worms, frogs, and so on) to find and identify their parts and systems, composition classes do something similar with published texts. They look at the choices an author made and how those choices influence readers. How did or didn’t the author’s writing strategies contribute to his or her purpose?
So, let’s flip the process to figure out what you’re doing (or missing). Instead of assessing someone else’s writing, look at your own nonfiction project. How do you handle the following?
Ethical appeals (ethos)—A writer’s character, knowledge, and authority
Do you establish yourself as a trustworthy source? Establish your credibility or authority (such as relevant education, work, or life experience)?
Reveal your biases and/or unbiased (journalistic) approach?
Cite sources knowledgeably and reasonably? (The sources you cite may contribute to how readers perceive your credibility.)
Acknowledge and address opposing viewpoints fairly?
Logical appeals (logos)—A text’s sound reasoning, sense of logic, and evidence
Do you use sufficient, representative, and relative evidence to support your writing? (Look at the quality of your source material.)
Avoid assumptions and fallacies, such as comparing apples and oranges, using a “straw man” that’s easily refuted, making false analogies, and so on?
Employ reasonable arguments?
Follow a logical structure?
Emotional appeals (pathos)—A text’s connection to beliefs and values
Do you use emotional content legitimately and fairly?
Realize the emotions your words might evoke in readers? (This includes how covertly or overtly you communicate your own beliefs.)
Avoid oversimplifying or overdramatizing?
Include emotional content ethically, instead of as a tactic to shift attention?
Right time/right place (kairos)—A text’s timeliness or opportunity
Do you strike the right tone to address your intended audience? (For example, imagine writing to a potential employer versus your best friend.)
Use timely and relevant examples?
Adjust your text to meet the needs of your audience?
Consider: Why this text? Why now?
For my work-in-progress, kairos or right time/right place has been a crucial consideration. I’m writing about events that occurred alongside my first attempts at a reporting and editing career after college. Once I connected the events to my current work teaching students in a similar (if earlier) stage of life, I found what made the text timely. It stopped being simply a Woman vs. Nature story.
This, in turn, led me to consider pathos or the emotional content of the piece. My distance from the events, as well as my proximity to current college students dealing with similar issues, helped me answer what author Ron Carlson used to ask in workshops: What’s swimming under the boat? (I apologize if I’ve misquoted him, but he makes a similar point about things “under the boat” in a Newwest interview. He’s referring to fiction, but I believe his idea works for narrative nonfiction also.)
In considering other rhetorical elements I winnowed unwieldy drafts so that every detail had a purpose. I forecast how my writing choices could influence readers, and I found a conclusion with greater resonance.
This analytical process gave me a sense of intention in my revisions. I hope it does the same for you.
References: The main sources used in compiling this blog were: