Are you sure your writing is really done?

You know how sometimes fried chicken is all brown and crispy on the outside, but then when you cut it open, it’s pink and bloody inside? That’s how I’m feeling about some of the work I have been reading in my role as one of the editors of the Timberline Review, for which submissions closed yesterday.

It happens mostly in poems, but also in prose. I start reading and think, wow, this is going to be great. What a fresh topic, what wonderful imagery. The rhythm, the emotion, the substance. And then . . . rats. The piece fizzles out. Suddenly I’m at the end, and the writer didn’t carry through with the promise he or she made at the beginning. The piece ends in a stream of vague generalities or clichés, goes on too long, or stops suddenly, leaving me wanting more. We grade the poems on a 1 to 4 scale, 1 being yes and 4 being forget about it. In my weariness last night, I gave one poem a 5. I hate, hate, hate starting out reading a 1 poem and having to give it a 4 because the writer didn’t finish it.

I worked in the newspaper business for a long time. We were lucky if we had time for two drafts, but if you’re writing on your own, you do have time for two or 20 or however many drafts it takes to make sure your work is the best it can be. Right now, take out a piece of paper and write down these words. Write them big. WHAT AM I TRYING TO SAY? Hang it up where you can see it and ask yourself that with everything you write.

Write your first drafts as loose and wild as you want. Don’t worry about things hanging together or even making sense. But when you revise and before you ever send your work out for publication, ask yourself that question. What am I trying to say? Write down what you’re trying to say in one sentence. And follow it up with: Does this piece of writing say it? Does it say it all the way from the first line to the last? Can I tie the opening and closing together? Are there sections that just don’t support that main idea? Did I run out of steam halfway through or quit too soon? Finish your thought. Then stop. The most common editing suggestion we’ve been making to our poets is to cut the final stanza. So take another look. Is your work really ready?

Two other editor quibbles I have to share today:

1) If the guidelines say not to put your name on the submission, don’t put your name on it. Don’t put it in the file name or in your headers or footers, don’t put it anywhere except in your cover letter or the online form you use to submit. When editors say blind submissions, that’s what we want.

2) Learn the difference between lay and lie and how to conjugate them:

I lie down now, I lay down last night, I had lain down last Tuesday, I am lying down now.

I lay down the book now, I laid it down last night, I had laid it down last Tuesday, I am laying it down now.

See the nifty chart and examples at The Grammarist.

Now let’s go write.

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