Learn from a literary magazine intern

Networking helps (but it isn’t what you think)

Literary magazines often prefer to take on someone endorsed by an individual in the industry. In my case, another Carroll alumnus who had been published in Dagan Books was my first connection.

But the old statement “it’s not what you know, it ‘s who you know” is misleading. Networking is not always, or even most of the time, going to power lunches and passing around business cards. It’s about coming across as a reasonable and reliable person in everyday encounters and communication, whether it be email, face-to-face, or over the phone.

Besides, even if you know someone who knows someone who gets you the internship, it might not help you keep it.

Everyone is busy all the time

For a lot of literary magazines, most of the staff and even the editor are volunteers. Everyone involved is usually working one or more other jobs, as well as dealing with family, relationships, and assorted personal emergencies. It helps to be a self-sufficient person who can be shown how to do something and doesn’t need a lot of direct supervision.

So if you have deadlines, meet them. Don’t send emails to your supervisor seven times a day. Be conscientious, but don’t stress out about it. Few people will hold inexperience over your head. Asking intelligent questions helps.

Respect your coworkers

They’ve been doing this longer than you. They may have seen bored, uninterested interns or employees hired in the past. Try to dispel that notion. Your responsibilities and opportunities might then expand as your supervisor or coworkers learn you are a trustworthy person. It’s a useful skill to learn in any work environment.

You don’t always have to enjoy the work. Still, always get something out of it, even if what you’ve learned is that you don’t want to work in that field. You’re gaining job experience, references from coworkers, and the knowledge of how to build those relationships in a professional setting. Use that opportunity.

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Write what you know

Each person has a wealth of experiences, memories, and sources of inspiration. Still, the applicability of the classic “write what you know” adage can seem a bit uncertain in all genres except for direct memoir. But there is a multitude of ways to apply world experience to your writing. 

Nonfiction

  • Everything must be based on fact and observations, be it the writer’s own or sources from research. In the first case, the writer has already been moved to write by an experience directly. In the latter, a writer’s own experience can help frame the events that they are depicting. A historian may not know what it is like to be in a tank under fire, but perhaps they have known mortal fear of another kind: a car crash, a robbery. Keeping these details in mind can make the writing seem more authentic.

Fiction

  • Writers may struggle to understand how to use their experiences as inspiration.  The key it to steal from your experience in bits and pieces. A vacation to Florida, for example, provides many sources of inspiration other than a scene where a character flies to Florida: the change in temperature leaving the cool plane into the too-hot terminal, the cognitive dissonance of travelling thousands of miles in hours, the dozens of accents and overheard conversations in an airport. Use these moments as inspiration.

Academic

  • How could any real life experience apply to writing a biology paper or a capstone essay? Isn’t academic writing by definition dry, boring, and devoid of personal experience? Not so! Different experiences give perspective from which to observe the environment around you. On a deeper level, this kind of experience gives you the most vital tool needed in academic writing– the ability to think analytically and judge a topic, passage, or experiment from as many perspectives as possible.

Don’t let the adage become confining. Instead, understand that it calls upon a writer to use the sum of their experiences and knowledge in innovative and evocative ways.

Writing Fiction: How to Begin

1. Creativity is only the first step

Every good piece of fiction (be it a short story, a poem, experimental hypertext, interpretive dance script, whatever) needs a driving idea. What it comes down to is the point of the story: why should the reader care?

Most writers focus on this stage of the writing process, spending all their energy trying to come up with a compelling, original idea for their story. A strong idea is not enough to carry a story by itself. Spend some time focusing on the craft of the story, not just the ideas inside it.

2. Originality and inspiration are buzzwords

Aristotle said there are only seven kinds of plots that can ever exist. 60 years ago, Joseph Campbell claimed there is only one. What does that mean for the average writer? Don’t worry about being original.

Like a moment in a novel or a movie? Take it shamelessly. If story theft was good enough for Shakespeare, it’s good enough for anyone. A well-executed story matters more than a failed attempt to seem fresh and new.

Inspiration? It exists, certainly, but it is not a requirement to write good prose or poetry. Not every story will have deep personal significance. Waiting around for inspiration is a quick way to find yourself staring at a blank word document, the cursor blinking in accusatory metronome.

3. Fiction writing is a craft

Fiction writing is something learned over time. It requires practice, practice, practice. Expertise is the result of hard work. And, conversely, natural talent is no guarantee of success. Professional athletes workout for hours and hours just to maintain their abilities. Writing is the same way. If you never write, your skills will atrophy, and whatever talent you have won’t matter. Practice your craft.

Meet Alex Plummer, Student Blogger

Hello! I’m Alex Plummer and last semester I finished the writing Capstone project, which involved working on the same piece for over three months. Having survived that, I’m here to tell you some things I learned during the process.

It takes time

College is a time of constant distractions and deadlines. There’s always another project, paper, or piece of tedious classical literature lurking on the horizon. That’s without jobs, friends, family, annoying roommates, and natural disasters getting in the way to distract you. Given all that, it can be hard to worry about a piece of writing more than a few days before it is due.

But good writing takes time– time to research, time to experiment, time to stop and think about all the elements of writing: sentence structure, paragraph length, progression of ideas. And there’s no way to practice any of that but to spend time in a chair, putting words onto a page.

Rewrite, rewrite, rewrite

When I saved the fifteenth draft of the Capstone project, I was hardly more than halfway done. One of the things you must spend time on is rewriting. Rarely will a piece of writing, be it a research paper, an argumentative essay, or a creative piece, turn out perfectly the first time. If you’re anything like me, most papers get two drafts or maybe three (and let’s face it, too many just get one) before you turn it in. Sometimes, this is unavoidable. Yet to produce a piece of quality writing, you’ve got to revise.

Know when to fold them

I threw out three introductions to the Capstone piece, each representing hours and hours of work, before I even started on anything worthwhile. I deleted huge swathes from the middle. It sucks, but it’s necessary. Don’t cling to ideas that aren’t working just because you put work into it; that’s the sunk cost fallacy. Throw out the bad ideas, and start over.

The grade is secondary

This one hurts, I know. But as a senior who’s about to graduate, take my word for it. After you’re out of school, everyone cares more about what you can do than what your grades were. Having excellent writing skills is a valuable talent. The ability to write shallow papers that get As is less so. Get good grades, but worry more about honing that craft than what letter gets scrawled at the top. Once you’re writing in the real world, it’s pass/fail.

You’ve got to think

Deadlines are a good motivator. It’s safer to be feared than loved as Machiavelli would say. Still, they aren’t as good at giving you time to think. Ideas need a few days to percolate in the subconscious and formulate connections. You can’t segregate your time into thinking and non-thinking time.  A writer is never off the clock. Don’t wait until the last minute to formulate ideas. Give yourself some breathing room. Let the ideas sit for a while. Then, when it is time to actually write them down, you’ll at least have a place to start.