The Eight Questions Writers Should Ask Themselves
Roxane Gay | November 2013
Are you a good literary citizen?
I don’t want to be overly prescriptive but while writing matters most, how we move through the literary world also matters. Literary citizenship is certainly not being disingenuous, uncritical, or falsely affirming about everything you read and every writer you encounter.
Instead, literary citizenship can involve being a consumer as well as a producer of the written word. Subscribe to a literary magazine or two. Attend readings once in a while. Volunteer at a literary magazine. Do what you want, so long as you are doing something to contribute to the literary community, beyond simply offering your writing.
Don’t burn bridges you may want to cross in the future. The writing world is as small as it is big; most everyone is connected in some way. Again, this is not to suggest you should be disingenuous but you never know when seemingly casual connections will end up leading to professional opportunities to participate in a reading series, or read at a university, or teach at a writing workshop.
Good literary citizenship can also extend to how you comport yourself when participating in social networks. Are you relentless in promoting your own writing, sharing the same link more than two or three times? Do you send direct messages or private Facebook messages to strangers, promoting your latest project? Of course you should promote your work but take care in how you promote your work and consider sharing the good news about the writing of others, if you are so moved.
Mostly, literary citizenship is the importance of remembering that no one is alone in the writing world. Conduct yourself as such.
Are you more invested in the business of publishing than the practice of writing?
You’re not going to become a better writer by focusing more on getting your writing published than writing work that merits publication. You won’t become a better writer by resenting the success of others or spending most of your time indulging in conspiracy theories about publishing. Yes, sometimes the game is rigged, but mostly it is not. It’s easy to get wrapped up in the wrong things when so much information about writers and what they’re doing or could be doing is readily available via social networks, blogs, and the like. You don’t have to become an ascetic, but if you find yourself overly fixated on other writers, who they know, and what they’re doing, it might be time to get back to your own writing and away from online and other distractions.
Is your writing ready to be submitted? Will you stand behind your work not only today, but well into the future?
Many writers express shame, to varying degrees, about the work their younger selves put out into the world. While we do, hopefully, grow as writers, we never want to put work out into the world that we’re not willing to stand by both now and in the future. Though it is remarkably easy to submit writing immediately after the first draft is finished, pause. Take a deep breath, step away for a few hours, a few days, a few weeks, whatever works with your writing process. When you return to the work, read it objectively. Ask yourself, “Does this writing represent the best I can do in this time and place?” If the answer to that question is anything but a resounding yes, sit with the writing until it is.
Conversely, it does you no good to sit on your work for too long. If you’re interested in publication, there comes a time when you must stop revising and tinkering and make peace with what you’ve written. When your writing is ready, let go.
Are you willing to be critiqued and/or edited?
I tend to believe that ultimately, writers know what’s best for their writing, but that doesn’t mean outside perspective is irrelevant. I’m not much of a joiner. I prefer the allure of writing as a solitary endeavor but joining a writing group three years ago offered me new insight into my work. I was lucky enough to find a great group of writers who offer astute, honest critiques of works-in-progress.
I’ve also been lucky to work with outstanding editors on my fiction, nonfiction, and books. I can count on one hand, without using all my fingers, the number of times I’ve disagreed with an edit. Though sometimes “killing your darlings” is painful, there’s something to be said for what may rise in those darlings’ place. Trusted readers and editors force us to be better when we can’t quite make that push ourselves.
How will you deal with failure?
Rejection is an inevitable part of the publishing process. When you submit your writing, it’s not always going to be a good fit for the publications, publishers, or agents to whom you are submitting. Rejection is rarely personal. It is never, ever advisable to write an editor to reject a rejection. So many intangibles go into editorial decision that the best thing you can do is submit your work to appropriate outlets and hope for the best. To that end, take the time to research where your work has the best chance of being a good fit. When you receive a rejection, take it for what it is, and move on. If the same piece has been rejected a number of times, editors may be trying to tell you something.
Are you reading diversely?
Diversity is not just about demographics. Yes, we should read writing from writers of color, queer writers, differently-abled writers, working class writers, writers from other countries, and writers from across the gender spectrum. The impetus for reading diversely is not about political correction, it’s about opening yourself to a multiplicity of perspectives. Reading diversely also includes reading work with diverse aesthetic approaches. We like what we like, and there’s nothing wrong with that, but it never hurts to read beyond your comfort zone once in a while. When you read, inhabit as much of the world of letters are you can.
Are you taking risks?
Writing safe and writing well are not synonymous. Writing what you know is only so useful as writing advice. Just as it can be beneficial to read beyond your comfort zone, it can be useful to write beyond your comfort zone. Try new writing styles. Experiment with form. Nothing may come of risk-taking, but writing is a muscle that benefits from cross training.
Do you believe in your writing?
Too many writers disparage their own work, as if through self-deprecation they will find communal affirmation. If you don’t believe in your own writing, if you don’t think you’re producing writing worth reading, why are you publishing? It’s an awkward contradiction to say, “Read this thing I wrote; it’s not that great.” At some point, you have to have faith in what you’ve written. You have to believe your writing belongs out in the world. We are all small points of light within the constellation that is the writing world, but we do better when we shine brightly.
Roxane Gay lives and writes in the Midwest.