Why 99 Percent of What First Inkling Editors Read “Don’t Shine,” and What You Can Do to Polish Your Writing Diamond (Start by NOT Overusing Metaphors)
So I glean from the writing you’re doing on campus that:
You broke up.
Your parents – in fact, nobody – understands you.
It’s all meaningless.
My skull is over there. I’m here. You’ve bored me out of it, you see.
It’s not that I don’t remember. I, too, toiled as a lit mag editor back in my school days. I wrote for hours every night, instead of getting drunk with the normal people. But now when I read my own fiction and poetry from college, I cringe. That crap won awards? Worse, when I read the writing of others whom I edited back then, I vomit a little in my mouth. I carry Certs for this purpose.
I’ve since spent many years as a college media adviser, including several years judging college literary magazines for national competitions. Now that I’m editing a national student literary magazine, my student associate editors toil for me when they’re not getting drunk like normal people, mostly collecting undergraduate and graduate lit mags from across the country. They’re combing through this “slush pile” and bringing to me and my co-editor, Cliff Garner, what they consider the best of the best.
My take on this material they’ve uncovered? Editorial leadership, I sometimes see: evidence for mission-based magazines with coherent and articulated values. I often see decent execution, too: as packages, some of the mags out there rock. While in many cases, design and layout more often than not model the trite and amateurish, sometimes I see vanguard design that competes with the best professional publications out there.
But what about the writing? That’s often another story.
Just how much of the writing in college magazines makes the grade? Well, in advance, I told the First Inkling student associate editors that from my previous experience as a judge, I figured “the cream of the crop” would amount to about 1 percent of the material published annually in college lit mags. On average, college magazines include 17 discrete writing pieces per issue. This means we expected to find about one piece “worthy” of First Inkling, for every six magazines we read.
Sounds elitist? That’s the whole idea!
One percent will make the cut. If you’re a college editor or writer, don’t let this grim statistic get you down. It’s simple math. College editors must work within a small pool—the best writers on their campuses. Our pool is much larger—the best writers on all campuses. That’s why we’re doing this.
So far, I think my statistical prediction was right. About one in 100 pieces blow us away. That’s not to say others don’t offer us “inklings” of future genius—I just read Columbia College’s Quarto and the University of Iowa’s earthwords, and they’re both excellent undergraduate mags full of super-promising writers. But on the whole, most pieces – even the good ones – don’t contain the “complete package.” Too much rough, and not enough diamond.
We’ve been discussing at length the qualities the very few great pieces possess. What makes First Inkling say “wow?” The Top 1 Percent of student writing succeeds in five key ways, in this order:
Novelty. At least one element is new. The narrative, voice, point of view, setting, form, and/or tone, etc. are distinctive, daring, interesting, and not mimetic or derivative. We haven’t read this piece before.
Quality. The piece proves a command of language, syntax, and diction, evincing a very well-read writer and very careful self-editor. We see in this piece at least “inklings” of future greatness.
Maturity. The piece goes beyond the usual shallow nihilist or pat juvenilia. It demonstrates a writer living a writerly life, seeing the world through a writer’s perspective. We believe this writer has already “written past” several stages of artistic development .
Subtlety. The writer trusts the writing and the reader enough not to overwrite descriptions, overuse literary devices, or overstate the obvious. We “get” what this writer is trying to do, and we think they’ve done it wonderfully.
Ingenuity. The writer doesn’t avoid tough writing challenges. The piece shows us how the writer strives instead to find either simple or complex solutions to problems occasioned by the piece. We see the emergence of an ingenious style.
Think you’ve accomplished at least three out of those five? Submit here.
Watch this space for more details!
Do you edit a college lit mag? Has one published your work?
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