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  • The Palimpsest Review
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The Palimpsest Review and Palimpsest onLine! are publications of The Pennsylvania State University. The words and ideas contained within their pages are the property of their authors and cannot be used for any purposes without the authors' specific written consent.
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Getting Published

Yesterday a young man with sodden hair and uncertain eyes entered my office, apologizing in the cracked voice of adolescence for disrupting my browsing through the latest edition of Publish magazine. He was not unexpected, nor completely unwelcome. 

   After asking me to look over a few poems he had scribbled down in a brown paper journal, he asked the inevitable question: "How do I get published?"

   One of my English Department collegues had sent him to me, kindly leaving a message on my voice mail that she had done so. 

   "He writes well," she said. "But he doesn't have much discipline. I think you'll like him. Besides, you know I don't know that much about poetry." (Trans.: "I can't deal with this!)

  The poems were typically awful, as are most of ours at that stage of life, but a line here and an image there sparked interest, and worst of all, I'm one of those fools who actually believes that predicting who will be the next Joyce or Goethe falls outside my purview. The word, "State," within the title of my institution has particular significance for me. 

   Nevertheless, I was prepared for a difficult time because no one likes much to hear what the truth is concering the business of getting published. The question itself—"How does one get published?"—is undoubtedly the most frequently asked question we creative writing teachers and editors are asked. It was certainly high on the agenda in my mind when I took undergraduate creative writing courses all those long years ago.

   In the first course I took, as a sophomore, the grading standard was such that the way to get an "A" in the short story writing course was to produce a story good enough to be published. That seemed to indicate that if I got an "A" in the course, which I did, at least one of my short stories would be published, although it wasn't quite clear how that was to come about. And in fact none of the stories I wrote for that class ever were published.

  By a stroke of good fortune, in my junior year, I was allowed to take a graduate level course with a teacher who was at the time acclaimed by many as the best writing teacher in the country. I clearly remember being terrified that the man would look at my work and suggest that I get a job in a factory and give up my foolish notion of trying to get into print. However, he was generous enough to encourage me and my humble abilities; nevertheless, when the question came up about how to go about getting published, his response was "Write well enough to impress a professional writer, who will then recommend your work to his agent and editor." Unfortunately I was never able to do that with this particular teacher. I did, however, continue to hear this advice all the way through graduate school.

  During my undergraduate days I was given some more practical advice about the publishing business, and this came from a poetry writing teacher, who at the time was only beginning to publish her own poetry. She was a shy, tiny woman from whom I had taken a class in Shakespeare. she told us to go to the library and read as many of the small literary and university magazines as we had time for, search for those who were either publishing work most like our own or that we thought we would like to see our work in and send them a batch of six poems, no more, no less.

  She said to make sure we typed the poems and put our names and addresses on each poem. Whether we sent along a cover letter, she said, was optional, but if we did we should keep it brief. Within the week I did just as she had said, and within two months I received my first notification of work accepted for publication.

  The second best piece of advice came—well, the truth is I no longer remember who gave it to me, but it was simply this: All freshmen are required to take a composition course, and they usually have to purchase a handbook. In that text will be a full description of how to produce a typed manuscript, usually for a research paper. The same rules apply for submitting any other sort of publication. The manuscript has to look good and professionally submitted. (I knew one poet who went so far as to type her submissions up only on Swan watermarked paper.) 

   That comp course most of us thought was nothing more than one of the university's gauntlets which we had to pass through in order to get into the real courses was actually the course which was supposed to teach us how to prepare a manuscript for publication. And believe me, if your manuscript does not look pretty much like one of those examples, very few editors will even bother to read the first line of it.

Once again, thanks for listening, and tune in often!
Your editor,

Jim Manis
Note: this essay appeared in a slightly altered form in the fourth edition of The Palimpsest Review.