Columns > Published on November 7th, 2011

Ask The Lit Coach: "How Much Is Too Much With Description?" and More

Another good round of questions this week, writers. Sometimes your questions can be easily answered with a list of DOs and DON'Ts, or a flow-chartesque "if this then that" scenario. But not always.  We have one of each this week, as one writer needs clarity about the literary journal submission process and one writer is searching for the right balance of description in storytelling.

Question from Jay SJ., London, England

When a story is rejected, should you rework it or assume that it was simply not a fit for the journal?

Before jumping into the meat of the answer, here's a quick DOs and DON'Ts list to keep handy when getting ready to submit to literary journals.

  • DON'T take the shotgun approach to submitting to literary journals by sending your work to any lit journal accepting submissions. 
  • DO research literary journals you're interested in and tailor your submissions list to those journals you've actually read and feel would be a good fit for you and your work.
  • DO follow submission guidelines.
  • DON'T send your submission to a lit journal who is closed for submissions. It's a waste of their and your time and resources.
  • DO be aware of a lit journal's editorial calendar. Though there are similarities in when literary journals accept submissions (many are affiliated with a university, so summers and holidays are generally not a good time to submit), many journals have varying editorial calendars.
  • DO be aware that many literary journals call out for particular themes in submissions. Send only if your piece relates to that theme.

Now, if you're doing all that and you're still getting rejected, consider this:

If you have not had your piece reviewed or workshopped by people who know craft, please do so. Ask for detailed feedback of what is and is not working in the piece.

Pay attention to feedback that is suggesting improvement - if you begin to hear a choir singing the same tune, you know where the piece needs to be revised. Be open to this. You may not want to change it now, but trust me, if the majority of your readers can spot the problem... you have a problem. Read me?

If you have had the piece workshopped and reviewed with no consistency in the feedback, pay attention to the feedback that is objective only. I know that's difficult because we all have unique experiences with literature, but if their feedback has anything to do with plot or character breakdown or inconsistencies, consider heading back to the workshop to address those issues. 

If you're getting highly subjective or so-so feedback, find readers who know craft, who can actually help you. 

If you're getting great reviews from well-trusted, well-read peers who've had their work placed and publish regularly, just keep trying to find the right home for the piece. Don't give up! Get one rejection, send out another submission. Repeat until you have success.

Now, in the rare occasion editors at these lit journals would give you detailed editorial feedback, consider it and revise if you're so moved, but again, look for the feedback that is as objective as possible and will address areas with plot and character. Sometimes these editors will invite you to re-submit the piece once it's been revised and they find it acceptable to publish. It's worth a shot, don't you think? 

Good luck, Jay!

Question from Laurelin G. from Sacramento, CA

How much is too much with description? I know that question depends on a lot of different variables. I'm wondering how to craft a story the reader feels is recognizable and fleshed out while still allowing the reader to fill in the blanks. Is there a general "rule of thumb?"

First, you must craft multi-dimensional characters who will navigate a compelling plot that clearly takes us from introduction to climax to resolution. Once you have an idea, or better yet an outline, of what your story is to be, then it's time to lay down the layers, the color, or the flesh- take your pick. This is the hard part because now it's time for you to really show us your voice - how you choose to tell the story - with lyrical flourish, stark minimalism or a veneer or grit - we begin to see and hear your style of storytelling.

My best advice is, during your first draft, just tell the story. Just sit down and type, don't think about description, don't think about how to be clever, smart, witty. Just write your story. 

The best writing instruction I've ever received was from my Middle Ages Literature professor who came out of retirement to teach the class (which, by the way, was the most challenging and rewarding class I've ever taken). I learned more about writing through studying The Canterbury Tales and Beowulf than reading Michael Chabon's short stories in my fiction writing workshops (I love Chabon, for the record). The lesson was, say what you mean and don't use words that are useless or get in the way. Every word has a meaning, so choose wisely. My professor asked me once, "Why use the word 'utilize' when 'use' means the same thing and takes up less space?" I cringe now when I hear or see the word utilize. Ick.

Style can only shine through your story if the storytelling is excellent. The right descriptions can either enhance what's going on in the story or totally distract us from it. If you're more focused on telling a great story than considering how much description to please your readers, you're off to a great start. If you're spending too much time concentrating on how your readers will understand what's going on with your story, if you're more concerned about setting the right mood, etc., then you're trying too hard or your plot and/or characters need further development. Likewise, if you're trying too hard to choose the right words, chances are, your prose is overwrought, and agents and editors can spot this on the first page - they won't read on.

Hope this helps, Laurelin!

Thanks for your questions, LitReactors! Now go do something worth writing about.

About the author

ERIN REEL is a Los Angeles based publishing and editorial consultant, writing coach, columnist, blog host of The Lit Coach's Guide to The Writer's Life and outspoken advocate for writers. A former literary agent with nearly 10 years in the industry, Erin has worked with a wide array of writers worldwide. She has contributed to Making The Perfect Pitch: How to Catch a Literary Agent's Eye (Sands, Watson-Guptil, 2004); and Author 101: Bestselling Secrets from Top Agents (Frishman & Spizman, Adams Media, 2005).

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