Q: Is it better to write something, then seek out appropriate publications, or seek out publications and then try to write what they’re looking for? Or both? — Sean P. Farley, Escondido, California
A: When it comes to poetry, essays, stories, and any sort of creative writing, I always say: Write what you want to write, first and foremost. (If you’re a freelancer and looking to write for hire, of course, you don’t always get to choose.) But when it comes to creative writing, you must tell the stories you want to tell. For one, being passionate about what you write is the only thing that’s going to interest you enough to 1) stick with it and 2) make it great. And even if you target a specific publication or publisher, unless you get a contract first, there’s no guarantee they’ll publish you anyway — and then you’ve written something that you may not care about as much or that you may not be able to publish elsewhere. So write what you want, always, and then start the publication search.
That said, it’s always good to get an idea of the publications and options that are out there, and this is where the “both” comes in. If you’re planning to submit a novel to an agent or press, do as much research as you can to make sure you’re a good fit. If you’re planning to submit to literary magazines, read and study them; learn what type of work they publish, and this will tell you whether your submission will be competitive. As this LA Times blog post reveals, the big secret to getting published in literary magazines is quite simply to read the magazines.
I wouldn’t recommend tailoring what you write toward any one publication — unless it’s something you’d write anyway — but if you read a lot and are always doing a little industry research, you’ll be in a great position to get your work published. An example: Years ago, I was working on a short story that just wasn’t going anywhere … I had this idea that I really liked but just couldn’t get it done (and believe me, I tried). So finally I set the story aside to give it some breathing room. Then one day, I was reading Poets & Writers and noticed a call for submissions for a short-short contest run by the literary magazine Witness. All of a sudden it hit me: That stubborn story of mine was meant to be a short-short. So I sat down, rewrote it, sent it off, and won the contest. This is not the sort of thing that happens every day (not even every year or two, actually) — but it’s the sort of thing that can happen if you write what you want to write and, at the same time, keep an eye on the opportunities out there.