Letter From The Editor: Write For Yourself, Not For The Market

Dear Writer,

If you’ve been trying to think of stories or articles that might sell to a magazine or publishing house, stop. I’d like to save you from wasting time trying to write to the market.

By writing to the market, I mean studying a specific genre or publication—whatever you like, beach romance or thrillers, O! or Esquire—and trying to write in that genre or style to make money.

The problem is, you don’t know that what you write in any given market will sell.

If writers could predict the publishing industry hits, we’d all write to the market.

Bestselling novels and nonfiction books, as well as articles or essays that find a home right away, don’t necessarily follow a magic formula. The story or content has broad appeal that captured an editor’s attention and, first and foremost, captured the writer’s heart.
Consider The Help. Or the first Harry Potter novel. Kathryn Stockett and J.K. Rowling could not predict ahead of time what would sell. Both novels were rejected multiple times (Harry Potter and The Sorcerer’s Stone garnered 12 rejections, The Help a whopping 60) before landing with the right agent and the right publishing house.

Stockett didn’t study the market and decide that stories about the relationship between 1950s southern African-American maids and their employers were a hot commodity. She wrote The Help because the story intrigued her. She wrote first and foremost for herself.
Rowling didn’t write Harry Potter because she studied the market and saw that stories about boy wizards who attend mythical magic boarding schools were a sizzling new genre. She wrote the novel and subsequent series because the story seized her, because she was entertaining herself.

Our job is to write the kinds of pieces that we want to read. Do you love reading mysteries? Then write a mystery and thrill yourself while you write it. Do you love historical fiction? Then do some research and write the kind of sweeping saga that captivates you when you read. Are you easily hooked by the brilliant profiles in stalwart magazines like The New Yorker? Look around your town for people doing interesting things, and approach them about interviewing them for a profile. Do you love the personal essays that appear in the Sunday New York Times? Sit down and write one of your own.

What we find fascinating is what we should focus on—the passion will be evident in the story’s readability. And editors will pick up on your excitement. If you’re bored writing, the reader will be bored reading.

But, you may say, some genre authors write bestsellers with every novel. You may think that writing a genre novel guarantees success. I would argue that we enjoy each genre author for what is unique to their stories.

Take John Grisham and Scott Turow, for example. They both write legal thrillers. There the similarity stops. Each has his own unique style and voice, protagonists, and settings. Readers associate John Grisham’s characters and stories with courtroom theatrics and legal maneuverings, made comprehensible to the average layperson, while Scott Turow’s stories deliver an evocative Chicago/Midwestern setting that are character-driven.

As an avid reader across multiple genres, I assure you that I (and millions of other like-minded readers) am waiting to hear your story. Because only you can tell that story. Only you have lived your particular life, your set of circumstances.

Another problem with trying to the write to the market is that by the time your story is finished, that trend you’re aiming for may have lost its sizzle. Local author and publisher Warren Firschein comments, “It takes me so long to write a book, that if I tried to write it to the market, it would be completely passed.” Firschein’s YA novel about an adolescent swimmer, Out of Synch, was a labor of love resulting from his daughter’s passion for synchronized swimming. Rather than aim for a particular market, Firschein let his interests drive his writing.

This is much different from studying the market to see where your story or article belongs after you have done the writing. You must study the market so you understand which periodicals are best suited for your work.

Every periodical, agent and publisher has submission guidelines. Take the time to visit their websites and familiarize yourself with those requirements. They almost always indicate what kinds of stories or articles are being sought. If a magazine notes that it’s looking for profiles, how-to pieces and political opinion, don’t send them a personal essay. If an agent is looking for women’s fiction, don’t send a political thriller with a strong male protagonist. This will (hopefully) minimize rejections and save your submission from being ignored by editors irritated that you haven’t read those submission guidelines.

So please do your future (and present) audience the kindest of favors: don’t study the market until after you have written your story. Instead, release the story inside you that’s burning to get out. What’s nagging at you, pestering you, demanding to be told? What idea is on your mind? What characters dominate your thoughts? What plot are you thinking about last thing at night? What story scenes jump into your mind as soon as you wake up? What lines of poetry refuse to let go of you until you write them down and play with their possibilities?

Write that story, article or poem, no matter how crazy or weird or unsaleable it seems. If you try writing a story that has not seized you in its grip, the result will be lackluster, and both you and the reader will feel the story fizzle.

Don’t worry about boring the reader. As long as you are excited by the telling and transcribing, we will be excited by the reading.

We’re waiting to see what you will contribute, whatever your genre, as long as you can tell your story in your voice, with your passion.

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