How to Write Stories and Poems that Get Published

Writers cannot be measured by their observable output, yet publishing your writing is an important part of the call to be a writer. There’s no contradiction here—publishing isn’t simply about the credits. When we share our words with readers, we create more meaning and connection with our work, those intangibles that bring wealth to our writing practices.

You might be reading this because you’re at work on a novel, a collection of poems, or short works of fiction or nonfiction that you want to publish, and you crave “real” readers. Or you might only be warming up to the idea of releasing your words into the world.

Whatever stage you’re at, you are probably wondering if what you’ve written is good enough to publish. You might feel nervous about opening yourself up to the possibility of rejection. You may wonder, am I ready to share my work and be seen, to risk exposing myself? And you definitely question if you’re good enough.

By the way, I am not in your head! I know you’re wondering this because all writers wonder this at times. So, let’s start by getting this out of the way: You’re in the club. You are a writer. You are good enough. And more than that, you already have what it takes to write and publish luminous work.

I believe you just need to unlock some of the inherent skills and knowledge you have as a writer. Because in order to publish, your writing needs to resonate with your potential readers.

How do you do this? It will take all of your writerly powers.

Know Who You Are

First, you’ll need to know who you are; to be absolutely clear about what you stand for and what you believe. Honest, frank, and brave writing reaches readers. You need to reflect deeply as you write and accumulate as much self-knowledge as you can (therapy, meditation, journaling all help) because your potential readers will spot any glaring gaps in self-awareness. These gaps often take shape as avoidance. Readers will pick up on places you don’t go in your writing because you fear what you might find out about yourself or the world.

A few questions you can ask about your writing to help you better understand yourself: Why am I writing at this time, in this place? What am I here to say? What subjects demand my attention? Is there something I’m not writing about that is essential to what I am here to say? You could answer these questions in a free-writing session and see what comes to light.

Bring Readers Inside

Once your writing comes from your deep beliefs, you’ll need to make readers believe the experiences you write about. For your writing to connect with readers, they need to be able to recognize something of themselves in your characters, memories, and images. This does not mean you should write from a default or generic perspective. It means you share the truth from your unique perspective. Your ability to do this rests on whether you bring us inside the experiences you know.

One of the ways to do this is through specific details. Make your readers believe by avoiding abstractions like the words love, joy, anger, fear, excitement, desire. We can’t feel, touch, see, hear, or taste these words, and they can mean different things to different people.

Consider the last time someone told you an outlandish story they claimed to be true. It might be a tall tale. Or it might be the gospel truth. How would you discern this? By the details, of course. If they don’t get really specific about the experience, it’s unlikely you will believe that it happened.

Likewise, if you were to write about an uncomfortable dinner, but you only tell us, “dinner was awkward.” You’d leave readers looking in from a window outside the dining room, wondering if what you say is true. They don’t get the details. But if you were to invite readers to experience the dinner as if they’re at the table, smelling and tasting the food, hearing the voices, feeling themselves shifting in that uncomfortable chair with the scratchy wicker seat, they’ll be more likely to believe it was awkward.

Are there places in your writing where readers feel like they are outside the window? What can you do to bring them inside?

For the dinner story, you’d ask questions that call on your five senses, like: What can be heard in the silence? Is the silverware clinking? What does dinner taste like? Is the food dry and bitter? Is it too hot? How does it feel to be there? Do you chew and swallow quickly or slowly? What does this discomfort feel like in the body? Is there a sharp corner on the table you run your hand along to distract you from the knot in your stomach? What sensory experiences could you use to bring readers into the room?

Whatever scene or stanza you’re refining, what are some questions you can ask yourself to help you bring your readers inside? What would you need to change so that were you to ask your reader, Do you know what I mean?, they would say, Yes, and more than that, I can feel what you mean.

Put another way, the emotional resonance you hold for any experiences you describe are not enough for readers. Your feelings are valid and true, but we cannot expect readers to feel things only because we feel them. Too often emerging writers leave readers outside looking into a story because, for them, the emotional resonance of a situation is obvious. Your writing will reach more readers when you bring the reader in the room, even in the body of your characters or speaker. This requires empathy on both your parts. As writers, we need to go first—empathizing with our readers.

Slow Down

As you’re writing what you deeply believe and bringing people inside the experience, you need to slow down. This contradicts the massive pressure we all feel to be productive, especially when we struggle to find those pockets of time for a writing practice. But your writing will only become richer and more resonant when you take time to mull things over, to argue with yourself, and to inventory your ideas.

Are you taking enough time for deep reflection about your writing? Does your life have enough whitespace to do this reflection?

If not, work on that first by finding moments in your day when your brain doesn’t need to be tasked with anything. Think of it this way: slower is faster. When you create thoughtfully, listen to and learn from your writing, and allow it to lead you to new places, you’ll become more efficient and productive with your compositions.

How we spend our time reading is also paramount to writing work that connects with readers. So, read a lot of work that moves you and connects to what you’re here to write. Make the majority of the narratives and poetry you consume work that touches you deeply, and fight back against all those distractions that vie for your attention. (I’m all for self-care days spent watching reality T.V., but make those days the 20 in an 80/20 split.) When you can find more balance and keep the bulk of your attention for thoughtful pursuits, this careful consumption of media will give your voice and ideas room to breathe and develop resonance.

Learn from Other Writers 

Finally, learn from other writers. These can be rock-stars of the literary world whose writing you comb through to understand how it works, or it could be a friend who also wants to write a book. To write with resonance you need to get feedback. You’ll see where your work connects with readers and where it misses the mark. 

Though, be careful about how you consume this feedback too. If early readers say they’re confused or they miss important plot points, that’s usually something to look at right away. If they say they can’t imagine why a character would act a certain way it may just be their own lack of imagination preventing them from seeing this. 

This is tough to gauge, so just remember that the best feedback usually comes from people who are engaged in all of the above, too. Look for other writers who know what they stand for and are empathetic readers. Writers who also read work they love and resonate with deeply will be your best readers. Hang onto them!

When you engage compassionate early readers, you can learn much more about the impact of your writing. Connecting with other writers who will read your work with empathy and—equally important—whose work you read with empathy, will help you understand how to revise your work until you’re ready to publish.

Keep Going
When you know who you are, share specific details to make us believe, and go slowly, you’re so close to publishing your most resonant work that connects with readers. Of course, finding places to publish your writing can be difficult. But when you know you’re on the right path to resonate with readers, keep going, because publishing takes resilience and tenacity for everyone, not just you.

So, take out that novel, collection of poems, those short works, and early drafts you don’t know what to make of yet, then prepare to create meaning and connection in your work—and reap the riches of a resonant body of work read by receptive readers.

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