An Endangered Rite of Passage

It's supposed to be hardPublishing a story in a literary journal has long been a rite of passage for new writers.

Many authors who are now household names cut their teeth by constantly submitting their work to journals and magazines, honing their craft and taking their licks with each rejection, waiting for that elusive “yes.”

They’d scour each rejection slip for some scrap of insight as to why their story missed the mark. And many would keep those rejection slips, using them as bitter reminders to fuel their determination with an added dose of “I’ll show those bastards.”

Although times have changed, and a growing majority of these journals are now published online rather than in print, the literary journal continues to serve as a proving ground for writers. And even with the growing abundance of online journals, I don’t think anybody would tell you that it’s easy to get a piece of your writing published in one of them. It’s not. It’s hard.

And I submit that it should be.

I’m reminded of Tom Hanks’ character Jimmy Dugan, from the movie A League of Their Own. The same guy who taught us that “there’s no crying in baseball” also offered this gem:


It’s supposed to be hard. If it wasn’t hard, everyone would do it. The hard is what makes it great.”

I agree with Jimmy. And I’m getting worried – here’s why.

The times they are a changin’

It’s not an exaggeration to say we are witnessing a revolution in the publishing industry. E-book technology is advancing at a tremendous rate, “indie” publishing is a growing trend, and Big Publishing is trying not to become an endangered species. It’s a big, exciting mess, and I’m watching it all with great interest – and a growing sadness.

Why sadness? Because I’m seeing a by-product of this revolution that I think is unfortunate. More and more new writers are turning their sights away from conventional publishing, and choosing instead to self-publish their work. I hasten to clarify that I’m not saying self-publishing is bad or wrong. There are writers for whom it is clearly the most advantageous choice, and I’m glad they have that option. And frankly it’s an option I may pursue myself one day.

But here’s where I perceive the problem to be: there are many inexperienced writers who are simply using self-publishing as a way to skip the hassle of trying to gain anybody else’s editorial approval. So gleeful are they in having eluded the “evil gatekeepers” that they think it’s perfectly fine to self-publish anything they write, brimming with confidence that every word they type is literary gold.

And because they’ve taken the self-publishing route, there’s nobody to tell them otherwise.

As I said before, I’m not opposed to self-publishing. I’m opposed to shortcuts. And I’m starting to see inexperienced writers choose self-publishing as an alternative to learning to write well, fueled by impatience and dreams of becoming the next Amanda Hocking or John Locke.

As a result, they’re not learning that sometimes a piece of writing just doesn’t work, and needs to be overhauled or even scrapped. They’re not learning that their last piece might have been extremely close to being ready, but just needed a bit of polish here and there. In their hunger for instant gratification, these writers are missing out on so much learning, which to me is a key benefit of the editorial process.

And that makes me sad.

The Big Man weighs in

The late, great Clarence Clemons – my former boss, saxophonist extraordinaire, and part-time philosopher – made an interesting observation. He felt that many people were adrift in their lives these days because they no longer had any rites of passage. By contrast, many older and more primitive civilizations maintained strict rituals that their young had to go through, often involving hardships in the form of physical challenges, journeys, or quests. Only after completing these difficult rituals would they be considered adults.

Clarence believed that in our eagerness to make modern life as easy and convenient as possible, we had eliminated the very challenges that once helped define us. When I consider the attitude of entitlement so pervasive in people these days, I think the Big Man may have been on to something. And that’s what concerns me about the current surge of self-publishing. By eliminating all the challenge, we’re taking away part of what helps define and forge good writers.

This is where the literary journal still plays an important role. I believe one of the most noble functions of the literary journal is to help groom new writers, by offering them a platform through which to validate their work.

So while the world of publishing evolves and transforms, I hope that aspiring writers will still continue to seek publication in literary journals as an initial step in their writing careers, rather than hopping immediately onto the self-publishing bandwagon. I firmly believe that they will grow so much more as writers by first learning to meet and satisfy a set of editorial challenges before seeing their work published.

Yes, it’s a hard way to learn.

But that’s okay. It’s supposed to be hard.

The hard is what makes it great.


Photo courtesy flickr’s dvidshub


About Keith Cronin

Author of the novels ME AGAIN, published by Five Star/Gale; and TONY PARTLY CLOUDY (published under his pen name Nick Rollins), Keith Cronin is a corporate speechwriter and professional rock drummer who has performed and recorded with artists including Bruce Springsteen, Clarence Clemons, and Pat Travers. Keith's fiction has appeared in Carve Magazine, Amarillo Bay, The Scruffy Dog Review, Zinos, and a University of Phoenix management course. A native of South Florida, Keith spends his free time serenading local ducks and squirrels with his ukulele.


  1. says

    Awesome piece, Keith, and I agree with many of these points. I started my literary career by fighting my way into literary journals with short fiction, and when I finally got a piece accepted to the Indiana Review, the result wasn’t just $50 and a sense of accomplishment — I also got very helpful editorial advice that improved the piece tremendously. It’s a process, and it should be.

    Getting your work out to the readers is the end goal, of course, but shouldn’t making that work better along the way be a goal in itself?

  2. says

    A wonderful post. I share your observation that self- or e-publishing allows lots of half-cocked efforts to get on the e-shelves. But, it also allows fresh talent to get feedback from exposure that that only-sure-thing agents and p-publishers can’t indulge in promoting. Re literary journals: how are they fareing? Have they followings? Do they invest in editing and culling? I agree that rites of passage are good and burnishing. Lit journals are one means along with contests, critique groups and others. You have provided us a valuable, provocative issue that deserves review.

  3. says

    Man, I love this piece, especially the insight about the missing Rites of Passage. If we are to remain in this business, we need to be tough and thick-skinned and willing to work our tushes off. We must be resilient. Taking the route you are recommending does not allow us to bypass any of that.

    You’re so smart, Keith. Keith Cronin for President!

  4. David Tames says

    True thoughts, but it also assumes D.I.Y(er)s aren’t working hard enough.

    I can think of three rite of passages involved in the writing process: beginning and getting to the end; REVISING (and rewriting the whole thing several times); and all the business of self-pubbing.

    If those are not rite of passages, then I guess we’re going to have to raise our level of sacrifice. Strip me naked and send me across the desert. But oh wait! That’s kind of what taking a novel from beginning to end feels like. I don’t need the sand people along the way to rain down cayenne pepper on my brisket-like skin.

    And let’s not forget that writing has been around for longer than literary journals. What rite of passages did those old guys have to endure? Hmm….

    But you’re right about the idea of improving our craft. Some people cruise through the writing process as if it’s too easy to be bothered about. Really, I think the bigger idea is what do we use to measure our commitment? Literary journals can do that, but they are not the only measuring stick… and then the application to them tends to funnel stories into similar storytelling ideologies, depending on the magazine.

    I do agree with the sentiment about “show[ing] those bastards.” It’s just that now we have more than one method for vengeance. One thing’s for sure: showing anyone requires work, and those not ready to work will self-publish in ignorant bliss. But then, there have always been those willing to forge shortcuts.

    Self-pubbing isn’t the problem. It’s the shortcut[ee].

  5. Vaughn Roycroft says

    I think the Big Man’s observation is spot on. In my former role of running a wholesale facility, we would take on young employees during the busy summer season – mostly late high school or early college age. These were kids who won a trophy for everything, their whole lives. They were shocked that we wanted them to do manual labor all day, that they weren’t allowed to operate the cool equipment without training, and frequently sought praise for simply doing their job – no extra effort whatsoever. They were suprised by and overly sensitive to even good-natured hazing and teasing from the veteran workers. I was shocked at how often they came and asked me for unearned perks and pay raises. I’ve even had parents come in and take me to task for reprimanding their baby. It seems the school of hard knocks is closed.

    I may end up self-pubbing as well, for a variety of reasons. But I’m an old school guy. After many years chasing this, I will not be going the indy route simply because it’s the path of least resistance. Love the Jimmy Dugan quote. Great post, Keith.

  6. Priscille Marcille Sibley says

    Brilliant piece. Honestly, it applies to raising children in a difficult world as well as to writing. As the mother of three teenagers, it made me think about the challenges I have (or have not) provided for them.
    I guess the point is, anything (or anyone) you put there out into the world, needs to be as strong as possible to endure. Thanks for this thought provoking post.

  7. says

    This is a really great post, and having fought my way up through the school of hard knocks, I absolutely couldn’t agree more that it’s an invaluable part of the process of growing as a writer. But there’s a piece of the puzzle that I think you’re overlooking (or at least haven’t mentioned here): the readers. You say, “And because they’ve taken the self-publishing route, there’s nobody to tell them otherwise.” But I don’t think that’s true. Those writers who take the shortcut and publish unpolished first drafts of their first novels are even as I write this getting terrible reviews from readers on Amazon, goodreads, and everywhere else. Readers know the difference between a good book and a bad one. I think as writers we have to trust that. And the writers who take the indie route as a shortcut ARE going to go through the school of hard knocks–just a different one from the rest of us–with scores of 1 star reviews and low sales. And the ones who are willing to take the criticism seriously and fight to improve their craft are still the ones who will rise to the top.

    • says

      And the ones who are willing to take the criticism seriously and fight to improve their craft are still the ones who will rise to the top.

      I think you’re right, Anna. I’ve long felt that the magic combo for writers is to be both critique-hungry, because they’re sure their work could be better, and persistent, willing to revise until the work is as good as it can be. I do worry that self-published authors may be too eager for an easy path when nothing about writing is easy. But the wise ones will hear what readers are telling them on book sites and grow accordingly.

      Great post, Keith!

  8. says

    I’ve never read a literary journal so that whole angle is lost on me.

    While I do agree there is value in hard work and the sense of achievement and meaning it brings, I think folks get a little too angsty and mis-directed about beating on self-publishing. Even if authors think self-published authors took the “easy” route, wrote something, slapped it up on the internet and put it up for sale, if said self-published author wants to SELL that book, they still have a lot of work to do–the self pubbed author’s rite of passage will come, no matter what.

    Now I suppose technically if there’s someone who goes through all the work of self-publishing and doesn’t CARE if they sell any copies, they may miss the rite of passage, but how many people does that apply to, realistically?

    • says

      Thanks for weighing in, BK. My concern here is focused on NEW writers, who have not yet polished their skills. I’d argue that Amazon and GoodReads reviews will not provide clear enough editorial guidance as to what’s not working in the writing. That’s where a skilled and experienced editorial eye can identify problems that a writer would not intuitively discover and correct on her own, and that a lay reader will not necessarily pinpoint.

      A literary journal is just one avenue writers can pursue to test the quality of their writing. Other options include contests, workshops, classes, etc. But the bottom line is that in each of those scenarios, there is somebody with *more* skill/experience helping to guide or critique the writer. That’s something a pure do-it-yourselfer is missing out on.

      And again, I’m talking about NEW writers. I’m talking about building the skills needed to write publishable fiction. From there, we now have many more options in how to publish our work. And I think that’s great!

      But first we need to write well enough to create something worth publishing. My post is just a reminder of that point.

      • says

        Keith, I do agree, most Amazon-type reviews aren’t going to provide the kind of detailed constructive criticism that a new writer needs. But the writers who take a run of negative reviews to heart and decide it’s a sign their craft needs to be improved–those are the ones who are going to attend workshops, find critique partners, and hire freelance editors to work with them on their books. And there are legions of freelance editors in the current publishing climate!

        • says

          “There are legions of freelance editors in the current publishing climate.”

          There certainly are! But please do your due diligence, writers, in choosing one.

          The vast majority of those newbie editors are simply peer critiquers who hope to turn a profit. It breaks my heart to hear horror stories from clients of self-proclaimed ‘editors’ who don’t know any more about writing than the clients do.

          And yet there are experienced, long-time, professional freelance editors available, and they can make all the difference in the world to a writer’s career.

          Research, research, research. Never hire anyone with whom you do not feel comfortable or without knowing exactly what you will get for your money.

  9. says

    I love the idea of rites of passage. (I almost typed “writes of passage” there! ) That said, being a genre writer, the literary journal path really wasn’t a logical option. Starting out over a decade ago, the “challenges” were, as you say, contests and submissions and acceptance, working with an editor at my house. It was excellent training.

    People who decide that “indie/self pub” means no editors and no revision will find it also means little to no money, especially with the onslaught of offerings out there. In some ways, it’s an even harsher trial. Instead of a village helping with a ritualized passage, these poor bastards are going out into the wilderness with a pocketknife, convinced they’re going to show the world how “grown up” they are!

    In the end, I think those who reach out to a support network, who work on their craft with mentors, and who actually hire editors who know more than they do, will be the ones who show true growth and who ultimately thrive.

  10. Christine says

    I also believe in the rite of passage called continual honing of craft for its own sake, and not because it is one of the hurdles in the way of getting an agent/publisher to notice us. Your book should be the absolute best it can be simply because…you’ll regret it if it isn’t. Sounds like your mother saying, “Because I said so!” But I do think many writers want to forego this step simply because they observe how much trash is published by mainstream publishers, and of course think, “My book is SO MUCH BETTER than that best-selling piece of !@#$!”. My response is another bromide we’ve all heard: “Just because Johnny does it, doesn’t mean YOU have to!” Writers should tear themselves away from the best seller lists and write their own unique story that they passionately believe in to the best of their abilities. And then revise it again! Long live good literature!

  11. says

    A question for the group: Does anyone read literary journals? Can anyone name some? It never occurred to me to submit to them because I think they are irrelevant. It’s the old tree falling in the forest bit.

    There are plenty of experienced, excellent editors for hire out there. A person who wants to self publish a book can invest a little money in a professional set of eyes, rather than waiting months (years?) to be picked by the editorial board of the best periodical nobody ever reads.

  12. Evalyn says

    I agree with you for the most part. Thinking back to people in my writing classes in college and Letters to the Editor in most of the writing mags, the biggest complaint was basically “No one understands my writing. They don’t get it.” If all those people, who didn’t understand that good writing speaks for itself, are now self-publishing, I don’t believe they will last long; self-publishing will develop its own rite of passage. Since rites of passage have existed for the history of mankind, I believe new ones form when paradigms shift. Publishing is shifting and the naturally occurring “survival of the fittest” controls will shift also. The process is painful. It looks like chaos some times. Change is like that.

    “Yes, it’s a hard way to learn.

    But that’s okay. It’s supposed to be hard.

    The hard is what makes it great.”

    Right now self-publishing may be easy. Good writing is always hard.

  13. says

    Really, really great post with really, really great comments. I agree with a lot of what’s been said here. On ALL sides. It’s a bit paradoxical, but I think everyone’s right. I don’t think anyone’s *trying* to write poorly, but with so much changing, sometimes it’s hard to understand which paths to take and how to get better. In the end, I agree with Therese and Anna: the writers who will make it in the long run are the ones who are persistent and hungry, and the writing that will rise to the top is the good stuff that results.

  14. says

    As someone who started out aiming for those literary journals you speak of, and was successfully published in a couple, I learned something very quickly. Those journals are only looking for a certain “type” of writing. And what I write is not that type. It wasn’t a matter of excellence; it was a matter of style. Nor did I ever get any more than a sentence or two of editorial feedback on rejections. Assuming I was a new writer with much to learn, how would this help me hone my craft?

    Secondly, as others have pointed out, self-publishing, while not the route I have chosen, is certainly not a “short cut” in any sense. A new writer who self-publishes her fiction rather than seeking traditional means of review will learn very quickly that it’s not going to make much money. She’ll either work harder at her craft as a result, or find something else to do. I don’t see how this is any different than the course charted with literary journals.

  15. says

    This conversation is all very interesting, but I want to reiterate what BK said. Indie publishing isn’t easy. It’s not easy at all. I’m on numerous forums with hundreds of indie authors and nobody thinks it’s easy.

    Many of these writers have gone through the agent/editor query process for years. Some have gotten agents, some have gotten editors, some have had traditional contracts and ended up on the midlist to nowhere, and many have butted their heads against the wall with no result. Others wrote their first book and threw it up on Amazon. But what everyone who indie publishes discovers is that putting the book up is only the first step. And if an author thinks it’s the last step, the book languishes with a ranking of 400,000 and nobody will every find it.

    I’m really glad indie publishing wasn’t available when I finished my first book. Publishing my first book would have been very bad for me. But even if I had, and it bombed spectacularly, I would have learned something. Maybe I would have taken it down and rewritten it. Given the rejection I did experience, I’m sure it wouldn’t have stopped me from writing another book, and another, and another. That sounds like a rite of passage to me :)

  16. says

    I agree with a lot of what’s been said about rites of passage. Every writer has to get the bad writing behind them and the only way to do it is to write and write and write. We learn the craft by making mistakes, by reading widely and listening to our best critics. We also learn that great writing doesn’t come easy and the revision process, while tedious, is necessary. Great post, Keith. We all need to be reminded of this.

  17. says

    Dead on, Keith. One other thing I’ve found in fumbling my way through life (where IS that damned handbook, anyway?)

    It doesn’t matter if you believe in rites of passage (though I do,) it doesn’t matter if you want to take shortcuts.

    Those who don’t care to get good at craft will drop to the bottom of the tank.

    Those who slave for years may not rise to the top, including me.

    We don’t have to worry about it, because reality is an equal opportunity biter.

  18. says

    I’ll echo the praise for the post.

    Regarding publishing in “literary” magazines, it’s worth noting that not everyone wants or needs to publish there. As a science fiction and fantasy writer, I’d rather be published in Asimov’s or Realms of Fantasy than Glimmer Train, say (not that I’d turn Glimmer Train down if they accepted something I’d written).

    To Keith’s larger point, let me offer an analogy. It seems the publishing world is going through an evolutionary transition not unlike what happened after the big extinction events on Earth, like the asteroid impact that killed off the dinosaurs. As the dinos died out, lots of ecological niches opened up and new critters evolved to fill them. Most filled them badly, though, and died out, leaving a relatively few successful species.

    The everybody-and-his-dog self-publishing phenomenon is like that: lots of people and technologies rushing in to fill these newly opened niches. But over time, only a few will survive. That winnowing process is just beginning. No one knows where it will lead or how long it will take but I feel pretty good about the ultimate outcome.

    To switch analogies, we’re riding rafts down a river’s rapids (hmm, nice alliteration, if I do say so myself :-) ). We can’t see the end of the rapids because we’re bouncing up and down and swirling around, but SOMEWHERE down there is calm water. We just need to hang on and paddle like crazy and we’ll get there.

  19. says

    Great post!

    The quote from ‘A League of their Own’ is gold (as is the film) and very fitting for the writing game.

    I would add that having your work accepted for publication in literary journals and mags doesn’t necessarily get any easier, but I think that is what makes a ‘yes’ so satisfying. I have worked on both ends of this process and know the value of an astute editor.

  20. says

    I have to credit Porter Anderson for bringing me here through Writing on the Ether, although I know, Therese, I should be reading every post. I love Writer Unboxed!

    And I particularly love this post.

    “They think it’s perfectly fine to self-publish anything they write, brimming with confidence that every word they type is literary gold.”

    I think this is an outgrowth of blogging. Blogging is free. Everyone has permission to do it. There are no gatekeepers. And it’s a short step (actually within one generation) from a sense of entitlement about blogging to a sense of entitlement about publishing.

    That sense of entitlement in aspiring amateur writers used to drive me nuts when I first went independent/freelance as an editor three years ago. I’ve been a professional writer and editor since the 1980s. I’ve spent many, many years, even decades, apprenticing myself to this craft I love. So, yeah, it can make my roll my eyes a bit to hear writers who have just discovered it preaching about building a writing platform before learning excellent writing and pounding the pulpit over self-publishing.

    Where is the intense, overwhelming love of writing in the self-promotional hysteria? Where is the passion for this one particular art as opposed to all the other arts and professions out there, the bond between those for whom this work really is satisfying enough to make it our life’s work? The dedication to the craft, the understanding that we can gain nothing of value without sacrificing something of value, a sense of self-discipline, respect, and awe for this craft that we hope will give us so much?

    Where is the self-knowledge that, money or no money, publication or no publication, we would write no matter what because it is simply the work that brings us the greatest joy?

    I cannot agree with you more, Keith, that it is the struggle to learn this vast, complex, extraordinary craft that gives it its value. We love it, in a large measure, because of what it teaches us about struggling with life.

    (By the way, it seems too much of a coincidence that I found this post only two days after I learned Clarence Clemons died last summer. Talk about heartbreaking!)

  21. fluffy the vampire slayer says

    I wasn’t aware of self publishing till a few weeks ago, as a writer I thought I’d investigate. I’ve been reading some stuff on Smashword and samples of stories for Kindle on Amazon, what I have found has been astounding! The quality has been on the whole terrible; poor grammar, poor punctuation, lack of understanding of basic English and in one case spelling mistakes and the writers were asking the reading public to pay for these stories. Not one had been edited, proof read or even as far as I could gather looked over by anyone. I really hope that this isn’t the future of publishing because if it it then we are all doomed.

  22. says

    Excellent post, and I’m enjoying the discussion here. I’ve published in some literary journals and continue to submit stories now and then. Of course I felt a sense of pride and accomplishment when stories were accepted, but I have to agree with one of the comments above. The journal scene has a tree falling in the forest feel to it . . . Is anybody reading the stories beyond the family and friends of the writers inside of them? I hope so, but I’m not optimistic.