If someone asks me what I do, without hesitation, I can always offer, “I am a teacher and a writer.”
I am extremely fortunate because I am able to make my living as both a teacher and a writer, something afforded me as a university professor. Being a writer and a teacher, also, are not vocations I have chosen, but who I am at my core. In other words, I did not choose to be a teacher and a writer, but I did come to recognize and embrace both ways of being.
Over the past thirty years, I have taught writing to a wide range of students (from high school through graduate courses), addressing all types of writing from poetry and fiction to personal and scholarly essays. For more than thirty years, I have been a serious writer, working on my own original poetry, fiction, essays, blogs, and academic books. Also part of life as a writer has included working as an editor—co-editing a state journal, editing a column in English Journal, editing two series at two different publishers (Peter Lang USA and Sense), and editing/co-editing three volumes (with two other edited volumes in progress).
All of these experiences with being a student, a teacher, a writer, and an editor have provided me with a great deal of experience that has taught me some important guidelines for students and authors preparing and submitting work in courses or for publication. I want here to outline some of that advice, recognizing that advice is often futile; it is the act of writing and experiencing all that is connected with writing that ultimately teaches us what we need to know.
First, let me offer some general comments about writing and being a writer. Essentially, there are two types of writers: ones who are compelled to write (and thus refer to themselves as writers and write regardless of achieving publication) and ones whose situation (being a student or being an academic) include the necessity to write. Each situation creates unique advantages and disadvantages, but I believe it is key for any person submitting work for course credit or publication to recognize which category she/he fits within order to understand what strategies are needed to be a successful writer regardless.
Next, two strategies are incredibly important for students and authors submitting work. One is embracing the life of a purposeful and diligent reader. Reading often as well as reading deeply and widely are essential for writing well. Reading for pleasure is important, but reading like a writer is also key. Reading like a writer involves looking at not just what writers say but how writers craft their messages. For students and authors submitting work for publication, acquiring genre awareness is a primary goal of reading.
Genre awareness is identifying and then working purposefully within or against the conventions associated with different purposes for and types of writing. For example, the characteristics of text that shape poetry (crafting a piece in lines and stanzas) differ from the characteristics of text that shape journalism. Students must gain control over the various expectations for academic writing among disciplines; writing about a work of literature is a different type of writing than preparing a literature review for a research assignment in a sociology class. Authors, as well, soon realize that submitting an Op-Ed to a local newspaper is quite different than submitting an essay to a peer-reviewed scholarly journal.
A second strategy is to seek out avenues for learning about language and writing beyond the formal classroom. One important resource is Joseph Williams’s Style. But dozens of engaging and thoughtful books exist to supplement the type of learning about of writing done in formal school settings.
Now, let me outline some guidelines for submitting writing, whether as a student for course credit or an author seeking publication:
- In our digital age, my strongest recommendation is learn how to use your word processor, such as Word. Writers must master word processing so that the application works for you, making the tedious tasks of formatting manuscripts less time consuming so you can focus on crafting good writing. For writers, issues of headers and footers, title pages, formatting fonts and margins, handling block quotes, and formatting reference lists can create unnecessary stress that distracts from time needed for drafting and revising. The short point is that word processors will do most of these tasks in ways that are simple and quick; thus, learn how to use the word processor to do anything you need to do with preparing a manuscript.
- A related piece of advice is “less is always better when formatting a manuscript.” A strong caution I must offer is avoid unneeded returns and all tabs. Two problematic areas for formatting a manuscript are block quotes and preparing bibliographies that require hanging indents; in both cases, do not manually put in returns and do not use tabs to format bibliographies, but do use the formatting features of your word processor. Also, bold and italics should be used sparingly and only within guidelines of the required style sheet. Never use quote marks or bold for emphasis (use italics, but, again, do so sparingly).
- Just as less is key to formatting, simplicity is central to basic choices about manuscripts. Use 12 pt. Times New Roman for your font. Period. No variety of fonts, no variety of font sizes. Make sure headers and footers also have the same font choices. As well, in most cases (however, please conform to the style sheet required), double spacing is also required throughout, as well as 1″ margins.
- Honor word count or page number requirements. Noting above, do not manipulate font type or size to reach a page count.
- Follow the style requirements and refer to the appropriate guides for preparing your manuscript. Many students and authors need to conform to style and citation guidelines provided by professional organizations, such as MLA, APA, or Chicago Manual of Style. Understanding how style sheets differ and why also helps most writers conform to those guidelines.
- When submitting cited writing, note that the list of references (headed differently among citation style sheets) is a part of the manuscript, although separated by a page break. Be sure to include the references list as part of the submitted manuscript. [Also be sure to include all proper citations in drafts and first submissions whether you are a student or author submitting for publication. Do not submit a piece and state you plan to add your references later; no one can adequately respond to a work requiring citations without full and proper documentation and the necessary list of references.]
- Take care to provide an interesting and relevant title for all writing and take equal care with subheads (works of 4-5 pages or longer generally benefit from subheads), noting the formatting guidelines needed depending on the style sheet required.
- Most students and writers will submit their work electronically (please attach your manuscript when you send that email), and as a result, most students and authors will receive comments and editing on their manuscripts through review features on word processors. As noted above, knowing how to use advanced review features on your word processor is crucial. Understand how to navigate track changes as you revise, but most important of all, be able to produce a clean subsequent draft to resubmit. An effective strategy is to save two versions of the returned manuscript—one that maintains all comments and track changes and a second (from which you’ll revise) that accepts all track changes and deletes all comments. Opening both files but working from the clean version (be sure to cut OFF track changes in that version) insures you’ll submit a clean draft for the next round of feedback, for a grade, or for a decision about publication.
Success when writing as a student or writing for publication, ultimately, depends on the quality of the ideas and expression in the final piece, but the initial experience a teacher and editor has with a submitted work begins that process. Students and authors must make that first experience a positive one.
The appearance of a manuscript sends a message about the purposefulness and professionalism of the writer. Students and authors must not expect teachers and editors to take more care with their manuscripts than the student or author has herself/himself.