Publish Your Work: Insights from Arielle Bernstein
Arielle Bernstein graduated from the AU MFA in Creative Writing in 2009 with a mixed-genre thesis, and she has now joined us as a professorial lecturer.
Arielle’s career – with wide publication in both fiction and nonfiction – offers an example of where AU’s cross-genre focus can lead. Her cultural criticism, personal narrative and reviews can be found on The Atlantic, Salon, The Rumpus, and The Millions. Her short fiction has found homes on the pages of journals like PANK 10, Literary Orphans, The Puritan, The Rattling Wall Issue 4, and Connotation Press. Now, she’s working on a book.
With her varied experience and some heavy-hitting publications under her belt, we thought Arielle might have some advice to share with other writers – and we were right. Below, learn about Arielle’s experiences and get a peek into the nonfiction publishing process.
On Cultural Criticism…
“One of the things I love most about writing essays is the sense that the work I’m doing is actively participating in ongoing conversations about art, culture and politics,” Arielle said.
Writing as a cultural critic means plugging into the zeitgeist – reading widely, keeping up with events and discussions, and honing a perspective that offers something fresh. The pace feels fast, and the work requires stepping into a current that is already flowing.
When Arielle wrote Marie Kondo and the Privilege of Clutter for The Atlantic this past spring, she received messages from readers across the globe – some of whom shared her particular experiences, and others who had different relationships with Marie Kondo’s ideas about minimalism. “As a writer, my goal is to not simply tell my own story, but to use my personal experiences and ideas as a way to talk about current cultural issues,” she said.
“For me, fiction is a much more private experience,” she said. “I’ll work on a story for months and months, and I won’t send it out until I think it’s absolutely perfect.”
As her publishing record suggests, Arielle is comfortable working on multiple projects at once. While she drafts her book, she has shorter pieces underway as well. “I find myself most motivated when I’m engaged in a number of different projects—from solo work to collaboration with artists, writers, and filmmakers,” she said.
On Logistics of Non-fiction Versus Fiction…
While fiction writers need completed stories or books before seeking publication, a brief pitch – often a proposed headline and two or three short paragraphs – serves a first introduction between a freelance nonfiction writer and a potential editor. Some outlets list an email address to which writers should send their pitches, while others list contact info for specific section editors.
Arielle always pitches ideas before drafting articles. “Different magazines have different audiences, and I am conscious of developing my work with that audience in mind,” she said. “I think meeting and talking with other writers is really important, especially when you first start out. Often, people are working on interesting projects and actively seeking talent. As you continue in your writing career, cold-pitching becomes more comfortable, since you can link to previous work and accomplishments. I tend to pitch places where I really love and value the work, and where I can see my writing (both in terms of content and style) fitting in.”
The timelines also differ vastly between fiction publications and cultural criticism. When fiction writers send their stories out for possible publication, they usually wait months to hear whether a journal thinks a piece is a good fit. Because the turnaround time is so long, most literary outlets accept simultaneous submissions: a fiction writer might send her story to ten or more outlets at once, and wait for the responses to trickle back into her inbox.
Pitching cultural criticism is more time sensitive, and editors typically respond within a day or week’s time. Pitching multiple editors with the same idea – without waiting for a response – is considered a faux-paus. Once a pitch is accepted, the process between writer and editor can also feel more collaborative.
“Different editors have different styles. Some will be very hands-off, while others will be very hands-on, wanting to see multiple drafts and making a lot of sentence-level edits,” Arielle said. “In general, it’s very normal to receive editorial feedback and for there to be a lot of dialogue between writer and editor. I find this discussion to actually be very fruitful for my own work—it helps me to develop ideas more fully and also see how different audiences might respond or react to my ideas in different ways.
On the Publication Process…
“The process of writing a proposal is actually incredibly helpful in terms of helping a writer articulate her ideas more fully, as well as think more critically about the business side of things—who the target audience is, for example, and how will you as a writer go about marketing and promoting your work,” Arielle said. “Once you have a solid proposal, you can start sending query letters to agents, which is how I found representation.”
Arielle has recently turned her attention to a longer project: a book-length work of nonfiction. She has devoted some time over the summer to writing a book proposal. While writers of novels and memoirs need to submit full-length manuscripts when seeking representation, writers of other nonfiction need to first grab the attention of a publishing house with a well-written explanation of what the book is about and why it needs to be in the world.
On Advice for Aspiring Non-fiction Writers…
“My biggest advice is to be persistent about topics and ideas that are important to you,” Arielle says.
“If an idea doesn’t work for one venue, it might be a better fit elsewhere. Use the feedback you receive from positive rejections as a way to tailor your work. It really helps to think about framing your ideas in terms of the conversation you are responding to, and how you think your ideas add to that.”
Arielle learned how to navigate the publishing world, in part, through a role as Saturday editor at The Rumpus. “Being on the other side of the desk gave me insights regarding how to make an initial pitch, how to take a positive rejection, and why an editor might want to make certain kinds of edits on a piece,” she said.
“My other big piece of advice is to keep submitting—if an editor seems excited about working with you, but not totally sold on an idea, that means you should read more work that is featured on the site and see if you can come up with an idea that is a better fit. Even when you’ve worked with an editor for a long time, they will occasionally pass on an idea, or ask you to reframe an article in a new direction. The best editors are actively seeking excellent work and will push you to fully develop your ideas. Keep going!”
Keep up with Arielle’s work by following her on Twitter.
Interested in pursuing your own writing career? Learn more about the MFA in creative writing.