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Writing Brief: Notes on Past and Future Brevity Submissions

By Linda Norlen

1. Good ideas are common; so are interesting experiences. The challenge is to develop the germ of a piece into something that is complete and resolved, and to do it in very few words. As Vivian Gornick explains in her book, The Situation and the Story, it's not what happens to the writer that matters, it's what the writer does with it.

2. In other words, often it is not the most unusual experience that makes a good piece, but the way a writer transforms the experience for the reader.

3. You may be drawn to write about the major events in life (death of a loved one, for example), yet some of the most successful pieces we’ve seen have found a way to deal with such subjects in a more subtle way (through action, through objects, through metaphor, through inference).

4. We receive many manuscripts that deal with family relationships. Many of these are strong works, and we will continue to publish them. We also invite work about other topics, however, such as knowledge that comes from specific professions or expertise or experiences not widely known.

5. Writers send us many good pieces that describe life in suburbia and in small- to medium-sized towns in America. We also invite writing about urban characters and themes, immigrant experiences, and international experiences.

6. Without resorting to cleverness or gimmicks, some of the best pieces we’ve seen have used structure to their advantage, finding a form that best fits their subject matter.

7. Much of the best work we receive has a distinct voice. This is a different matter from point of view, though they are related. The voice of a piece comes out of its language, but it’s not only that. There is no simple recipe for how to find that voice; probably the only way to refine the sense of it is to read a great deal.

8. The shorter the work is, the more it relies on compression and distillation. After you think you have the perfect piece to send to Brevity (or any other publication, for that matter), it’s probably wise to put it away for a few days or even weeks. Many of the pieces we reject often seem only a few drafts away from something excellent.

9. Make sure there are no mistakes of basic grammar, syntax, or spelling in your work; any of these will most surely eliminate your piece from serious consideration.

10. Many of the pieces that fail feel like excerpts of something longer. Sometimes this is because the writing is too loose and not sufficiently concentrated. But other times, it’s because a certain subject really is too large for such a short format; it can only be developed sufficiently in a longer form. In that case, we wish you very well in finding the optimal form for your piece and the most compatible place to publish it.


Linda Norlen, a former editoral staff member, has spent the past three years in northern Italy. She is writing a book of essays about living and working in a small industrial town between Turin and Milan.


photo by Dinty W. Moore/ Art by Duchamp