Writers: How to Find and Track Submissions

I’ve been submitting to literary magazines for over thirty years, and in that time, I hope I’ve learned a thing or two about keeping track of my submissions and finding good opportunities for submitting. One thing, I’m continually thankful for is how much easier it has become to submit. When I started, it took subscribing to magazines like Poets & Writers and buying books like Poet’s Market or the Directory of Little Magazines and Small Presses to even know where to send your work, then you had to mail everything with a self-addressed stamped envelope. Now, most of the work can be done online, and though it’s simpler, the number of writers submitting, especially when most everyone does simultaneous submissions has also made it more complicated.

I thought it was time to provide a round-up of some of the places you can find opportunities and track your submissions. Of course, some of the old stand-bys are still the best places to start. Poets & Writers maintains a list of magazine and book publishers, as does the Community of Literary Magazines and Presses [CLMP] whose Directory of Little Magazines and Small Presses was my bible back in the early days. New Pages has stepped in with their guide to magazines, and New Pages, CLMP, and Poets & Writers all offer classifieds with calls for submission. One of the newest kids on the block offering a listing of magazines and publishers is Chill Subs. I won’t get into all of the Facebook groups or Twitter accounts that post calls for submissions, since you can search for some of those. Following any of these organizations on Twitter or Facebook will also show you their social media content, which often includes calls as well.

One of the main places writers have gone for finding places to submit, though, is Submittable, which has become the most ubiquitous electronic submission platform. Their Discover feature lets you see upcoming submission deadlines. Submittable’s days as a monopoly may be numbered, though. More magazines seem to be moving away from it, and gravitating to its major competitor Duosuma, the offspring of Duotrope, a service for researching magazines and tracking submissions. And as I wrote awhile back, there is now a new kid on the block for online submissions, [Oleada]

Let’s stop for a minute and review how magazines accept your submissions. Though many are using Submittable, some use Duosuma, some Oleada, and some use a submission database on their websites (provided by CLMP). You might even still find a few using Green Submissions, and quite a few still take submissions by email. There are even a few stallwarts who only take submissions by good old snail mail. This is why it’s getting more complicated (not less) to keep track of your submissions.

Both Submittable and Duotrope offer systems for tracking submisssions both on their site and using other means. This is fairly new for Submittable, though that is what Duotrope was doing long before they created a submissions platform for publishers. Poets & Writers, though you need to have an account and be logged in to access the My Submissions feature. That is true for any online submission tracker, of course, since they have to know who you are to keep track of where you submit. Other options include The Submission Grinder and Literarium, though I haven’t tried using either yet.

If you are only submitting your work through one service, such as Submittable, it’s fairly easy to keep track of what is out, what is accepted, and what is in. It gets a little more complicated to keep track of everything you’ve sent to one magazine over time, though, and it gets quite complicated to keep track of submissions through several different methods, as I described above. That’s why Duotrope and now Submittable allow you to record submissions by other means than their own service. To be honest, though, I haven’t tried them much. I did set up a Duotrope account once, and I’ve looked at Submittable’s and Poets & Writers’, but I’ve found it clunky to add all my titles in an online form (I’m a poet, so I have hundreds). Many writers I know keep spreadsheets or index cards with this information. I’ve used my own relational database for years. I recently moved it over to LibreOffice Base. It’s called SubTracker, and if anyone is interested, I’ve posted a blank copy here that anyone can use.

A database acts like a spreadsheet, but is more powerful; it is essentially several connected spreadsheets. In one, I list all the magazines and book publishers I have submitted to, and in antoher, I list all of my titles. A third database holds a record of every submission and the response I get. There are forms that make it easier to read the data and enter new information, and there are queries that show me what titles are in, out, accepted, etc. That’s what the submission trackers at Poets and Writers, Submittable, and Duotrope (and maybe eventually at Chill Subs) are supposed to do. I prefer to have my own setup on my own computer (with good backups!) than to host it all online, but there are advantages to using an online service, such as being able to access them from a mobile device or form remote locations.

However you choose to submit, I hope you will keep good records. As a magazine editor, I can confirm that nothing is more annoying than accepting a great poem only to find out that it had been accepted elsewhere and the writer didn’t bother to tell us. Keeping up with your submissions is your responsibility. It’s part of the work of finding opportunities to publish and getting your work out there. And it’s not so hard once you find a good way to manage submissions and get used to it.

Advice on Writing Letters of Recommendation for the MFA in Creative Writing

Recently, I commented on a post in the Creative Writing Pedagogy Facebook group about writing letters of recommendation, and I thought I might elaborate on that advice here. The original post was asking about what adjectives were good to use to describe the applicant and which ones might send the wrong signal. I get it, we all probably second-guess what we’re writing and worry we might say the wrong thing when we’re trying to be nice. The original question was whether hard-working was a good attribute or might make the applicant sound like they had to work too hard to achieve. My initial advice was to worry less about the adjectives you use and to try to be specific about the applicant.

One of my earliest posts about the MFA application process was about who to ask for letters of recommendation, which can be especially challenging when applying to a low-res program like ours since applicants may have been out of school for a long time and may be switching careers. I think that’s still good advice, but it doesn’t help the recommender know how to pitch a letter. I’ve written many letters over my career, and I’ve received hundreds of them for applicants to our program, so I think I have a pretty decent idea of what to do and what to avoid.

I’d like to follow Ezra Pound’s advice for writing poetry and say to avoid adjectives altogether, though I know from writing letters that isn’t always possible. So what I would say is not to rely on adjectives, adverbs, or stock phrases to describe the writer you’re recommending. What really impresses me is specificity. If you describe a poem or story that the student wrote for you, I’ll be impressed that the writer made an impression and you remember it well. If you describe the way they interact with other students in class or comment on their participation in workshop, that gives me a better sense of the kind of student they will be in our program than if you give them one superlative adjective (though a few adjectives will probably also be part of your description).

A letter of recommendation can tell me a number of things. It can tell me that the student really went to your school and made a good impression. It can tell me they are a decent human being who is able to work well with others and won’t be a pain in the rear. It can tell me that someone else believes in the student and has seen their potential. And a letter of recommendation can fill in some background, especially when the recommender knows why the applicant may have had a bad semester or why their early academic career is less impressive than their later ones.

I’ve written letters like this, where I maybe didn’t know or didn’t feel comfortable revealing all the details of the personal issues that caused an academic issue, but I could speak to how my student had turned their lives around and/or persevered, and why I knew their GPA was not the best indicator of their potential for success in grad school.

Most letters only confirm what I already know from reading the applicant’s application and writing sample. Nothing you say in your letter will likely change my opinion of their writing sample, but your letter can fill in some blanks and help me see the whole person better.

Things I like to see in a recommendation letter (and things I try to include when I write mine) are: That the student gives insightful comments in workshop. That the student takes constructive criticism well and also responds to it creatively (not just doing what they’re told to do, but finding creative solutions). That the student is easy to work with. That the student has good analytical skills. That they’re a good student — and back to the original question: hard-working is a sign of a good student in my book. That you actually know the student and care about their success in grad school.

Probably the only adjective I really care about is the one that precedes recommend: do you highly recommend, do you give your highest recommendation, etc. Even then, I will take this with a grain of salt.

What if you’re a literature professor recommending someone to a writing program. We see this all the time, and I’m always glad to see it. Our program includes literature and forms classes, so we will require students to do literary and other kinds of research. The applicant’s skills in a lit class are important, in other words. You can also describe what the student is like as a student, and tell about their analytical writing. It’s fine to say that you can’t judge their creative work — we will do that with their writing sample anyway — and to concentrate on the other aspects of their academic preparation for graduate school.

And what if you’re not an academic at all? We always recommend to applicants that they have some recommenders who teach, if at all possible, but we get plenty of recommendations from non-academics. The reason we recommend academics as recommenders is simply because most academic write recommendations for grad school all the time, so we assume they will have a pretty good idea of what to write, and they will have seen the applicant in an academic setting. But for many low-residency MFA applicants, that’s simply not an option.

We treat non-academic recommenders a little differently. We know you’re not used to the language of a grad school recommendation letter, and we know you may not have seen the applicant in a professional writing situation. We are looking for your insight into the applicant’s character, work ethic, and goals for their degree. We don’t want you to write like an academic, in other words, but we do want you to describe the experience you’ve had with the applicant in as much detail as you can.

A letter of recommendation is usually 1-2 single-spaced pages, with 2 pages being the target length. It should be written like a business letter on official letterhead, if at all possible. Try to be as specific as possible about your experience with the applicant, and remember that what you don’t say can be as enlightening as what you do say. Take some time with it, in other words. Don’t just dash of a note that confirms that the applicant worked for you; tell us about the applicant, even if you can’t evaluate them as a writer.

I’ve seen some pretty underwhelming recommendation letters over the years, but most of the ones I see are thoughtful and informative. I try not be influenced by the ones that were dashed off or seemed not to have a clue about how to write a decent letter. But the fact of the matter is, though those letters don’t hurt the applicant, they don’t help them much either. I love the letter that makes me feel more confident in my decision to accept someone, and I don’t believe I’ve ever turned someone down solely because of their letters. But I do think there are times when a strong letter has made me take a closer look at an applicant who I might have overlooked otherwise.

Our program is not terribly cut-throat. We also don’t offer a lot of funding. We can accept most applicants who we believe are ready and will be a good match for our program. We read and evaluate the applicant’s letter of intent and writing sample before we ever request letters of recommendation, so there’s a good chance the person you’re writing for will be accepted. Your letter confirms our initial opinion, and along with the transcripts, helps us decide whether the applicant has what they will need to be successful in our program.

More competitive programs, such as those with full funding, may put more weight on the recommendation letter by necessity. Then the reputation of the recommender and the kinds of things they say in the letter may have a greater impact. My advice is to concentrate on the things you can have an effect on. You can’t change whether your reputation will help the applicant or whether your school will be impressive, but you can write a conscientious, detailed letter that speaks with specificity about your experience with the applicant. If you do this, you will have done your best to help them on their way. In my experience both as a letter writer and a reader, this will be enough.

Oleada: A New Submission Platform

Tonight, I was happy to see a tweet from Oyez Review saying that they were accepting poetry submissions. When I clicked on the link, I was taken to a new site called {Oleada}. A little digging on the site revealed it to be a beta version of a new submission platform for publishers. I also noticed that the poetry submission window was about to close, so I quickly pulled together a submission of three poems, created an account on Oleada, and made my submission. I published two poems in Oyez Review before, so I was comfortable submitting on such short notice.

The process was quite simple, and the site was easy to navigate. I was impressed that I could include formatted text, adding titles in italics to my bio and cover letter, for instance. Uploading a file was also simple, and Oleada immediatly showed me the submission I had made with its current status.

Since I edit Poetry South and help with Ponder Review, I was immediately interested in the new platform. Both magazines are currently accepting submissions on Submittable, and though we’re happy with the way that platform works, we also run into limits to the number of forms, the number of team members, not to mention the cost. Our CLMP membership helps keep the cost within our budget, but comes with limits to the number of forms we can use. Oleada promises an unlimited number of forms and unlimited team members. They offer five different ways to set up a submission form, and they promise it will be affordable for publishers (no specifics on costs are listed yet).

Because of the low cost, they also say they don’t allow submission fees, which could be a deal breaker for some magazines. Currently, we use Submittable to manage subscriptions and take donations in addition to accepting submissions (with a fee for Ponder Review). Duosuma (from Duotrope), another competitor to Submittable, does allow publications to collect fees and could be used to sell subscriptions. As an alternative, a shopping cart could be set up on the publisher’s website, using a service such as Square. As long as a publication doesn’t rely on submission fees for part of its revenue, Oleada seems like a promising alternative to Submittable and Duosuma, if the experience for editors is anywhere near as well-designed as the experience for submitters, and if the pricing really is affordable.

No matter what the response is to my submission, I’m happy to have had the chance to try out Oleada and to send something to Oyez Review. Currently, there are 21 publishers using the system, and they are a mix of magazines and book publishers. I may have to give some of them a closer look!

Oh, and on a side note for users of SubTracker, when I recorded my submission, I also updated the submission method. To do this, I first opened my form “xlist Manage Lists” and then went to the table for “Publisher: Submission Method.” There I added Oleada under Duosuma and saved. Going back to the “Places” form, I found Oyez Review and selected Oleada from the options list in the field “Submission Method.” There’s a more detailed explanation on how to manage these parts of the databas here.

Whole Wheat Cranberry Eggnog Muffins

Our holiday travels are finally over, so I can post about a recipe I modified to use some Christmas leftovers. These muffins used some ingredients we needed to finish up, and turned out great, though I had to modify the recipe a bit, and I apologize in advance that I didn’t measure what I did! You’ll just have to guess like I did if you want to try to duplicate them.

I started with this recipe I found for Whole Wheat Muffins at the New York Times. If you can’t access that: here are the basics: 2.5 cups whole wheat flour, 1 cup sugar (I used white sugar, but light brown sugar would be good, too — 3/4 cup might be enough with eggnog, but I didn’t know I would add that when I started), 2 tsp baking powder, 1/4 tsp baking soda, 1/4 tsp salt. I added a little cinamon and nutmeg or cardamom to spice it up, which is good if you have any. Mix the dry ingredients and make a well in the middle of the bowl.

Add 1/2 cup of vegetable oil or melted butter (the recipe calls for melted butter, but I substituted oil), 1/2 cup of buttermilk, 1 egg, and 1 cup (or more) of fresh cranberried cut in half. I also added about 1/4 cup of leftover cranberry sauce to increase the liquid a little and to use that up. The recipe calls for 1 cup of fruit or vegetables like zuccini, so I figured it would need a little more liquid than fresh cranberries would provide.

This is where I felt I should alter the recipe. I mixed the ingredients together, and the batter was very dry. That may be what it’s supposed to be like or it may be that my cranberries and sauce still didn’t provide enough moisture. So I began adding a little eggnog (since I was out of buttermilk at that point) to get the consistency I wanted. I estimate that I added between 1/2 and 3/4 cup of eggnog until the batter was thick (not runny) but would just begin to pour: thicker than pancake or waffle batter, but not as thick as bread dough. This is where the guesswork cam in — use your best judgement about how much eggnog to add.

Using a spoon, I ladled the batter into greased muffin tins, filling each a little over 3/4 full. I greased my pan with a little oil brushed into them and around the sides. This yielded 21 muffins, whereas the recipe says it makes 12, so I assume my batter was thinner than the recipe intended. Bake at 375 for about 30 minutes or until done.

My muffins are lighter and fluffier than the pictures on the recipe indicate. The eggnog gives them a spiced flavor, and they were quite sweet, so I might reduce the sugar if I try this again, though they’re not too sweet, since the cranberries add a bit of tartness. It was a great way to use up our whole wheat flour, leftover buttermilk, cranberried, and even eggnog!

A Writer’s Craft Transfer Is Complete

I’ve been chronicalling the transfer of my creative writing textbook A Writers’ Craft between publishers. When I signed the contract, it was with Palgrave, and by the time the book came out, they were officially part of Macmillan International Higher Ed, and it was soon shifted over to their imprint Red Globe Press. This summer, I got the news that Red Globe Press had been acquired by Bloomsbury, so I’ve been following the book’s journey to its new home, from Macmillan, to a separate Red Globe Press site, and now to its new home at Bloomsbury.

Mind you, I didn’t have to do anything other than watch it happen, keep up with the occasional email from the press, and update my links on this site and social media to reflect the changing reality. Now I need to scour the web for old links and try to get them updated where I can — my Amazon author page, Goodreads, my page at The W, etc. And I have to get used to being with what feels like a bigger press. Bloomsbury is certainly bigger than Red Globe, and probably bigger than Macmillan International Higher Ed, though I doubt they’re bigger than the parent company, Macmillan.

In looking around the Creative Writing pages at Bloomsbury, I saw that A Writer’s Craft is on the fifth page, out of 12, of creative writing books, and that I’m in good company with friends like Stephanie Vanderslice’s The Geek’s Guide to the Writing Life, Trent Hergenrader’s Collaborative Worldbuilding for Writers and Gamers, and Graeme Harper’s The Desire to Write. And I just learned I can get an author discount on any of their books, so I may explore some titles I don’t already own! I also found that I’m on page 51 out of 56 on their list of authors whose names start with D.

I do have a few other things I’ll need to do, like update my author photo and maybe update the author bio if they let me. But for the most part, I’ve been able to sit back and watch the process happen, and look forward to whatever changes this brings in the life of my book. Anyone who teaches and is interested in an exam copy should go to Bloomsbury for that now. Other than that, the book is available through all the usual sources.

ATT Router Redux

Several years ago, I wrote a post about my troubles with a DSL router from ATT that has consistently been one of the top posts on my blog. That post is finally going down in popularity (does anyone still have DSL?), and since then I’ve updated the world about our move to ATT’s U-verse fiber internet service, and a few issues with their routers before. As I recall, our first one died in less than a month, but the current router had been chugging along well for about a year an a half until it started having troubles last week: this story has a happy ending, so bear with me. (Or if you’re here to read about poetry or MFA applications, you can skip this post!)

The first issue we encountered was with our TP-link wifi extender. It stopped connecting to the main router, and I spent an hour or so trying to reconfigure it, but the connection would never hold. Thinking that the extender had probably reached its expiration date (we’ve had a few of those die for my mother and mother-in-law, so I don’t expect it to last forever), I got ready to order a new one, but fortunately, didn’t complete the order before the next problem arose.

The next day, we realized we couldn’t print to our wifi-networked Brother printer. The wifi button was flashing, so I tried reconnecting it with no luck as well. This led me to believe the problem was with the ATT router, not with the two devices, though fortunately our computers, phones, and tablets didn’t have the same issue and we were able to get online. I first thought ATT had probably instituted some change that caused the problem with some connected devices, and that sent me down the rabbit hole of ATT support.

Now, I’ve complained about ATT phone support in the past, but these days that hardly seems to be an option. Instead, there are very minimal FAQs (apparently no one asks frequent questions anymore, maybe because there’s nowhere to ask), and a user forum that had no helpful information. The ATT router’s status page has a help link, but that didn’t help much either. Eventually, using a link on the router’s status page, I downloaded ATT’s Smart Home Manager app, thinking it might help me add the troublesome devices to the network. It doesn’t really do that, or at least not manually, but somehow in that process I ended up in troubleshooting and then got routed to an ATT support chat, where I finally got some help.

The service rep had me try to reconnect the TP-link extender to the network, which as I expected, didn’t work. We never got to the printer, which was what I was trying to fix, but I did tell him that both problems started at about the same time. The key piece of information seems to have been that the WPS button on the router didn’t light up when I pressed it. I should say, it did light up briefly, but didn’t continue flashing as the two devices communicated. Once he knew that, he offered to overnight a replacement router by FedEx.

Since our chat was late in the evening on Thursday, the router arrived on Saturday morning. I was able to switch boxes, reconnect my cables, and I was back in business in about half an hour — most of that time was just letting the network set itself up. All my network information was carried over from the previous router, so most devices connected automatically. The two devices that had been disconnected had to be paired again by WPS, but that was as easy as it is supposed to be.

All in all, this support experience was better than ones in the past. I didn’t have to have an ATT tech person come out to install the router, and it was all taken care of very quickly. I just have to send the old router back to them (at no cost to me) or I’ll face a $150 charge. But I’m happy to do that.

The hardest part of the whole ordeal was finding my way to the tech support chat feature. If I’ve learned anything, it is probably to start with the troubleshooter in the Smart Home Manager app. It’s hard to find, but once you do, there is an option to Troubleshoot Hardware. That’s where I finally found support. Here are the steps to get to Troubleshoot Hardware.

Click Network at the bottom of the main screen of the Smart Home Manager app to display your network.

Smart Home Network screen

Click on the Network Hardware line to view the hardware setup.

Smart Home Network Hardware

Click on your gateway to go to the Gateway screen, where you can restart your wifi or click on Troubleshoot Hardware to launch the troubleshooting tool, which should take you to chat once it has done its automated tests.

Smart Home Gateway

Death of a MacBook Pro

I’ve been hanging on to my old 2015 MacBook Pro for awhile now, though I’ve been contemplating an upgrade for over a year. This is how an OS upgrade may have hastened its demise.

Warning: updating my Mac to Big Sur, necessitated by the recently announced spyware update for Macs, iPhones, and iPads, may have hastened the demise of my beloved MacBook Pro. Apple should warn about or check for adequate disk space before attempting a major upgrade. They don’t, so be cautious when upgrading from one version to the next. If you have an older Mac, you might try upgrading to Catalina first, and running the security patch on it.

I might have saved myself some hassle if there had been better information about the dangers of upgrading older Macs to Big Sur. I’ve been contemplating it for awhile, and the security issues gave me the impetus to do it, but I might have been warned not to install without adequate space left on my drive.

I had quite a bit of free space on a 1 TB drive, so that might not have been the issue, though that’s what I suspect. SSD drives can also fail suddenly, so I feel kind of lucky that mine did in the midst of an upgrade, when I had just done a fresh backup. I shouldn’t lose any data, and I knew this computer was getting pretty long in the tooth, but it was still chugging along okay.

Nonetheless, I had had to replace a swollen battery about a year ago, and it had started to do the same thing, so I knew I had another repair in the near future. After the first battery replacement, I realized they had messed up my power key, so I could only start when the MacBook was plugged in. Recently, I had an experience where the computer would’ve start at all after I had shut it down. No key combination with power on would jolt it to life. Fortunately, the next day it worked. I think this was because I have the computer set to restart every night, so when I plugged in the next morning, it started right away.

All, this is relevant to my current situation. when I installed Big Sur, it froze about halfway through the install. I let it sit for over 16 hours, but it never budged. at some point in those initial hours, I tried to do a hard shut down, but the power key wouldn’t make it turn off as it should. Eventually, I realized that my only hope was to let the battery drain all the way down, and then hope that it would start again.

It did, and at one point it appeared like I was able to install Big Sur in Safe Mode, but it didn’t recognize any of my old data. It wanted me to set up the computer as if it were new and import data using Migration Assistant. I skipped that step, and completed installation so I could,see what was on my drive, but when it restarted, it froze again.

I’ll spare you the full rundown of all the steps I took, but if you’re curious, you can see them in this Apple Support discussion. In a nutshell, after repeated restarts from a crashed state, I could only start into Recovery Mode, where I could not repair the SSD hard drive, could not erase it, and could not install any system because it appears to be full. It also seems to think there are more volumes on this drive than there should be (Disk Utilities sees 4 instead of 2), and it tells me there is a disk error it can’t repair.

Did this happen because there wasn’t enough free space on my drive when I upgraded? Or did it happen because the drive was failing and the OS upgrade made it use parts of the drive that were bad, or was there another reason? I may never know.

I could replace the drive and the battery and keep using this MacBook for another year or so, but that would take time and cost more than I really want to put into an old computer. And it may not fix the power button issue.

I found a good deal on a refurbished 2020 MacBook Pro that has everything I need, so I’m not sad about being pushed to the inevitable upgrade. I might wish I had gotten a few more months out of the old MacBook, maybe even another year, but I,m mostly glad it happened when I had just made a backup, and I’m glad that I can use my iPad and my work computer as a replacement until my new computer arrives in a few days.

I will have been without a home computer for exactly one week when all is said and done. If I had given up sooner on trying to fix the old one, I might have been able to get a new one sooner than that. I’m always one to try to fix things before I give up on them, but there comes a time when replacement is the best option.

Publishing Mergers and Acquisitions

The world of publishing is a constantly shifting ground with mergers and acquisitions a faily common occurrence. I’m not going to try to address the broader picture here, but instead I’ll just give a brief history of my experience with this through my creative writing textbook A Writer’s Craft.

When I first submitted the book it was to Palgrave, an English publishing house, but I soon learned they were part of Macmillan. As the book coming out and I was getting going with marketing it, I learned that Macmillan International was a separate division from Macmillan USA, and I was with Macmillan International. Soon the Palgrave titles I was with were put under a new imprint Red Globe Press, though all of my sales and marketing were done through Macmillan International Higher Ed with distribution through Springer Nature. It’s enough to make your head spin.

Then this May, I learned that Red Globe Press had been acquired by Bloomsbury, so my title would move to a new publisher. Everything seems to be going along with that move, though the process is a little interesting. My book page at Macmillan IHE (including the companion website for the book) was transferred over to a new website for Red Globe Press. That seems to have happened September 1 or possibly in August, though now I’m told the last step in the process will be to move everything over to Bloomsbury as of October. I’ll keep my links to A Writer’s Craft updated when that happens.

I’m sure there are legal and logistical reasons for why there are so many steps in the process. All of this has happened without any input on my part — my contract was transferred over and I haven’t had to sign again or anything. I’m just a small pawn in a much larger system, which is fine with me. Bloomsbury seems like a good home, though I’ve had no complaints about Palgrave / Macmillan / Red Globe Press, who I’m still officially with. Some of the editors I’ve worked with have come along with Red Globe in the move; others had aleardy been shifted to different responisiblities at Macmillan IHE. I’ll be interested to see what changes occur after the move is completed in October and what developments for the book come as a result of the move.

Persona vs Narrator

This morning I got a message from an instructor using A Writer’s Craft, whose student asked a question about using the term persona to talk about the narrator’s point of view. I got a little carried away with my answer, so I thought I’d also post it here.

There’s nothing terribly wrong about using the term persona for the narrator in fiction, I suppose, though most people don’t. In general terms, the narrator of a story is a persona of the author, but we distinguish it as a distinct kind of persona because it is so common in fiction. So a narrator is a kind of persona, and the two terms are related, but we use the term narrator for fiction because there are many personae of the author in fiction: the implied authorial perspective, the narrator, and each of the characters. To explore this idea further, if you don’t mind delving into some Russian formalism, you explore Mikhail Bakhtin’s theories on the dialogic in fiction (see The Dialogic Imagination). I tend to disagree somewhat with how he portrays poetry, but his thoughts on the many voices in fiction were ground-breaking.

In a poem, we generally distinguish one voice as the speaker and that speaker is either closely related to the poet’s voice (though never entirely) or very clearly the voice of a character (real or fictional). We would call the latter a persona poem because the poet takes on someone else’s voice and the former a persona of the poet because the poet’s voice in a poem is never exactly their voice in other aspects of life, as long as they are actively aware they are writing a poem.

For nonfiction we might use the term narrator or persona, depending on the kind of essay and whether we were comparing it to fiction or poetry, I suppose. Using narrator is probably the most common for nonfiction forms other than the lyric essay, where we’re likely to borrow terminology from poetry. And we generally don’t use those terms at all in drama because we just speak about characters’ dialogue, stage directions, etc. that do the work of a narrator or a persona. So each genre has its preferred terminology, and using it will help you sound authoritative and get your point across, but it’s also good to consider how and where those terms overlap or are getting at nearly the same thing.

Since the question was actually about using persona to discuss the narrator’s point of view, I should say that POV is a little trickier and even more specific. We use those terms primarily for fiction because they describe the narrator’s relationship to the action and to the characters. We don’t have corresponding terminology for poetry, though maybe we should. Maybe we don’t because there often aren’t other characters, so we don’ need to describe the speaker’s relationship to the characters the way we do with the narrator in fiction. But sometimes we do want to know who the speaker of a poem is, and when we do we usually borrow terms for point of view from fiction.

I enjoyed considering the question, and I hope my answer is helpful. It’s the kind of discussion I hope A Writer’s Craft encourages students to have and to look for their own answers about.