Characteristics of an Exceptional Writer

Picture of Marianne KunkelAuthor: Marianne Kunkel

As an editor, what do you feel is the primary characteristic of a piece of writing?

As Managing Editor of Prairie Schooner, I read countless stories, poems, essays, and book reviews and consult with our terrific Editor-in-Chief, Kwame Dawes, who decides what to publish in the journal. By the time a submission reaches our hands, it’s either broadly successful or doing one or two things exceptionally well. It’s not uncommon for Kwame to suggest edits to pieces that he’s interested in accepting, so I would not say the primary characteristic of a piece of writing is perfection.

Pieces of writing that I find most successful are those that implement surprise and risk. Whether you take risks with subject matter—just the other day I was floored by Matthea Harvey’s wackily compassionate poem “Using a Hula Hoop Can Get You Abducted by Aliens”—inventive line breaks, surprising final lines of stories and so on, these choices catch an editor’s attention. The best short stories deliver endings that I simultaneously don’t expect and also immediately believe and love.

Some of my favorite risks involve crossing identity lines: a man writing from a woman’s perspective, an adult author writing from a teenager’s perspective, a white author writing from a non-white perspective. Imagination, boldness, and compassion are all at play here.

Do you feel that exceptional writers share any defining traits?

Exceptional writers are curious about their region and country and world and others’ experiences in these realms. They delve into writing about difficult topics—poverty, discrimination, sexual trauma, our changing natural environment—with high expectations that what they write will be new and powerful and even promote change. In the Summer 2012 issue of Prairie Schooner is the story “Bath” about a man and his son recovering from the man’s wife’s suicide; two simple characters react to female depression and suicide, topics that resonate among vast and diverse audiences.

As a writer, what do you find you envy in the writing that Prairie Schooner publishes?

The imagination, the nerve, the humor. Alicia Ostriker recently submitted some poems to the journal that were defiant and lovely—a tulip, old woman, and dog opining on death, anger, and more—and I felt so clear-headed reading them. (You can find them in our Fall 2012 issue.) Sometimes a piece of writing will be extremely polished and readable, and that’s terrific, but as an editor, I first admire how successfully hilarious or culturally subversive or gorgeously ethereal a piece is—how head-turning it is, essentially.

How often do you feel a piece of exceptional writing drops into your submission pile?

All the time! In the journal’s 86-year tradition, we’ve accepted pieces of writing from countless up-and-coming and established authors. Prairie Schooner published the early work of Raymond Carver, Toni Cade Bambara and William Stafford, before many knew their names, and we’re delighted when an emerging writer climbs the ranks of our submission screening process. I would estimate that about half of the submissions that Kwame considers for publication are by writers who haven’t yet published a book. Of course, we’re only able to accept 1 to 3 percent of what is submitted to us, which means we pass on a lot of good (and sometimes even exceptional) work.

Has your definition of exceptional writing changed over the past three years? How much of that change, if any, had to do with your work as an editor?

Since stepping into the role of Managing Editor, I definitely feel more confident reading multiple genres. I’m primarily a poet so I’m surprised at how comfortable I’ve become evaluating stories, essays, and book reviews. Kwame encourages all of the journal’s readers to read across genres; it helps us better communicate with our colleagues, our students, and with high-profile authors of all creative backgrounds. My work as an editor encourages me to conceptualize the creative writing world more broadly and to engage in it more confidently and inquisitively. I no longer hesitate to start a conversation with a novelist or essayist; I’m anxious to discuss with them new exceptional writing in their genre.

For all those aspiring writers out there, what encouragement can you offer?

Read as much high-quality creative work as you can, not only to study its strengths and borrow ideas, but also to be able to join in conversations about traditional, international, and contemporary writing. How can you know if your work will stand out in an editor’s hands if you haven’t made time to read and discuss what others are writing?

And don’t be discouraged by rejection; take seriously all rejections you receive and don’t become defensive or blame editors. If a journal passed on your submission but gave you positive feedback, trust the editors’ suggestions for revision. Almost half of the poems I’ve published were taken by journals who initially encouraged broad revision. Revision can be overwhelming—it once took me more than a year to revise and resubmit a poem—but the journal ultimately took it. I couldn’t believe the editor remembered the poem.