The GUP Method for Creative Writing

"Paula Journals in Antigua" photo by Magnus Franklin, CC by 2.0
“Paula Journals in Antigua” photo by Magnus Franklin, CC by 2.0

One question creative writers often ask publishers is “What are you looking for in a submission?” As a professional writer since 1985, and a small-press publisher since 2005 (see, I’ve had some time to mull over this question and hear what other publishers have to say. Here’s my GUP formula, three basic adjectives to describe a successful piece of creative writing.

Genuine: If a piece of writing touches me, I’m likely to champion it, whatever flaws it may possess. To be genuinely touching, however, a piece needs to take chances. It has to expose the writer as an individual. Which brings us to the second descriptor…

Unique: Inexperienced writers often spill their feelings and assume that is enough. But as Garrison Keillor wrote in the introduction to Good Poems, such pieces are “like condoms on the beach, evidence that somebody was here once and had an experience but not of great interest to the passerby.” If your piece could have been written by pretty much anybody, it’s missing the “creative” part. Creativity takes work, which leads us to descriptor three…

Polished: Writing is a transaction between an author and an audience. It isn’t enough to say what’s in your head or heart; you also have to connect to what’s in the reader’s. That means writing a draft, getting honest feedback, and making changes. A few tips are in order here:

  1. Find a critique group. Your family and friends probably aren’t skilled at giving useful—or honest—feedback. You need to workshop with other writers. Check to see if your state has something like the WFOP or WRWA, or join an online community of writers.
  2. Read. Read writers you like. Try to understand those you don’t. Absorb everything you can, so that you can learn to turn a phrase.
  3. Be honest with yourself. It’s easy to overlook a line that feels not quite perfect, and sometimes that’s what you have to do. But usually taking the time to ask exactly what’s bugging you about the line pays off in delight and improved skill.

You may notice that the sections above increase in length from G to U to P. Their relative word counts should tell you something about how much effort you’ll need to put into each.

Best wishes with your writing!


6 thoughts on “The GUP Method for Creative Writing

  • November 27, 2011 at 12:17 pm

    Good point, F.J. You’re right that reading—immersion in poetry—has to come first, per Kenneth Burke’s parlor metaphor. And I suppose that same metaphor presumes “contemporary,” though when it comes to poetry, I have a tendency to walk past the grad students chatting near the door and seek out the absinthe drinkers sitting in a dark corner at the back.

  • November 27, 2011 at 9:34 am

    Crazy about the Keillor quote. I’d change the order of the tips, though: reading CONTEMPORARY poetry should come first.

    Submitting may be a tedious process, but my impression, as an editor and a writer, is that perseverance counts more than the quality of the work. I have had poems accepted by prestigious journals—and win awards—following over twenty earlier rejections.

  • August 8, 2011 at 11:09 am

    Thank you for the comment, Terence. I have to agree that submitting can often an exhausting and disheartening experience. Have you read Stephen King’s description of sticking rejection letters on a spike in his attic office wall, until one day the weight of them all tore that spike out? Or how about the twelve rejections the first Harry Potter book received?

    On the other hand, I can tell you that a publisher’s job can be equally wearisome. The pile of submissions tends to be so high it’s difficult to keep up. And to be honest, the people who send in the least interesting, least revised work also tend to be those least prepared to accept constructive criticism. Experienced writers not only squeeze out newcomers, they’re also best able to revise when asked, or accept rejection when something’s just not a good fit for a particular publisher.

    I’d encourage you, then, to keep submitting. That’s just part of what it takes to be a pro.

  • August 8, 2011 at 9:36 am

    Dear Sir:

    I find that submitting poetry is such a negative experience that I no longer do it. Even though I’ve had two poems published, There are, for themost part,
    too many rules and conditions that punlishers impose on writers, You can’t express your feelings if there are rules against it. and all of the format requirements are just frustrating and petty. Thats why I no longer submit.

    Thank You,

    Terence Thomas

  • February 11, 2010 at 10:27 am

    I love this formula, Lester. I tell the
    similar things to my creative writing students at UW-L. Thank you for your

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