• Julija Sukys
  • Post-Publication Projects: On Returning to Small Forms
Post-Publication Projects: On Returning to Small Forms
Written by
Julija Sukys
March 2012
Written by
Julija Sukys
March 2012

Different sizes by Funchye

I'm leading a writer's workshop on the personal essay in the fall. I'm happy about it, because the essay is a form I love.

I tend to write essays at the beginning of a bigger project, and use them as a way to test out ideas and to work through central questions of longer projects. But since I've been, on the one hand, shepherding out my new book, and on the other, slogging through the final third of a new book manuscript, I haven't actually written an essay for a while. Bigness has consumed my writing life. Yet, seeing as I'm going to be trying to offer some insights into the form, I decided it was time I sat down to another one.

When we first arrived in Gozo (Malta's sister island), where my husband, son, and I are spending an 8-month sabbatical (only 7 weeks until we head home), I had all kinds of ideas for a book I would write about this place. "Botany!" I thought, "There's got to be a story in all this plant life and especially that weirdly named Fungus Rock." Then, later, "Saints and healers!" Then," Knights of Malta!" And finally, "A travel memoir about our time here..." None of these books have come to fruition.

Instead, as is my habit, I'm starting with an essay. Perhaps a book will follow.

For a couple of weeks now I've been corresponding with an editor at a reasonably mainstream magazine. I originally sent a pitch for a long piece -- 5,000 words -- about Gozo, the naming of places, and the idea of home. It's a length I like because you can say a lot in 5,000 words, but it's still short enough to be read in one sitting. The editor came back to me with good news. She liked the idea, but asked that I revise the pitch and shrink the envisioned essay down to no more than 1,000 words.

Now, for someone who's been writing books, 1,000 words is very short indeed. (Just to give an idea: this blog post is over 700 words long!)

No problem, I said. I'm up for the challenge.

This is where the process got complicated (that is to say, I learned something about myself).

For 5,000 words, I can lay out a structure and map out ideas in advance. I have enough room to look ahead and plot which move will come after which. Not so for 1,000 words. Perhaps it's a personal failing, but I feel like the only way for me to plan out an essay that short is not to. I have to feel my way through while writing a first draft, then cut, cut, cut, until I've smoothed the text down to its kernel.

Unsurprisingly, my reworked pitch didn't impress the magazine editor. It was too vague and too general. I'm sure others know how to pitch a mere 1,000 words, but I, big-heavy-text-writer that I am, evidently failed miserably. Like a large-animal vet trying to write a care manual for rabbits and gerbils.

But to her credit, the editor hasn't given up on me. She still likes the original concept, is willing to see how I can make it work as a tiny text, and is waiting for a draft.

Tiny-essay writing is a process that is so different from book writing. With the latter, there's breathing room. You can use your whole self, your whole past, and explore connections big and small. You can make mistakes and edit them out without throwing the whole thing off. But in a tiny essay, you have to choose your moves carefully. Any misstep, and it's over.

The Rumpus's fantastic advice columnist Sugar recently came out. That is, she revealed her true identity -- that of a writer named Cheryl Strayed. Strayed will soon release a collection of her Dear Sugar columns as a book called Tiny Beautiful Things. It's a formulation I love.

That's what I think 1,000-word essay has to strive to be: a tiny beautiful thing. Tight, strong, economic, and without a word out of place.

A bit like the island of Gozo itself.

So here's to moving back from the big to the small.

Wish me luck.

This post is part of a weekly series called “Countdown to Publication” on SheWrites.com, the premier social network for women writers.

Julija Šukys is the author of Epistolophilia: Writing the Life of Ona Šimaitė (2012) and of Silence is Death: The Life and Work of Tahar Djaout (2007). You can find out more about her at http://julijasukys.com.

[Photo: Funchye]

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  • Julija Sukys

    I love Joan Didion -- "Goodbye to All That" and "In Bed" are two favourites. She was someone I read when I was just starting to work consciously in this form. I think I'll go back to her again this summer once I'm back home with my books. One thing that's been strange and difficult about these months away from home is the absence of books. Both my husband and I spend far too much time reading on screens now, and long for paper....

  • Barbara Amaya

    I started working on a memoir and found that I am writing essays instead, it was something I had not planned. Somehow during the process of writing and remembering the past all these essays came out and I am now glad they did. I do agree it is hard for me to whittle essays down if I need a smaller word count.

  • Tina Barbour

    I love the essay too. I am working on a memoir, but even when I'm working on that, I tend to write in essay-like form.

    I work as a newspaper reporter, and I tend to write long. What I've found helpful is going ahead and writing long. Then I use the editing process to find out what I'm really trying to say.

    Have you read any of Joan Didion's essays? She is a wonderful inspiration!

  • Carol Hogan

    I'll give that a try, thanks.


  • Julija Sukys


    you know what I do -- I write microchapters (one idea at at time), then bundle them. My last book had 32 chapters bundled into 9 parts. The current book is up to 39 chapters. It works well for me. It allows me not to get overwhelmed by too many ideas and lose the thread of structure. It also allows for easy play and reorganization, since I do a lot of that. 

    It may work for you too if you like to work in short bits. 

  • Carol Hogan

    I know. I'm pursuing a creative nonfiction college degree after retiring from a long career as a journalist. I think the journalistic training may have been just what I needed because it keeps my writing tight. Now I'm writing a memoir and find it hard to write book-length chapters because I'm reluctant to add words where I don't think they're needed. In some cases I'm told we need to tell our readers more and that's the hard part of the exercise, deciding when to do that. Is there a rule for the length of a memoir chapter?

  • Julija Sukys

    Carol, that's a really interesting exercise. I'd be interested to go the opposite way -- from 2000 down to 1000. I find that essays can get better as they get shorter, sort of like when you reduce a sauce and make the flavours more intense. 

    If you've ever taken part in a workshop, you may have experienced getting contradictory advice too. Every reader has different criticisms and see different solutions. It's a real challenge!

  • Carol Hogan

    I, too, love the essay. I just finished a wonderful university class titled Art of the Essay. We were asked to write four different essays, starting with 1,000 words, then 1,500, then 1,800, then 2,000 and I struggled to stay within the word count. Then the professor made notes on it telling me he was left wanting to know more about my feelings. Did that mean that I hadn't written a good essay? Apparently not, he said it was excellent. What I'm finding is that every reader wants something different from a writer, and I wonder if sometimes editors just want you to write a short piece to use for filler?