Welcome to Wet Ink!

This website is the online textbook for Loyola University's Writing course called "Wet Ink," which is about publishing, editing, and all topics relating to the publication of literary works. If you are not taking this course, feel free to hang out and use/read whatever you need.

If you are taking this course, you must read everything here. That includes all links, which have been selected carefully. And why wouldn't you read everything? Wet Ink is your handbook for understanding and entering the publishing field.

Note: The links you find in this website will either open to a new window or introduce an informative pop-up.

For more specifics on the course and its policies, go to our course's Moodle site.

A Brief History of the Written Word

Unlike speech, writing didn't just happen -- it took some work. It was, it is, a purely artificial method of communication that demanded a lot of thought and refinement. Even the earliest forms of writing -- pictographs -- were not necessarily intuitive.

How does one draw a bison so that it looks like a bison? Who says that this (example above) is what a drawing of a bison should look like? Understanding a sign or a signal is a communal decision. In this case, a group of people -- a society -- determined what it would accept (and understand) as a symbol for a bison. We call this acceptance or agreement a convention -- the look of this drawing (pictograph) is conventional: everybody in this society understands that it's meant to portray a particular kind of animal.

The people of this society might agree also that this drawing means "danger!" Most likely, they have more than one symbol for this most important concept.

But what happens when they change the picture to a word? Now, they have a completely different kind of writing because this new form demands that the viewer understand what to do with the symbols -- spell out a word -- then hear that word as spoken: "Danger!" Only then, by making that connection to speech and the concepts that speech contains, will the reader know the meaning. That's a complicated transaction and it takes practice to get good at it.

Writing with pictures -- ideographic writing -- is called "thought writing." Writing with sound -- phonetic writing -- is "sound writing." Both kinds of writing are the products of societies that have developed a need for higher level communication. By "higher level," I mean writing that does more work rather than less work. At bottom, writing is meant to save humans time and energy because writing allows us to store information outide of our heads. Writing liberates us from having to memorize everything. That's a big deal.

I'll say that again: writing allows us to store information outside of our heads. Once we can do that, we're free to process, save, and trade large amounts of information. This makes it easier to teach and train people. It democratizes knowledge, at least to the degree that any reader has access to his or her society's knowledge. The advantage of phonetic writing is that it is economical: you can say a lot in a little space. This is not so with ideographic writing, which demands lots of pictures and, as a result, a lot of training and memorization.

Chinese compared to English is a good example. Chinese writing system is ideographic (and called hánzi). It combines highly stylized drawings into words. The Chinese alphabet contains 50,000 of these symbol clusters. English, by contrast, contains only 26 letters. Which would you rather learn?

Writing Is Not For Everybody?

From the beginning of writing (about 3000 B.C.) until quite recently, writing -- like reading -- belonged only to the wealthiest, most privileged people. Its use was limited to 1) commerce (record-keeping), 2) law and government, and 3) religion. For the majority of people, writing had no place in daily life.

Why? Until the widespread use of the printed book about six hundred years ago, all cultures in the world were mostly oral cultures. Oral cultures are markedly different from literate (writing) cultures. Oral cultures, for example, rely on memory to convey information. This means that the cultural trove of stories and histories in an oral culture is necessarily limited. Further, this explains why stories of oral cultures are almost always set to music and sung because singing is easier to remember. This explains, too, why virtually all of the verbal art that constituted early literature came to us (from the Greeks and Romans, for example) as poetry. All poetry was song and often accompanied by music.

Oral cultures are usually uninterested in abstractions and focus instead on practical matters. The notions of "objectivity" and "science," for instance, belong to literate cultures. Because oral cultures have fewer resources for storing information and knowledge, they tend to be interested in traditions and conservation, rather than experiment and speculation. Oral cultures make sense of the world in additive ("and this and that and this") and linear terms -- because these are easier to commit to memory -- whereas literate cultures see the world in subordinate terms (piling one thing atop another).

In short: when people started reading and writing, they changed the way they saw and acted in the world. We still live with strong components of our oral culture. You hear hints of it when someone says, "I give you my word." In an oral culture, your word is everything -- your honor, your reputation, your family name. Pictures on store signs are another holdover of old oral culture, from the days when few people could read and "a picture was worth a thousand words."

Even in the so-called "developed" (industrialized) world, the majority of people could not read or write until 100-200 years ago. In the timeline of human development, that's incredibly recent! "But books were being published for hundreds of years before this!" you may observe. "And writing was important in so many ways as far back as the Middle Ages (800-1100 A.D.). So how did the illiterate manage in an increasingly literate world?"

In day-to-day matters, the oral culture prevailed. But, when common folk needed writing to do business, they turned to scribes: professional writers. Scribes were not professional writers in the way we think of them now -- these were not "creative" types who sat around making up stories and poems and plays. Scribes were people who knew how to write. Period. At first, they mostly copied texts. That was how books were duplicated in the days before the printing press. Originally, scribes came from religious orders. In the Middle Ages, scribes were often monks. Why religions? Because religious orders required that all members of their priesthood be proficient at reading and writing, since they had to study the sacred texts.

In later centuries, from 1500s through the 1800s, scriveners replaced the scribes. By this time, being a scrivener was not a prestigious occupation. If you wanted a letter or a will written, you went to one of the local scriveners just the way that, today, you might go to a photocopy center. Mostly, scrinveners copied things. By the twentieth century, thanks to widespread education, scriveners were obsolete.

Writing and Reading in America

So, when did reading and writing start to matter to every day folk in a big way? You may recall that our nation grew from a revolution, as Americans (all of whom were British colonists) increasingly protested against their English King and his parliament for treating American colonists as second-class citizens. Central to these protests were tracts and broadsides. A broadside is a large single sheet of paper that was posted on a pole or the side of a building. It was a poster that served as a newspaper for the general public, at a time (1600s through early 1800s) when the common folk had little money for such luxuries as newspapers. In short, broadsides were a cheap and easy way to get the news out to a large number of people. Broadside writers often sensationalized the news and included lurid and unseemly details to catch the public's attention. They were the originla form of "tabloid" journalism. Tracts are pamphlets. These, too, were cheap and easy to print (they were small and brief) and often focused on sensational or current issues. The wide ciruclation of tracts and broadsides encouraged people to learn how to read and write.

Wrote one observer in 1812: "In America, a great number of people read the Bible, and all the people read a newspaper. The fathers read aloud to their children, while breakfast is being prepared -- task which occupies the mothers for three quarters of an hour every morning. And as the newspapers of the United States are filled with all sorts of narratives ... they disseminate an enormous amount of information."

Don't forget that Westernized America (after the displacement of the "indians") was founded first as a haven from religious persecution. The many, often competing sects of American Christianity shared one thing in common: their belief that each individual had a special (one-on-one) relationship with God. This belief urged each Christian to school him/herself in the Bible -- which meant that everyone was encouraged to learn to read. Further: life in America -- which was vast and mostly wildnerness -- necessitated home-schooling and home-schooled religion. and, hence, more independence.

By 1850, a large number of American children were attending public schools. Schools at the time did not have "grades" as we know them and they were far from sophisticated, teaching mostly through drills of memorization. Nontheless, they were critically important in making Americans literate. Ultimately, the aim was to bring all Americans up to about a six-grade reading level. (Incidentally, that's why newspapers -- even to this day -- write to a sixth grade reading level.) By 1900, most states had a mandatory school attendance policy, which required everyone to attend from ages 6 to 16. About 50% of American children were enrolled in schools at that time. This "universal" education -- which included girls and (in separate schools) children of color -- went a long way toward making Americans into readers and writers. One of the formeost motivations for instituting universal education was mainstream society's determination to civilize the nation's growing number of immigrants. Literacy-learning, with its attendant propaganda about how to live and act as an American, was central to every immigrant's "naturalization."

The U.S. Postal Service, established in 1792, was also instrumental in encouraging Americans to read and write. Letters were a primary means, sometimes the only means, of reaching distant friends, family, and business associates. Business -- like civic life and private life in America -- also played a large part in spreading literacy. The industrial revolution (1760-1850) made increasing demands on the every-day worker. Whereas, in times past, a worker might only have to dig with a shovel or plow with a horse, the modern worker had to understand machinery, starting with the simplest of texts: "on" and "off." In short, a literate populace guaranteed that workers would be more capable of following instructions, especially when those instructions were written down.

The future of Writing?

There was a time when writing and reading were THE major forms of entertainment in the U.S.A., Britain, and Europe. This era lasted nearly 100 years, from about 1830 until about 1920, at which time new media -- radio, movies, then television -- captured the popular imagination. Starting in the 1830s, cheap modes of printing and better modes of transportation (for improved distribution) put books, magazines, and newspapers into the hands of millions of Americans. This, in conjunction with improved public education and a new civic insitution -- the public library -- resulted in a huge surge of reading and writing. Writers like Charles Dickens (1812-70), Harriet Beecher Stowe (1811-96), and Mark Twain (1835-1910) were the rock stars of their day. Sales of their books made them rich.

One of the most popular forms of entertainment at the time was reading aloud to family and friends. Public readings by popular writers were must-see events, analagous to our own super-star rock concerts. When a new installment of a Dickens's book was due to arrive at the New York city docks, for instance, crowds of fans would be waiting fervently, clamoring to read the lastest chapter of the new book. (Books were published in installments kind of the way we make TV series, and some movies, in installments.) You might look back at this and say, "Well, good for them. I guess there wasn't much else to do." But then you might consider how, even today, a book can generate that kind of wild-fan reaction. The Harry Potter series is a primary example. Harry Potter fans would wait in long lines over night -- camped out -- just to be among the first to open the new book about the boy wizard. So, has writing and reading suffered due to competition from new media? This is a highly debated question, which we'll consider more fully when we talk about e-books.

This much we should grant: just because the typewriter has been replaced by the computer and, soon, the computer will be replaced by "mobiler devices" or, as it was first called, the PDA (personal digital assistant) -- this doesn't mean that writing is going away. It means, rather, that writing will take different forms in different formats. Consider how texting is the craze among young people these days. For those who want writing to flourish, texting is good news. What about reading? Does anybody read any more? Well, a lot of people are reading phone texts and Tweets and Face Book posts. That's more reading (and writing) than most common folk were doing 200 years ago.

Some cultural critics, disappointed with current educational standards and a seeming dumbing down of every day life, insist that we now live in an illiterate, culture -- or, rather, an aliterate culture, one that is indifferent to writing and reading. This is a tremendously simplified view of our current situation. We could argue, for instance, that the majority of the populace has always been aliterate, if not illiterate -- because, for most people, reading and writing, have never played a large part in their lives. Still, even most high school drop-outs can read and write. And most people have to read and write to work and function in our societly: everybody has to take a written test to get a driver's license, for example. Our culture is very literate, though it may not be very literary. And there's the rub: interest in "literary" activity, like reading books for entertainment, is a very different issue than literate activity. In any case, it's hard to see anything else doing the work that writing can do. If you can't say what you have to say with your voice, you're going to turn to writing, right?

How Does Writing Get Published?

The process of submitting writing for publication has changed since the rise of the internet. It used to be that the writer snail-mailed her manuscript to a prospective publisher. Then she waited for a response. The waiting part hasn't changed, but the submission part has. Now, for most magazines and many book publishers, the submission process is via computer. Magazines ask you to open an submissions account and then you submit your story or poem or essay as an attachment to the submissions email.

In signing up for an account, you surrender your email to the magazine, which then puts it on its mailing list (they want you to subscribe). The advantage of submitting online is that it's fast and easy. The disadvantage of using a submissions progam like this is that you have no contact with the editors. In the old days, you would have looked at the mast head of the magazine to find the appropriate editor, then written that editor a submissions letter, like so:

Dear Ms. Fleur de Lis:

Enclosed, please find my short story, "Lucinda's Moth," submitted for your consideration. I have published stories in Journeyman Quarterly and One-Take, among other magazines.

Should you find this submission unsuitable for Fleur's Quarterly, your comments would be most appreciated. Thank you for your time and consideration.

Sincerely, Ron Tanner

It takes anywhere from 4-8 months to get a response back from a publisher. Usually, the response is a form rejection slip (or email) that says,

Thank you for the opportunity to consider your mnanuscript. We have read it with care but have decided that it does not fit our needs. Best of luck placing it elsewhere.

Of the approximately 800,000 manuscripts seriously considered by major American publishers every year (not to be confused with the many more that are submitted), only about 1 in 10 get accepted. Simliarly, most magazines receive 1,000 or more submissions a month. They accept about 1% of these. The market for writers has never been more crowded, thanks to the proliferation of graduate writing programs, whose number has increased by 200% in the last 30 years. There are now over 500 writing programs producing hopeful graduates every year. Only a handful of these graduates go on to write full-time.

In fact, most writers do something else to support their writing. The typical advance given to writers of books is about $20,000 dollars. But increasingly many publishers are offering no advance. Yes, Tom Clancy makes $66 million a year and Stephen King $64 million. But that's like talking about NBA stars. How many good basketball players have you seen in high school and college across this nation? And how many of those make it to the NBA? Landing a book conract with a major publisher is like making it into the NBA. And, yes, there might be money to be made. But, unlike other businesses, where you can study clear demands and market issues, publishing is notoriously fickle. Few publishers can figure out what will or won't sell; and many have gone bankrupt attempting to pursue the next trend or fad.

There is little or no pay involved in getting published in magazines, unless you've sold a story to one of the really big magazines like The New Yorker. For most literary magazines, there may be payment of, say, $50 and a couple of free issues. That's the scene. Real writers NEVER pay anybody to publish their work. If the magazine/editor asks for a fee of any kind, then it is not a respectable enterprise (there may be a few exceptions). Writers pay money only for contest entrance fees.

When a writer publishes a story, she gives the magazine first North American serial rights. This is no big deal: the writer is simply granting permission to that magazine to be the first publication in America to publish the story. Virtually all magazines are interested only in being the first to publish your story. Rarely does another magazine want to re-publish your story later. Once your story is published, you should not submit it elsewhere again.

Some magazines do not accept unsolicited manuscripts. "Solicited" means that one of the magazine's editors asked you to send a story or a poem. You can find out who does and does not accept unsolicited mss. (plural for "manuscripts") by consulting the magazine's submission guidelines

Some magazines do not take simultaneous submissions, meaning that, if you have sent this story elsewhere (and it's still out there in the mail), this magazine does not want to see it--because your story may get accepted by that other magazine and therefore you will have wasted the second magazine's time.

Nearly all magazines have an online version of their publication and some prestigious magazines -- like Slate, Salon, and McSweeny's -- are exclusively online. Acceptance rates for the pretigious online magazines is no better than they are for their hard-copy counterparts. However, there are now a huge number of online magazines of varying quality that ensure easy access to publication for the novice writer. A helpful source to find some of these magazines is a website like New Pages.

The submission process for book publishing is different than for magazines in one major way: a writer almost always queries before sending any writing to a publishing house. Again, it's important to look at the publisher's submission guidelines. Usually, the writer sends a one-page query letter that "pitches" the book. The pitch contains a brief and catchy synopsis, a comparison to other books that are like it (and how they did in the marketplace), and an overview of the target audience. This query letter may be attached to a sample chapter from the book in question. If the editor is interested in the material, he or she will contact the writer. Usually, if the writer doesn't hear from the editor in a month or two, nothing is going to happen.

Many publishers, especially the big ones, do not accept unsolicited manuscripts. They require that all queries come from literary agents who have vetted the writer and the writing and therefore ensure that the submission will be of the highest quality. The increasing difficult of getting published has compelled many writers, both new and experienced, to self-publish their writing. We'll talk about this in the chapter on marketing (selling).

For more on getting published, go here.

Questions for the Reading Below (designed to help you with the reading quiz):

1) Besides the correct spelling of words, what was the primary function of a dictionary?

2) What was--and is--the controversy of grammar?

3) Name three measures that helped spread literacy in America.

4) Describe three ways that an oral culture is different from a literate culture.

5) What is a "broadside"? Why was it important in America?

6) Is reading a "natural" skill, like breathing? If not, how would you describe it? Why is the teaching of reading controversial?


1) Popular Ideas of Lanaguage
Overview of prescriptive versus descriptive grammar; the supposed superiority of one language over another; and the functions of language.

2) What words cannot express
Does culture shape language or is everythingn about language hard-wired in us from birth?

3) Reading at risk debate
Why is the teaching of reading so controversial?

4) The Life of a Scribe in Ancient Egypt
How important was writing 4,000 years ago?

5) Discards
When libraries started changing during the digital revolution, card catalogues went into the Dumpster and what became of the books?

6) Oral Culture and Judgment of Others
How is oral culture different from literate cultlure?

7) Famous Rejections
You won't believe how many famous authors -- and their now-famous books -- have been rejected by short-sighted editors and publishers.

8) A Brief History of the Poster
The poster is a powerful form of published writing. Here are some examples.

9) A Dictionary Controversy
Why are dictionaries controversial?

10) New Slang Dictionary
Some things you should know about slang.

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