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In pages of Writer's Digest, an ever-changing authors' story

Editor Maria Schneider says Writer's Digest has something to offer a broad spectrum of writers at all stages of development. Editor Maria Schneider says Writer's Digest has something to offer a broad spectrum of writers at all stages of development. (David Kohl/associated press)
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Associated Press / March 25, 2008

CINCINNATI - Emma Gary Wallace, professional author, had more than a few notions about the business of writing.

With a resumé that included essays in housekeeping and cooking magazines and a popular Christmas story, she was able and ready to share tips with readers of a new monthly magazine called Successful Writing.

"Writers waste a great deal of postage sending stuff around the country to impossible markets," she observed. "Don't carry coals to Newcastle or offer jewelry in a blacksmith shop. Every magazine has its own policy and makes a definite appeal to a certain clientele. Study these and take them into consideration when offering your wares for any market."

The year was 1921, and advice about writing was - and remains - a market itself.

The timeless cry for help as one makes the great leap from the desire to write to actual writing to published writing has inspired countless books, magazines, classes, and websites. Successful Writing, now Writer's Digest, is one of the oldest players in the business. Based in Cincinnati at the corporate headquarters of F&W Publications, it still enjoys a circulation of more than 100,000.

"I sincerely believe that we have something to offer a broad spectrum of writers at every stage of their development, from the novice to the veteran writer in every genre," says Writer's Digest editor Maria Schneider.

For anyone who wonders what the emerging writer has faced over the decades, the magazine's files tell a dual history. Evolution is constant, as technologies from airplanes to computers, and historical events from the Great Depression to the sexual revolution, bring on new markets and genres.

But at the heart of the game, the riddle remains: How does one write, and write well? How do you get your writing noticed and sold?

"It's like asking if we're any closer to the great mystery of how one paints a portrait or composes a symphony?" says mystery writer Lawrence Block, who for years contributed a column to Writer's Digest. "Most of the arts certainly are extremely difficult, and there are always more people who want to do it than can do it."

When the magazine debuted, "crook stories" were in, dialect was out, and the great new draw was "motion pictures," or photoplays, a business barely as old as the century. The Goldwyn Co. ran an advertisement about its hunt for the "screen's own Shakespeare."

Gertrude Stein, James Joyce, and other modernists were breaking up traditional narrative and grammar, but in the early 1920s, the marketplace belonged to the straight and the simple.

"A readable, lucid style, is far preferable to what is called a 'literary style' . . . a complicated method of expression which confuses rather than clarifies thought," one columnist advised.

During World War II, romance writers were urged to forget Depression-era tales of financial peril and were reminded that if a young man wasn't in uniform, the writer had to explain why. At the end of 1945, after the Japanese had surrendered, correspondent Sergeant Donn Hale Munson reported that the "war market" was "shot" and that it was time to "take your hero out of uniform . . . and put him back in civic clothes."

The times could change as quickly as snow melts in spring. In January 1981, the cover story centered on authors and their typewriters, and revealed that Gay Talese used dental floss for repairs. By April, the magazine was running a long article on word processors. By the end of the year, one article speculated about an "easily accessible database network."

If publishing was ever a gentleman's game in tweed, the pages of Writer's Digest were not telling. Books over the decades were compared to breakfast food, chewing gum, and oil-burning engines. A columnist in 1930 complained of the "abnormal emphasis being stressed on sex."

Romance and mystery were in demand all along, although trends and publications came and went. The market was a code to crack and self-proclaimed experts came bearing solutions, including Grace Porterfield Polk's "Polk-a-Dot Primer for Poets" and the Sherwin Cody School of English.

No one was readier to counsel, and console, than Thomas H. Uzzell, whose essays appeared for more than two decades. In 1931, he reminded the idle businessman that the empty hours could be filled writing that long-promised book. "Necessity has launched more literary careers than you'd like to imagine," Uzzell observed.

All agreed that the only way to become a writer was to write. John Updike recommended steady work habits, while Michael Chabon said it took "talent," "luck," and "discipline." And in the early 1920s, a promising young short story writer offered a terse formula for success.

"Study Kipling and O. Henry, and work like hell!" the author scolded. "I had 122 rejections slips before I sold a story."

The author, F. Scott Fitzgerald, was not easily discouraged.

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