Remarks on Writing Success
by The Editor Company
After several years' experience, with various failures and many successes set down to our credit, it has come to pass that almost every week brings one or more letters from some one asking for information on that thread-bare theme, Success, and how it can be attained on the road we have been traveling all these years; as though the secret of a success, ever so small, could be imparted to another fully. It all depends.
To begin at the beginning: There is no royal, well-paved road leading straight up to the heights anywhere; neither in art, science, literature, nor anything else. To accept this situation as the sternest of truths at the very first breath of aspiration that blows your way, will help to put courage in you when passing over the rutty places in the well-worn road.
Occasionally one comes professing never to have been refused admission to any journal or magazine. Then why ask of us who have? No one with a grain of business experience with the pen ever believes such a story; besides, it gives one a bad opinion of the writer, and deceives no one. Success all depends—first of all on a
Seriousness of Intent
No writer of either journal or magazine who merely dabbles in literature as a "pastime," a "make-shift" while waiting for some other thing to present itself, need cherish hopes of success, brilliant or otherwise. He has no right to expect anything, who only gives a part of himself to it. It was Goethe who defined genius to be "the ability to do hard work."
To choose literature for a profession he should be sure, first of all, he has the literary temperament and some ideas of business methods to base his hopes upon; going into it as though one expected to keep at it through good and ill report, married or single, richer or poorer, male or female, because one has an inward impulse for expression that will not be denied its birthright. It is thus, only, one has a reasonable reason for hoping something may come of it eventually. Without this consecration of intent nothing ever comes of aspiration. The world is strewn with the wrecks of men and women who did not go into literature with any seriousness. They overestimated, or under-estimated their powers, or were discouraged before the race was fairly on.
But do not waste precious time learning an art so high as this unless you intend to make a life-work of it. Literature is a high or a low vocation, just as those pursue it elevate their work to artistic standards or cater to the sensational.
Genius Must Use Tools
Education covers a wide field. Some who never attended school or entered a college hall are better equipped than those who have had every advantage; but such is not the rule of life. Somewhere, somehow, a successful writer must have found a way to furnish his mind with intellectual culture. The shortest way is through the schools and established institutions, but some few minds are so constituted that they can not arrive that way. Such are not the audience we are supposedly addressing. One must have education and know what good writing is when he sees it. He must have an idea of "style." Good books must be read, not merely for pastime, but for ideas and to cultivate in one's self something individual. Until one has developed this individuality, no work of his or her hand and brain ever succeeds. It may be bad, but it must stand for something and have freshness of presentation to attract an audience of readers. All authors have to create a following. Those writers who make a great hit with their first book stand on perilous ground, for the next is apt to fall below expectation, and then they, through much tribulation of mind, do as the great mass of authors do, feel their way along. How can one expect success worth having except through long and painstaking drill, without tools in hand or at hand to sharpen one's wits upon?
While the taste of the day does not tolerate copious quotations, the cultivated ear, like that of the musician, detects the signs of culture in the melody of the theme. How many aspirants for literary fame have provided themselves with a working library—some of the tools absolutely essential for reference for careful workers? For instance, how many aspirants for literary fame have a complete set of Shakespeare's plays, a good original Greek or even a translation of "Homer's Iliad," the latest treatise on mythology, an analysis or an up-to-date grammar, a work on synonyms or familiar quotations, "Picturesque Homes of Washington," the "Women of the Century," the "Century Dictionary and Encyclopedia," or even ii "Webster's Pocket Dictionary"? And yet they presume to
enter the field of letters, knowing nothing of the rich stores of assistance to be found in Thackeray, Macaulay, Walter Scott, I [awthorne, Emerson, the two Brownings, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Charles Lamb, Leigh Hunt, or Robert Louis Stevenson as exponents of style. These authors may have been skimmed through, but as for studying them or Charles Dickens for anything but the entertainment to be found in the story, comparatively few have done so. Only about one in a hundred who seek to climb thinks such grind worth while. The hundredth one who does believe in the persistent grind is the one who is to succeed. Nothing furnishes a house so much as well-selected books, and the same thing can be said of a well-fur-i nished mind. Good books are the tools on which its originality is to be fed for culture. The successful writer must first know about many subjects; science, art, and people are all feeders to a man or woman who presumes to instruct, amuse, and feed other minds.
When one has learned to write, one has to find a market. Knowledge comes first, but "the way of putting things" must come close after, or nothing goes. Tact counts here as in social life. Without tact one might as well give up at the start. To study the market after one has something to sell is of vital importance. One of the best helpers, next to the carefully prepared Ms., is "1001 Places to Sell Manuscript." No young writer can afford to be without it or some other guide unless he lives in New York close to the market, and has time to give personal attention to disposing of his manuscripts.
Using the typewriter in preparing Ms. and retaining one copy to guard against accident, is another lesson that is sometimes learned in the hardest way.
One must cultivate an esprit du corps. It is a good thing to belong to a real press club, to an authors' guild, to a progressive, working literary society; but too much of this is a hindrance rather than a help. Literary people should cultivate an acquaintance with some of their kind for the sake of unbiased criticism and sympathy. No one can live to himself here more than in the world. Sympathetic companionship is good for the literary soul. George Eliot's literary capacity expanded under Lewes' companionship and sympathetic interest most wonderfully, in spite of their anomalous position to the world.
Keep on Good Terms with the Editors
Out of the depths of experience comes this proverb: One can not afford to fall out with an editor or publisher. Let him fall out with you if he will, but do you remain serene if it is possible to do so. He, if impulsive, will like you all the better for being calm under fire; and you may want to use him or his paper some time, and if you keep on good terms you are much more likely to succeed than not in carrying out your designs. But there occasionally come times when self-respect makes it necessary to have an understanding with your editor or publisher. The best understanding is founded on a "contract." Publishers conceded that long since, but the daily journal editor is still autocrat so far as his authority goes, for there are editors and editors—local, literary, city, and one hardly knows how many divisions of the "powers that be" in the modern, well-equipped office, each monarch of all he surveys, but deadly jealous of the other editor trenching on his ground; all of whom must be deferred to if you write for the up-to-date paper.
But should occasion arise for you to dissent from his decision, let it be done in such a way as to show right and strength in his position, such as will give him a higher opinion of you.
Do not Expect Especial Consideration
Is it necessary to reiterate that one has no right to look for special favors on account of being a woman, or young and good looking, or old enough to demand consideration from one young enough to be her son? It is no more demanded that an editor be civil and a gentleman in dealing with women contributors than with men on the force. A gentleman is a gentleman every time; and it is a false notion to think he cares who turns in the best copy, a man or a woman. What he wants is printable, available copy, that does not require too much editing. What he wants is news,—fresh articles, well-timed. Writers of books should study the best books as models; writers for magazines, the magazine they are aiming to enter; and the newspaper contributor, the papers that represent the most lines of work.
An editor's criticism may not be very gently given, but he knows what he wants; and if you want to succeed, he must have
his say without dissent. To listen respectfully and to profit by one's failures is about the only way to climb. If you can not bear it, say "good-day" as calmly as you can, and apparently good naturedly go your way. It is a grave mistake to place yourself so that you can not speak to nor recognize one with whom you have had business relations. Besides, one comes gradually to have a reputation, favorable or otherwise, for the way in which the inevitable friction of life is received.
One always has a reputation or character in the office. Nowhere are characteristic names so deftly welded to one as in the shadow of the sanctum, and it is much more of a compliment to be called "Sunshine" than "Storm."
Criticism, friction, failure, seem wisely designed to test, strengthen, and temper one's staying qualities. And it were wiser to hold one's real opinions in reserve than to get rid of a situation before another is in sight.
To sum up this whole business of success, an accident may help to bring it about or an accident may retard its progress; but work, work, work, must tell in the long run, if one's power is so carefully applied as not to be wasted. Stick to your ideals, though it blows all things blue! Let nothing throw you off your balance if once you have resolved to make the race. You must win something. Even your "failures" will begin to prove stepping-stones to a final success.
Bits of Cheer to Slow Writers
It is said that Charles Lamb would sometimes spend a week in elaborating a single humorous letter to a friend.
Addison frequently stopped the presses to change a preposition in one of his Spectator Papers.
Sir Walter Scott would spend whole days in verifying a point of history or in working up the details of a bit of scenery.