Writing Advice Hasn't Changed Much Since 1921

On my desk I keep a copy of one of the first Writer’s Digest
titles, How to Write Short Stories by L. Josephine Bridgart, published
in 1921. It is a subtle reminder of how little things have changed
when it comes to writing and publishing. Below is an excerpt from the
very first chapter, “Common Sense in Viewing One’s Work.”

for publication is a business. If the new writer will accept this fact
he will have laid a foundation upon which, if he have the necessary
natural ability, he can build success.

If a young woman tells
you that she intends to take up nursing, and later reveals that her
chief reason for doing so is that the uniforms in a certain hospital
have attracted her, or that she enjoys reading to the sick, or dislikes
the business life her father has suggested for her, or has heard that
nurses make a great deal of money, you immediately feel that her
nursing will not be a great success. You reason that nursing involves
some very hard and disagreeable duties and that a girl who think only
of the incidental pleasures or the monetary rewards is pretty sure to
fail. It is not common business sense to enter a profession without
taking into consideration the requirements of that profession.

have read this lack of common business sense between the lines of many
a first story. Some of these stories tell how a young girl with no
experience won a prize in a short story or novel contest; often the
prize-winning story was written in an afternoon, or an evening, or in
the dead of night as the result of an idea which came to the author
after she had retired. Some of these stories are about attractive young
women who sold an editor a manuscript because she was attractive, or
because she was poor, or because she was sick or saucy. Such stories
show plainly that the authors are depending on personal charm or “an
inspiration” or luck rather than upon hard work to win acceptances.
They do not stop to reason that before they can hope to sell a
manuscript they must learn how to produce a manuscript that some editor
will want to buy. …

Unless you respect the principles governing
the construction of a story or an article or a poem you cannot produce
a manuscript that the careful editor will consider worthy of a place in
his magazine. In any other trade or profession, the beginner expects to
encounter a great deal of hard work. He expects to master certain
rules, learn to apply them, and then make himself skillful by practice.
Writing for publication means careful preparation and a great deal of
hard work, just as millinery and surgery and sculpture do.

her autobiography Ellen Terry tells of actresses who had explained to
her that they did not care to be hampered by the rules. The successful
actress had replied that it was wise to learn the rules before one
decided to abandon them. “Before you can be eccentric,” she commented
pithily, “you must know where the circle is.” …

The editor does
not care at all about rules as rules. He wants a manuscript that will
hold his readers’ interest. If you can break the rules and still
produce a manuscript that will grip the attention from the first
sentence to the last you need not fear that your irregularities will
cause you a rejection.

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6 thoughts on “Writing Advice Hasn't Changed Much Since 1921

  1. Nanylora

    For any of you who might be interested, this classic book is now available on Amazon Kindle.

    <a href=http://www.amazon.com/Write-Short-Stories-Josephine-Bridgart-ebook/dp/B00SRNKRO6/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1422361071&sr=1-1&keywords=How+to+Write+Short+Stories+Bridgart

    1. Nanylora

      I’m sorry. I didn’t do the link right and now I can’t seem to edit or delete my post. If you want the Kindle version of the book, just search on Amazon, you’ll find it. 🙂

  2. Jane Friedman

    To Shipra: As a graduate of a creative writing program, published author, and editor of countless how-to books on writing, I feel confident in saying that how-to books do help new/aspiring writers, and some intermediate-level writers. Some if it depends on what you’re trying to accomplish, but for commercial work, you can save yourself a lot of time and energy by reading up on the craft. You may be able to learn it yourself through years of practice, or maybe you naturally/instinctively understand the principles (some do — mainly because they’re avid readers), but why not make it easier on yourself by reading advice from accomplished practitioners? If you were a woodworker, or a nurse, or a sculptor, you would in fact study "how-to" — or be shown the principles by a master, would you not? I’m not sure why writing is so often considered something at which there is no room for apprenticeship, which is what how-to books are all about.

    To Addison: It’s true that opening scenes need to quickly engage the reader, especially when you’re an aspiring novelist. Once established, you’ll find the rules relax — people are willing to give you the benefit of the doubt when they trust you as a storyteller. But I have to warn against giving a lot of background up-front; it’s usually unnecessary and gives the reader far more information than they need or want. It’s often the No. 1 problem I see in manuscripts.

    That said, modern storytelling has changed (maybe due to influence from cinema), and if you were writing in the time of Henry James, a slow opening would’ve been more accepted. But storytellers of all eras have to pay attention to the needs of audience, or risk irrelevancy.

  3. Addison Gast

    I agree-to an extent. Most writing instructors will want you to start off the manuscript like a fast action movie. Make the chase scene the opening paragraph and detail the characters after that kind of a wild start. I don’t like to initiate my first introduction of characters in that way because you may lose the reader. I prefer the warm-up to the plot by giving a lot of background. Just works better IMHO.

  4. shipra chauhan

    Interesting write-up. Indeed the the basic principles on the craft of writing still apply.
    (I love that book cover!)

    I read a very interesting & humorous article a few months ago- about seeing writing as a serious profession and how most people do not really see it that way. It was published a long time ago, and i have a shriveled hard copy…I will try to dig that up and will be back to share it with you.

    However, I do approach ‘how to write’ kind of books with certain skepticism. What is your take on that? Do they really help as much as they offer to?