My Archival Wanderings: Erle Stanley Gardner advice

Hi Writers,
I’m dedicating the month of March to my excavations of the Writer’s Digest archives.
Today’s exhibit: this excerpt from a 1931 piece by Erle Stanley Gardner, author of the Perry Mason series.

What Chance has the New Writer?

By Erle Stanley Gardner
(January 1931 Writer’s Digest)

After you’ve written a story, the thing to do is sell it. Sounds simple, and it is, if one will follow certain basic principles of salesmanship.

The real trouble with the writing game is that no general rule can be worked out for uniform guidance, and this applies to sales as well as to writing.

In the course of six years of more or less intensive study, I’ve seen every rule laid down by a prominent author contradicted by some other equally prominent author.

“Write of something you know,” says one man, and make it sound reasonable. Then along comes another and says, “You’re writing to get away from the humdrum and take other people away from the humdrum. If you know Fifth Avenue and nothing else, for Heaven’s sake write of the South Seas. If you know Kansas, write of the wild west. Your work will have a freshness of viewpoint and treatment you’d never get from writing of humdrum subjects.”

“Revise, revise, revise,” harps another. “You’re up against stiff competition, and you’ve got to be certain that the work that goes in over your name is as nearly perfect as you can make it. Write your first draft, then cut it, polish it, check it over for trite words, crisp it up, polish it until it sparkles like a jewel.”

And there’s a lot to be said in his favor.

Then along comes some other man and says: “This revision is the bunk. You polish your work, yes; but you polish all the life out of it. Fiction has got to be created at a white heat. What’s more, when you get to writing action fiction for the wood pulps, you’ve got to turn out a quantity if you want to make any money. It’s better to write a new story than revise an old yarn.”

And the name of the man who makes that statement will be the name of a man who sells his stuff right and left.

And so on, ad infinitum. I could cite examples by the hundred. One man claims the average writer jumps at his machine too soon. He hasn’t got all the plot worked out. He should take more time with plot before he starts in on story. Then along comes an H. Bedford Jones with an easy smile and says: “Put a piece of paper in a typewriter. Think of an interesting opening situation. Write it down. Then go on with the story. The characters will take care of developments.”

The bewildered student-writer (in which category is numbered every writer who is worth his salt, whether he’s selling or not) is doomed if he does, and damned if he doesn’t.

Now far be it from me to add to this contradictory mass of advice. It relates to the sales as well as to every other phase of the writing profession. Some man says “Mail out your story, don’t write a letter.” Another chap chirps, “Always write a personal letter to the editor, telling him what you’ve tried to accomplish in the story.” One writer claims that a story should never be sent out more than three or four times without revision. Another says “perseverance and postage will sell anything.”

In short, there simply aren’t general rules. There are basic principles, but no hard and fast rules.

Geez, the more things change the more they stay the same.
Check back for more tomorrow.

Keep Writing,

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6 thoughts on “My Archival Wanderings: Erle Stanley Gardner advice

  1. James A. Ritchie

    Very good article. I especially love the "bewildered student- writer part.

    The only thing I’d disagree with at all is the "write a letter telling the editor about your story" part. Every editor I’ve ever known hates such letters with a passion that has to be seen to be believed. There’s simply no point o such a letter, and no reason at all for an editor to read one.

    What a writer is trying to accomplish simply doesn’t matter in the least. It’s only what he actually does accomplish that matters, and the only way to know this is to read the story.