How Writer’s Digest Began from Legends of Literature

1920 was a landmark year for both writers and writing. Edith Wharton discovered The Age of Innocence. The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari premiered in theaters. Agatha Christie introduced Hercule Poirot. Eugene O’Neill opened his first full-length play. New works appeared from H.G. Wells, F. Scott Fitzgerald, L. Frank Baum, and Robert Frost. The list goes on and on. It was also the year that Mario Puzo, Ray Bradbury, Isaac Asimov, and a little periodical called Successful Writing were born. Successful Writing quickly evolved into Writer’s Digest, and in the nine decades since, The Digest has worked tirelessly to provide writers of all skill levels with the information they need to write well, get published, and live a rich, rewarding writing life. Forty years ago, then-publisher RICHARD ROSENTHAL shared with readers a brief history of how the magazine came to be …

It was post-World War I and the United States was in a mood to celebrate her newly found muscle on the world’s battlefields. Everyone boasted, and we all wanted to tell the world “how we did it!” But the telling required words … and printing … and paper.

In the fall of 1920, Ed Rosenthal went to New York in search of paper for his Cincinnati-based printing and publishing companies. He found three sources so quickly that he decided (in the extra time he had) to chase a star that had been playing hide-and-seek with him for years.

He wanted to publish a magazine that would take the writer out of the garret and into the marketplace where the demand for his wares had never been greater. He wanted to show aspiring writers how to write for this new, hungry market and then how to sell to that market.

The climate for his invention hardly could have been better. He contacted all the writers he and his family knew, friends of writers, suspected writers, old writers, new writers—anybody who could reach that guy up there in the garret to tell him to come down and join the happy parade of the day. He succeeded.

He called his new publication Successful Writing and boldly asked twenty-five cents a copy from the buyer. He sold 1,400 copies of that December 1920 issue—enough copies to rush the second copy into print—and a third before he decided to change the title to Writer’s Digest. While the reasons for the title change (the magazine has never “digested” articles or stories) have remained a mystery, the rest of the history is well documented in the magazine itself.

From that first issue—subtitled “A Monthly Journal of Information on Writing Photoplays, Short Stories, Verse, News Stories, Publicity, Advertising, etc.”—to the one you are holding now, Writer’s Digest has shown the writer his own best way to improve his craft and become a commercial success.

For instance, D.G. Baird, in his article “Cashing In on the Other Fellow’s Ads” (September 1921), tells how he saw an unusual newspaper ad, clipped it, and found the person who created it. He then interviewed this person and sold the interview to Printer’s Ink.

Or, for those readers who needed a special kind of push, Sinclair Lewis injected a large dose of adrenalin into their muses in the June 1931 issue with these words:

To be not only a bestseller in America but to be really beloved, a novelist must assert that all American men are tall, handsome, rich, honest, and powerful at golf; that all country towns are filled with neighbors who do nothing from day to day save go about being kind to one another; that although American girls may be wild, they change always into perfect wives and mothers; and that, geographically, America is composed solely of New York, which is inhabited entirely by millionaires; of the West, which keeps unchanged all the boisterous heroism of 1870; and of the South, where everyone lives on a plantation perpetually glossy with moonlight and scented magnolias.

“The novel of labor and the laborer is more timely today than it ever was in this country. Labor will never again take a back seat in American politics.” What this lead by Louis Zara said in his article “The American Labor Novel” in the January 1937 Writer’s Digest was not only the loud, clear sound of the day but also a call to fellow writers to join in the great social cause of the 1930s—telling the story of the emergence of the blue-collar worker.

Succeeding years featured equally timely and provocative articles by everyone and anyone who could say well something about the joys or mechanics or frustrations or triumphs of writing.

As trends shifted, so did the editorial emphasis of the magazine. When the bright light of the pulp era dimmed, Writer’s Digest warned its readers to sharpen their verbs, drop their adjectives, and start aiming at the burgeoning slick market.

Later (in the 1950s), specialty magazines began to flex their pages … and Writer’s Digest preached the specialization line. At about the same time, television (like all normal babies) cried night and day for anything even partially palatable. In those early days of television, Writer’s Digest talked in the mysterious terms of this new market; how to write teleplays, continuity, jokes, questions for quiz shows and on and on.

The 1960s brought on a resurgence of the longer piece of writing—the book. Writer’s Digest did whole series of articles on juvenile writing, mysteries, and the paperback phenomenon.

Alas, the 1960s also brought on the demise of some of the writer’s institutions: The Saturday Evening Post, Collier’s, Coronet, Capper’s Farmer, Household, and too many others.

For the writer, the market scene shifted, and so did Writer’s Digest. Trade journals and religious, juvenile, mystery, and confession magazines became the marketing hope for the new writer’s place in the fun. Then new markets were “discovered,” offering yet a new hope for the writer: advertising, publicity, political ghosting, newsletters, company publications, and dozens more in highly specialized areas.

Do any of these new markets sound familiar? They should. Advertising and publicity writing, for instance, is where we came in. Maybe “photoplays” will become the next new market for Writer’s Digest readers.

Who knows? Whatever it is, Writer’s Digest will be letting you know all about it, how to write for it, and where to find it.

Find out more about Legends of Literature.

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