Friday, 3 February 2017

11 June 1881 - 'Literary Work for Girls' by An Editor's Wife

The question of remunerative employment for women is becoming every day a more absorbing one. The time has, we believe, almost – would that we could say quite! – gone by when work of any and every sort was considered a degradation to a woman gently born and reared. Poets in all ages have sung glibly enough of the dignity of labour, but it is hard for us to realise the dignity when we find ourselves tabooed and thrust down in the social scale by virtue of our work.

Happily, this nineteenth century, which has so many evil things to answer for, has at any rate done us good service in materially altering the aspect from which women's labour is regarded. There is nothing so ennobling and invigorating to the mind as good honest work, whether undertaken of necessity or simply as a right use of the time placed at our disposal.

There is no such powerful incentive to perseverance and thoroughness as keeping before our eyes some definite object to be attained by our labour, and there are no such impartial critics of our work as those who gauge it by its market value, entirely apart from all sentiment whatsoever.

This is in itself as strong an argument as needs be why girls should, if they be disposed, turn their attention to remunerative work, even supposing other considerations to be absent.

The scriptural view of the matter the "labourer is worthy of his hire," applies indiscriminately to all sorts and grades of labourers, whether they be men or women, labourers from necessity or from a sense of responsibility; and she who labours well and thoroughly, with due qualifications for her task, deserves and is pretty sure to gain the hire which Christ Himself has declared to be her due.

"Well and thoroughly." Here is the great secret of women's work, and in no case does it apply more forcibly than with regard to the branch of work we have chosen as the subject of this paper.

"Surely literary work is the most pleasant of all ways of earning money," I have heard many a girl say. "There is no going from home among strangers, or weary plodding to and fro in all weathers, and no wear and tear of refractory children, as in the case of a governess, no terror-inspiring examinations and outlay for being taught, as with telegraph clerks, no expensive course of lessons or stern apprenticeship, as with art needlework, designing, or even such work as millinery and dressmaking. If only a girl possesses a talent for writing she can sit quietly at home and make money with comparative ease, and if she is really clever she gets known, and then see how well she is paid. How fortunate to be able to gain a livelihood with such ease!"

And then if the girl is of an energetic turn of mind she will very likely sit down and dash off a few verses or a story, and feeling quit assured that she has read many in print that were no better, she dispatches it to the editor of any magazine she happens to take in, and impatiently, yet hopefully, awaits the result. This is tolerably sure to be a refusal. The literary aspirant is cast down and somewhat indignant. She is so sure that many compositions not in any degree better than hers have been printed somewhere. She sends her manuscript off again in another direction with the same result. Then she arrives at the conclusion that editors are the most blind, unfair set of beings in existence. They might at any rate have deigned to say why they refused her composition. She throws down her pen in supreme disgust, utterly disheartened, and very probably never taken it up for literary composition again.

Now, granting that her own estimate of her work was right, which, however, it is little likely to be, any more than the estimate of admiring friends, and that her verses or story were really equal in merit to others she has seen in print, is there any reason, apart from the blindness and exclusiveness of editors, why she should have failed? This is the question that we will endeavour fully to answer in this paper.

I will quite agree with my would-be literary girl that writing is a pleasant and profitable occupation, well adapted from many points of view for supplying a means of income without the attendant disagreeables attaching to many other employments. I will add, that never at any time was there such a field open to the literary worker as at this moment when magazines are multiplied and "of making books there is no end."

But I can go with her no farther. Literary work is not easy, at any rate to a vast number of those who live by it; it cannot be entered upon without training, and it requires much more than mere talent. The thorough practical training  for the work is even more advantageous than a decided talent devoid of cultivation, although I will not be rash enough to affirm that talent is unnecessary. But that it is useless without training I am firmly persuaded. On another point, too, I must differ from my disheartened girl friend. Editors are by no means the dragons that many people paint them. What they may have been in past days, I cannot say, but my own experience is that they are as a rule most kind and courteous, and only too ready to accept a manuscript that really meets the requirements of their magazine in all their particulars; for, incredible as it sounds, the number that comes under this category is surprisingly small.

My girl readers would not wonder that their MSS have received such summary treatment, if they could see the formidable pile of papers lying each morning on an editor's table. I should like the discontented literary aspirant to have practical experience of the work of examining, sorting, reading, and returning just for one day, and her only wonder will be the editor has not thrown her manuscript with a score or two of others at once into the waste paper basket, without even going through the brief form of rejection which has so roused her indignation. Fancy, if you can, the Editor of THE GIRL'S OWN PAPER writing some twenty or thirty such letters every day as the following, besides having to wade through the twenty or thirty accompanying MSSS, in every style of undecipherable handwriting, and probably varying in length from a page to a fair sized volume:-

"DEAR MADAM, - I am extremely sorry to be obliged to return your MS. In the first place, the story is three times as long as the greatest length we allow for short stories, and only about a third of the length required for a serial. Besides this, the interest is not sufficiently maintained, the characters are too unreal, and the whole tendency of the plot so extremely romantic that I am afraid it would give our girls very false notions of life. The writing, too, bears evidence of inexperience, the composition of many sentences being even grammatically incorrect. Under these circumstances I am compelled most reluctantly to reject your story. I would willingly accept it, so far as I am concerned, for I am sure you have taken great pains, and there are many very pretty ideas in it; but I am afraid the girls would not consider it sufficiently interesting, and that their parents would not approve the tone. Unfortunately, we are obliged to consider these points, as we would rather sell THE GIRL'S OWN PAPER than give it away. If you would quite alter the plot of your story, making it more practical, and in some way connecting the incidents; if you could make the conversation less frivolous and the characters a little more sensible, and if you would alter all the sentences that are not well expressed, I should be happy then to look at it again.

"With many apologies for wounding your feelings, I remain, dear madam,

"Your humble servant,


There, girls! It looks rather weak in print, doesn’t it, but isn't that the sort of letter that you really wanted? And I can assure you that would be but a mild criticism of the inappropriateness of most amateur contributions sent to editors. Besides these, there is another class of contributions quite as useless, but far more distracting. Every editor knows them only too well. Shall I give you one brief example?

"DEAR SIR, - I send you herewith a MS., which I earnestly entreat you to accept. I am in the sorest need – an aged curate with a large family and small income. The long illness and recent death of my wife has reduced me to penury. My own health is failing, and, the new rector of this parish not requiring my services, I am thrown destitute upon the world. My only hope is that I may by happen be able to maintain my family until I obtain something else. Unless I have ten pounds by next Friday my belongings will have to be sold. Oh, sir, in the name of that religion which your paper so ably advocates, help me to avoid starvation, beggary, and disgrace. There is nothing before me but the workhouse, unless you can give me a start in your valued paper. I beseech you do not dash away my last hope…"

How do you think the editor feels over a letter like this? The article is perhaps some abstruse theological treatise, deeply learned, no doubt, but containing, maybe, extraordinary views which no one would look at, unless they emanated from some celebrated man. If the editor were to accept it no one would read his paper, and he knows very well if he gives this poor man the least encouragement he will probably be deluged with other similar compositions. He can, therefore, only return it, with the usual short form of rejection which seems so cruelly hopeless to the disappointed author. Yet if the editor were to make it his business to instruct would-be litterateurs in the art of writing, what would become of his magazine, or when, indeed, would the girls get their paper? And this is no overdrawn picture. Even more distressing circumstances than this are brought to an editor's notice, so that he is not unfrequently tempted to afford the help out of his own pocket which he dares not supply in his editorial capacity.

Therefore I say that if an editor even looks at all the MSS and letters he receives he is very good, but if he returns what is unsuitable he is a paragon of kindness. This is the honest opinion of one who has had some experience both of rejecting and being rejected. Then, what is wanted to enable a girl to use her pen profitably? First, ability; secondly, TRAINING; thirdly, powers of discrimination and observation.

I need not dwell much upon ability. Although it is the first thing, it is in some respects the least of the three essentials: that is to say, a comparatively small amount of ability combined with the other two qualifications will go further than a large amount of ability devoid of the. A vivid imagination is very necessary to the writer of fiction, but if unaccompanied by education and experience it will be of little use to her, whereas these two latter would very likely enable her to write plain, practical articles without the aid of the former, especially if she be possessed of sound common sense. Patience and perseverance, I need hardly say, are needed by authors of every class.

We see, then, that although exceptional talent is undoubtedly required to make an exceptional writer, the absence of any extraordinary intellectual ability need not be regarded as an entire disqualification.

Now, to come to the question of training; and this is indeed a wide and important side of my subject. It has indeed been the point where women's work has generally failed, though I am glad to see each day is carrying us on the right direction, and opening the eyes of women to its importance. We must always remember the fact that there are always more, far more, girls willing to work than there are openings for them. Thus the best qualified, as a matter of course, come best off. "As a rule those who can supply what is really required, meet with those who will purchase their merchandise. It is inferior workers whose labour brings no profit," says an experienced writer upon the question of women's work, and her remarks are as true of literary as of any other branch of work.

When boys set themselves to learn a business, the same writer remarks, they bend all their energies to the accomplishment of the end they have in view. All other matters are made subservient to it. But girls imagine they can take up an occupation without any sort of special training. Is it any wonder that women's work is regarded from quite a different standpoint, and depreciated often beyond its just value? Another lady of great experience says:- "Partial training has been the ruin of many attempts to gain new employment for women. It is often spoken of as desirable that they should do 'a little work,' but the 'little' which is meant to apply to the matter of quantity is transferred to that of quality, and this effectually bars the way to success.  It is very undesirable to see a lowered standard for women's work, and yet what reason is there to expect the attainment of a higher one in any way, but with the same amount of time and labour given by young men?" Another writer says:- "After an experience of life, neither very small nor very brief, I must candidly confess that my difficulty in trying to help my own sex has not been so much to find work as workers – women who can be relied upon – first to know how really to do what they profess, and next to have conscientiousness and persistency in doing it."

It is needless to multiply examples. All those who have deeply considered the subject have arrived at the same conclusion – that want of training is a principal cause of want of success to women-workers.

In the case of literary work, how is such training to be effected, supposing, for instance, the girl's education is considered finished before the idea of writing has occurred to her?

In the first place, if she is not already well qualified in that direction, she ought persistently to follow up the study of composition, which she can easily do with the aid of such books as are to be had, if she have ordinary intelligence. In the next place, she must read widely and observantly good literature in order that she may obtain command of language, that she may acquire the habit of looking at a subject from diverse points of view, and form an enlightened opinion upon men and things, for we are all of us, even the most original minds, greatly influenced and educated by the thoughts of the great men and women who have gone before us. An authoress of some reputation once said to me, "Nothing displays to you your own ignorance more vividly than writing. I was quite overwhelmed with my own ignorance when I began to write. I was continually finding myself landed, unconsciously, as it were, upon subjects of which I felt I was too ignorant to speak with authority, and in the midst of a paper upon some particular topic, I would find my thoughts had carried me along to side questions, necessary to be considered, but which I was obliged to stop and carefully study before I could write accurately."

Does not every girl reader perceive how this literary aspirant was giving herself the very training she required?

A very necessary point in magazine writing is to be able to say what you have to say in a given space. It is excellent practice to choose a subject, and allow yourself a certain number of sheets or lines in which to treat of it, rigidly adhering to the space assigned, while at the same time endeavouring to state the whole matter clearly, concisely, fully, and attractively. If the article fails in any one of these points, the author should regard it as she would an ill-worked problem in Euclid – only fit to be destroyed – and set herself to work out the problem over again. Does this seem very discouraging? Without such patient labour, no success can be hoped for.

And when our girl author has conquered the difficulties of composition, has acquired the art of expressing herself clearly and fluently, and has by a diligent course of reading acquainted herself with the views of distinguished thinkers upon all sorts of subjects, and learned moreover to think out a subject clearly and logically for herself, what more is required of her before she may attempt to send an article to an editor with a reasonable chance of success? Why, the practical application of the qualifications she already possesses to the subject she has in hand.

To explain more fully what I mean: it will be best to glance at the principal reasons why articles and stories intended for magazines meet with rejection, even when they are carefully and thoughtfully written. One great reason is inappropriateness of subject, or a treatment foreign to the expressed or understood policy and lines of the journal; and another, scarcely less important, is the matter of length, most amateur papers being written with an utter disregard to the nice balancing of articles and stories in a periodical journal which may be almost termed the alphabet of editorial work.

Here it is the powers of observation and discrimination must come in. The magazine writer must be able to observe what are the tendencies and scope of the journal she hopes to write for, and about what space is allotted to the kind of paper she proposes to write. She must then cast about for a subject, which, while being sufficiently original, will, she believes, be one likely to fall in with the editor's ideas of suitability; and everything depends upon her nice discrimination of this point. It is not so much what best pleases her as what is most likely to please that particular portion of the community for whose delectation the journal exists. This quick perception of the fitness of things is as invaluable as it is indispensible to a successful magazine writer.

So far I have confined myself to the consideration of magazine writing, because the field of literature is not only one of the widest and most diversified, but also because it yields the quickest return for a certain amount of labour. There are, I should say, few literary aspirants who would be so rash as to attempt the gigantic task of writing a book until they had gained some sort of footing by the publication of less ambitious efforts. The consideration of the best way to proceed with such an undertaken as a continued story or work of fiction is too wide to enter upon here, and must be reserved for a future article.

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