Prompted by news about The Writer going on hiatus*, I decided to take a look at some older issues of that fine magazine. I mean, really older issues. Visiting my favorite (and most hazardous) site for antiquarian books, ABEBooks.com, I tracked down three volumes of The Writer from the 1890's and settled down for a good read.
And a good read they are. But as I browsed one article after another, I felt a curious sense of deja vu. At least, I think it's deja vu. What would one call it, I wonder, when one is reading about something in the past that makes you feel as if you've already read it -- in the present?
For it seems that, in the world of writing and freelancing, things haven't changed a great deal in over 120 years. Just like any writing publication you care to read today, The Writer of the 1890's is packed with articles by writers complaining about the intransigence of editors -- and editors complaining about the foolishness of ignorant writers.
Writers complain of editors who don't respond to submissions, who reject submissions without (apparently) reading them, who don't provide the promised payment, who publish works without paying for them, and who never let one know that one has been published. Editors, in return, complain about writers who don't read the guidelines, don't study the magazine, send in unreadable manuscripts, and submit material that is utterly inappropriate. (One complaint amongst editors is writers who will slip items such as threads, eyelashes, flower petals, etc., between the pages of a manuscript, to determine whether the editor has actually read it!)
Beyond these obvious similarities, however, I was struck by how many other articles could have been torn from today's writing headlines. It seems, today, that we're always being told of a new technology that will be a "must-have" for writers -- and 1891 was no exception. In 1891, writers and editors were coming to grips with a modern thing known as the "typewriter" -- and speculating that one day, most writers would be using one. Editors were even going so far as to have handwritten submissions typed up by a secretary before reviewing them!
Not so long ago, we ran a survey covering the question of whether writers preferred newfangled or old-fashioned methods of jotting down their thoughts. In The Inquiring Writer, Dawn asked "If there are still some writing tasks that you prefer to do the old-fashioned manual, pen-and-paper way, or if you have gone all techno-writer? I wondered if you had tried new technology and reverted back to old ways, or if you had you found a technology that really boosts your creativity and productivity." Some readers wrote that they preferred to use a computer for nearly everything; others preferred pen and paper.
Contributors to The Writer addressed a similar question -- to hand-write or use this newfangled typewriter thingie? One writer informed the magazine that she preferred to use a slate to jot down notes and ideas, only turning to pen and paper when she was ready to write more seriously. Now, I'm sure most of you know what a slate is -- it's literally a flat slice of stone (slate), on which one can write with a hard stylus. Today, we have tablets that are about the same size as a slate, on which we can write, in our own handwriting, with a stylus. How the world changes... or not...
We've addressed the issue of RSI (repetitive strain injuries) on Writing-World.com -- but writers of the 1890's were no stranger to such problems. Then, the issue was writer's cramp -- the result of gripping a quill pen for hours on end. An article in The Writer came up with a number of intriguing solutions -- including strapping a pair of carrots to your quill, to make it easier to hold, or jabbing your pencil through a potato or an apple! (This might not work with your mouse.)
Other concerns facing the 1891 writer included changes to international copyright laws, which were expected to have a profound effect on the ability of American printers to re-publish works from other countries. (In fact, this volume included a copy of the new laws as an appendix!) Writers were also considering launching a petition to reduce the costs of sending manuscripts through the mail. And speaking of the costs of mailing, one editor bemoaned the failure of so many writers to include a return stamp with their submissions -- the cost of all those 2-cent stamps was really adding up!
One intriguing article listed some of the new words that had made their appearance in 1891, or thereabouts, and speculated as to how many would become permanent additions to the dictionary. Some of the newcomers to the American writer's vocabulary include: Afro-American, bicyclist, bob-sled, boycott, cocaine, crematory, milkshake, natural gas, pigeon-hole (as a verb), Pinkerton, speak-easy, vaseline, and voltage. Some new terms, such as bovine, canine and feline, were considered "pedantic" and "barbarous" by the author of that particular article. And others more or less failed to catch on, though it's a pity we no longer have in common usage such terms as callithumpian, don't-care-ativeness, happify, Mugwump, pigs in clover, scrimpage, tariff-monger, or trouserings! Oddly, with all the advice that seems so closely akin to what we're told today, I have not yet found one article on how to deal with writer's block! So I'm happy to be able to provide, herein, at least some nuggets of information that haven't been passed down virtually unchanged for over a century!
*In July 2012, The Writer announced that it was going "on hiatus" as the publisher was seeking to sell the magazine. In August it was announced that the magazine found a buyer and would continue to be published.