December 15, 2016

10 Ways a Writer’s Work Has Changed

Back in the different old days (neither good nor bad) a writer’s life didn’t focus on marketing or building a platform or connecting with other writers.

1. We had no Internet to build a platform. We did no marketing. We “got known” if we wrote well, consistently placed manuscripts with publishers of books and periodicals, then waited for word to get around – mouth-to-mouth or through ads, book-signings, or other events our publishers planned and paid for. For example, one publisher flew me to company headquarters to talk about writing with school children who approximated the ages of my readers. On another occasion, the publisher of my 7-book devotional series sent a make-up artist and photographer to my modest home for a photo shoot! The picture chosen became a huge poster placed beside my books in bookshops and now in my basement.

2. No Internet also meant no social sites, so those of us who lived in small towns or rural areas almost never had contact with other poets and writers except through writing conferences or by reading publications for poets and writers. Basically, we lived in a vacuum, worked in isolation, and, in solitude, prayed a lot.

3. To find potential publishers, we went to libraries, bookstores, or newsstands to see who was publishing what – a task I highly recommend poets and writers continue to do today by visiting Internet bookshops. This still goes on the “different” list, however, because, once we had found potential publishers, we had to write letters via snails (known then as “first class mail”) to ask for writers’ guidelines. If we ever wanted to hear from them, we included an SASE (self-addressed stamped envelope) to ensure a reply.

4. Few of us could afford to buy each magazine that interested us or every new book a book company published, so we had to request sample copies of periodicals and current catalogs of book titles – again enclosing an SASE with every request. We would then study, study, study each publication to see where we might fill a gap in their line yet stay in line with that particular company’s needs and requirements – a practice I still recommend for anyone who wants to be published by an established publisher, but now, by studying the samples and information on their websites.

5. In the days when libraries had only books, we would read, read, read everything we could find in our favorite genre. If our writing required research, that, too, meant hanging out in a public library, checking the card catalog index to see if the book or journal needed was on file and, if so, where it was located. Since we weren’t always allowed to check out reference materials to take home, we had to ask the librarian to find the publication for us and let us see it long enough to take copious notes and document the name, title, and page number(s) of each source. Another option was to pick up the phone to call on the expertise of an expert, who inevitably lived in another town. Often, this resulted in a horrendous long-distance charge on our next telephone bill, whether the book or article sold or not.

6. Our biggest expenses, though, were office equipment and supplies: a desk, an electric typewriter, well-inked ribbons, reams of 20 lb. paper, carbon paper, and postage.

7. Working on an electric typewriter meant using white-out to correct a mistake then trying (and never succeeding) to erase the same mistake on the carbon copy. If we had too many typing errors on a page, we had to retype. Worse was revision! If we added a full paragraph or scratched through lines, not only did we have to retype that page but those following as the pagination changed.

8. Since most editors wanted an approximate word count, we had to count words – now done by clicking “Review” and “Word Count” in Word software. Then, it meant the ole one, two, three, four, which got tedious if a contract required 100,000 or more words! (Usually, I shortened the process by counting the number of lines and average words per line then multiplying the two.)

9. Writing assignments came with very specific instructions on how many characters were allowed per line. When writing church school curriculum, for example, I had to count – not just the words for the whole manuscript – but the number of letters on each line.

10. Writing freelance also involved querying the editor of the first publishing company on the list, and if s/he wrote back with interest, mailing the article or book manuscript – with SASE – first class. If the editor approved the work, a contract followed – also by mail. If the manuscript was rejected, it came back dog-eared and smudged, which, yeah, meant retyping the whole thing. That alone was an incentive to do the best we could do the first time out. Praise God, I managed to place several books and a few hundred poems and articles that way until my computer and the Internet made my work much, much easier. But working in cyberspace altered everything forever – at least until the next big round of changes.

Mary Harwell Sayler, poet-writer, © 2016

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