Usually, the moral of a story is told at the end. I will tell you the moral of this one at the beginning: If you believe in your own ability to write for pay and your sense of where to send you work, listen to your inner self and let no one, no matter how experienced and successful in publishing, dissuade you from what you believe will work.
In my junior year at George Washington University in Washington, D.C., majoring in journalism, I took a course in feature writing taught by a successful freelance writer whom I will identify only by his first name, Ed. Since he emphasized experience by doing rather than theories on how to be published in newspapers and magazines, right from the start he had his students sharing thoughts on how to get ideas for articles, submitting those ideas for articles and finished work, and supplying names of periodicals to which the work was to be sent.
I came up with an idea for an article about a man who had lost his “voice box” (i.e. his larynx) to cancer and taught himself to speak by creating belches from deep within his abdomen, and forming words on them. The story about this man, who passed on his technique to members of the Lost Chord Club he founded, was told in a public speaking class by the teacher as an example of how even the most severe speech handicaps can be overcome. Right away, I recognized the story as suitable for magazine publication, and Ed encouraged me to write it.
As part of the marketing tips Ed passed on to us, he had us visiting bookstores and studying magazines to examine what was being published by the various periodicals. He advised us: “Be sure you leaf through them backwards so you aren’t tempted to read through entire articles; your object is to see what kind of material the editor wants and the style of writing most common to the periodical.”
After I had the article done and was about to undertake my market search, Ed called me on the phone, and said: “Wolfe, I’m sorry, but I have the worst possible news for you.” I guessed what he was about to tell me. “Somebody already wrote my story and got it published.”
“Yeah,” Ed confirmed, “the latest issue of Coronet has a story about a guy who learned to talk after losing his larynx by burping and forming words on the burps. Coronet has such a wide circulation that your article is dead now.”
At that time Coronet, a Reader’s Digest size periodical spun off from Esquire, had a paid circulation of half a million.
I paid a visit to the nearest newsstand to pick up a copy of Coronet. The article Ed referred to was one individual’s story, without any mention of how he learned the technique he was using, the inventor of the technique, or the Lost Chord Club. Hey, I thought, I have a different story to tell, and one that is even more fascinating.
Remembering Ed’s marketing advice, I began searching among the periodicals at the newsstand for a likely publisher and came across a group of magazines the same size as Coronet and Reader’s Digest that had become popular by using personalized titles: Your Personality, Your Marriage, Your Career, Your Health…I stopped with that one, leafed through it, and saw articles in my style on related subjects. Never mind what Ed says, I thought to myself, I think the editor of this periodical will buy my story.
Within two weeks after I mailed it off cold, it got hot with the editor, who wrote in his acceptance letter: “We like your article and will publish it in our next issue. Our check is enclosed.”
This was in 1953. The check was for $75 – not bad for those days. Over the advice of my experienced freelance writer teacher that my story was dead, I had sold the first article I ever attempted, to a popular magazine!
Though I never became a big money writer, and most years it has been necessary for me to work at a job to support my writing habit, I have sold several hundred articles and essays to major newspapers and magazines, and four of my books were published by major publishing houses – all of that without an agent, and all of it by listening to my inner self, even when a particular piece or book was “not right” for the publisher, and even when the subject had already been blanketed.
To paraphrase the advice of a famed prophet for a different circumstance, but related philosophically: Go thou, young writer, and do likewise.
Burton H. Wolfe, still writing at age 81, is the author of many articles and essays and of subject-definitive books such as The Hippies (New American Library), Hitler and the Nazis (Putnam), and Pileup on Death Row (Doubleday). From his home in Boynton Beach, Florida, he publishes The Mind Opening Books ebooks.