A Literary Career
( Originally Published Early 1900's )
Literary work is a term broad enough to cover the great variety of writing which is daily done to amuse, instruct or inform the public, or simply as a means of self-expression for the writer. Upon literature depends, to a large degree, the progress of man-kind. All men cannot have brilliant ideas or noble thoughts, all cannot make new discoveries or come into contact with great personalities and take part in unusual events. But those few who have fine things of the spirit to express, or wonders of the universe to describe, or knowledge of many sorts to impart may do so and make these things part of the lives of their fellows by writing of them. The written word travels far and lasts long, and so literature is an art which diffuses and preserves knowledge and beauty. It serves as a common bridge of understanding between individuals, nations, races and ages.
Those who write do so, usually, because they are impelled to by the universal desire for self expression. The poet writes out of the fullness of his heart; the story writer, to share with others the fancies evolved by his imagination; the scholar, to give expression to his knowledge; and the journalist, to spread broadcast a record of what has just occurred.
Of all writing, perhaps the most passing, and at the same time most influential, is that of the journalist. The influence of the newspaper upon the life of a nation can hardly be overestimated. It is without doubt the most powerful existing agent affecting public opinion and, through it, public action. Our knowledge of what is daily happening about us is obtained from the news-papers, and our opinions of these happenings are largely based upon the way in which they are reported, and the manner in which they are editorially commented upon. The newspaper man's work thus assumes tremendous importance. It is work which entails real responsibility, and which should be entered upon as in the service of the public.
A large modern newspaper is an exceedingly complicated affair, and many sorts of workers are needed upon it. The man upon whom the entire existence of the newspaper depends is the re-porter, or news gatherer. It is the reporter's duty to go in search of news and, having found it, to report it in clear, effective language, which will immediately be intelligible to the reader. The reporter is not simply turned loose and told to bring back news. Usually he is assigned to report some definite event which it is known will occur. But in many cases he comes unexpectedly upon something which is a news possibility, and he must be able to recognize it as such. This "news instinct" is one of the most necessary qualifications of the reporter. He must have the ability to see, in a perhaps commonplace happening, that slight difference which will make it "news." With the news instinct must go the ability to write quickly, correctly, briefly, clearly and interestingly of what he has seen and heard.
The work of the reporter will take him into many different situations. He must be able to adapt himself to each of them, and so should be a man of large tact and diplomacy. Much of his work consists of interviewing people, and the successful inter-viewer must be a skilful but unobtrusive questioner and an excel-lent listener. In order to be able to gain the confidence of those who are the source of some of his news, he must have a good understanding of human nature and know how to utilize it. As for his writing, it has already been said that it must be quick, clear, simple and direct. It should be of the sort which will immediately attract attention without resorting to sensationalism to accomplish this.
The more a reporter knows, the better for him. A diversified knowledge will help him to an understanding of, and interest in, many things, will make him a better observer, and usually a better writer. Besides having a generally good and broad education, which need not necessarily have been acquired at school, but which may, in part at least, be the result of wide experience, the reporter should have some special knowledge of newspapers and their making. In order to carry out his work properly, he should be thoroughly familiar with the city in which he is employed; and he should keep abreast of current events, and know what is going on in the world.
The reporter's work is not easy, but for an eager, enthusiastic, open-minded young man, who finds actual contact with many phases of life attractive, it is often a profession of great fascination. The reporter should be of a strong physical constitution, for his work means long and irregular hours, exposure to bad weather, periods of great physical and mental tension and, in most cases, not especially attractive pay. But it means, also, a chance to acquire a broad education, and to keep one's mind alert and active.
All newspaper men are not reporters—the editorial staff of a newspaper is exceedingly important, and the duties of the various men who constitute it range over a wide field. In general, editors and editorial writers are recruited from among the reporters of special ability. Like the reporter, the editor should be of an observant nature, interested in many things and able to keep in touch with them easily, and should have the ability to express himself easily in impersonal writing. In order to render the public real service, by seeing that the true facts are under all circumstances presented, and that editorial expressions are in all cases sincere, the editor must be a man of high ideals and of absolute probity.
The direction of the entire paper, outside of the business department, falls to the editor-in-chief, who usually writes the leading editorials. The great responsibility of his position re-quires that he be a man of unusual executive ability, and of much discrimination. He appoints the other editorial heads, and they and their subordinates are responsible to him. He should know how to handle men and how to handle news, and so he must be a man of broad experience and of good journalistic education.
Among the other workers in the editorial department are the editorial writers, who produce all editorials except the "leaders"; the managing editor, who usually does the actual employing of heads of subdivisions; the city editor, who assigns work to the reporters; the night editor, who is in charge of a morning paper during the night, while it is being got out; the news and telegraph editor, who edits and fills out news items received by telegram; and various special editors. Among the special editors are those in charge of the literary, musical, dramatic, sporting and other departments. All these men must have expert knowledge of the field in which their work lies, a good general knowledge of news-paper work as a whole and the ability to write with facility. Editorial work does not offer quite so many physical difficulties as reportorial work, but it is exacting nevertheless. However, it is work which is extremely interesting and "alive."
It is difficult to say what financial rewards the newspaper re-porter and editor may expect. Salaries depend upon the size and type of the journal and the ability of the worker. Some reporters of experience receive less than $30 a week, others are paid $3,000 a year or more. Editors make anywhere from $2,000 a year up-ward, with the vast majority earning less than $5,000; some very few exceptions, who combine great business ability with writing, earn $50,000 or more.
Natural abilities, of course, count for a great deal in journalism, but special training for a career in newspaper work is also important. The fact that reporters and editors should be as broadly educated as possible makes it desirable that they go through college. In the past this was not considered so necessary, but now the value of a college education is an established fact. Then the prospective newspaper man should take, either in combination with or after his college studies, some courses in journalism. These courses, given at numerous colleges and universities, both during the day and evening, teach the student the technique of his vocation. He learns how to go about the business of gathering and writing up news, how to produce effective editorials, and how to express himself in fitting language. All this knowledge may, of course, be acquired by actual experience on a newspaper, by a man who has had no preliminary instruction. But such instruction is a time saver, and for this reason valuable, for the men who know what to do when they enter upon their duties are likely to obtain more rapid promotion than those who are obliged to depend upon slowly acquired experience to show them how to proceed with their work. A complete list of schools offering journalism courses may be found in the government publication, "Instruction in Journalism in Institutions of Higher Education" (prepared by James Melvin Lee), Department of the Interior, Bureau of Education Bull. No. 21, 1918, Government Printing Office, Washington, D. C.
Although there are many men in journalism, there are as many or more who are engaged in literary work of other kinds. Novels, short stories, poems, essays, articles, plays and moving picture scenarios are every year produced in great numbers. In order to write any of these types of literature, the author must be endowed with a certain amount of literary talent, with imagination and originality. He should, of course, attempt to master the technique of the particular literary type in which he is most interested, and should have certain special abilities according to this type.
There are various sorts of writers who contribute articles and essays to magazines and other periodicals. These people either have a store of knowledge which renders them specialists in a certain field, or else they have that broad sort of knowledge and observant turn of mind which may enable them to write successfully of many different kinds of things. The writer of magazine articles must, like all writers, have imagination and sympathy; he should be able to dress old ideas in new garments, and should know as much as possible about the various types of articles and the magazines which publish them. When he is writing an article, he should keep in mind the periodical and the class of readers for whom it is intended, and should fashion it accordingly.
The author of articles deals generally with facts the writer of stories, usually with fiction. His fiction is, however, based upon reality and, in order to give it the semblance of life, he must be observant and imaginative, must feel and see intensely everything which he writes, must have a sense of beauty and of the ideal and should be a man of fine mind and keen intellect. The short story writer should know the technique of the short story, and the novelist that of the novel. But very often stories which are technically deficient are raised to great heights by the insight and sympathetic imagination of the author, and by the power of clear and beautiful expression.
The playwright needs much the same qualities as do the novelist and the short-story writer. He must have a knowledge of human nature, an original viewpoint and be familiar with the technique of the stage. The writer of motion picture scenarios must be a man of ideas, of dramatic imagination, and needs, more than a knowledge of writing, a thorough familiarity with the principles of plot construction, since the motion picture is primarily an unfolding of action.
Most writers are "free lances"—that is, they write, usually, as the spirit moves them, and then dispose of their productions to publishers who are willing to accept them. Some men, as, for instance, writers of special articles for periodicals, and authors of scenarios, are at times employed in salaried positions. Most authors, however, produce their work independently. There is another kind of writer, to whom is owed much more of the literature filling our magazines and books than is generally known.
This is the "hack writer." He is quite often a "Jack of all trades" in the writing line. According to demand, he writes an article on some special topic, turns out a short story or does almost any sort of literary work. The hack writer is not quite so pitiful a creature as he has sometimes been drawn. In order to succeed, he needs a store of varied knowledge, versatility, an assimilative mind and keen business sense. Many authors serve their apprenticeship as hack writers, while they strive to perfect them-selves in some one specialized form of writing.
It is practically impossible to say what financial returns a writer may expect from his work. Men of the greatest ability have died poor, and others of mediocre talents have produced a "best seller" or two which brought a fortune. The only thing a writer can do is to write as much as possible and as well as possible, and attempt to dispose of the best of his manuscripts. Sometimes talent is recognized and rewarded, and sometimes it is not. Whether it is or not, however, the writer will usually have found a large amount of satisfaction in the mere transferring to paper of his thoughts and emotions.
The writer cannot be made by school courses. He can be further developed by them if he has within him the spark of talent, the love of writing and the desire to express himself through it, and if he has patience, perseverance and a good mind. In this case, such training in writing as he may receive at school will probably improve his technique, but without the innate qualities mentioned no amount of courses in writing will do him any good.
As a profession, writing is, as has been said, financially uncertain. But otherwise it is almost ideal. It gives one personal independence, leisure to enjoy life, and a chance to grow intellectually and spiritually. Furthermore, it is what everyone craves—a means of expressing one's own personality, and of influencing the world to some degree through this expression. And then there is always the chance that fame may some day be one's reward.
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