Do You Want To Become a Writer
Or Do You Want To Make Money?
by Joseph T. Shaw
From WRITER'S Digest, May 1934
Two decades ago, Robert Thomas Hardy and Arthur Sullivant Hoffman
were famed and loved by writers for their energy and patience in training and discovering
Today, both these men are agents.
Their successor in the hearts of hundreds of writers is Joseph T.
Shaw, editor of Black Mask, and prince among editors. At 578 Madison Ave.,
New York, Joe Shaw, about whom an enemy once said, "If he likes you, he'll do
so much for you, it's pathetic," is building up and developing scores of new
Shortly we hope to have Mr. Shaw send us one of Black Mask's published
stories with running fire critical comment on the story by Mr. Shaw.
(from the original introduction)
Do you want to become a writer or do you want to make money?
You think the two are synonymous? Not with the frequency you might suppose.
If you want to make literature and a name for yourself as a really
fine writer, you must face the fact that your market will be confined to a few quality
magazines that pay low rates and to book publishers. If you believe you have it in
you to be another O'Neill, Lewis, Hergesheimer, and are willing to endure the necessary
years of struggle and apprenticeship, go to it; you'll succeed eventually and make
enough money to live a very full and happy life.
If, however, you want to write not for the sake of making literature, but
of making a living, making money, in what seems to you to be an agreeable way of doing
so, and if you want to accomplish this with the least possible delay, then forget literary
ideals and concentrate all your efforts on creating what the great mass of the reading
public want and are willing to pay for.
There are two main divisions in this field-the white paper magazines and
the rough paper magazines. It is in regard to the latter that we are concerned in this
Rough paper magazines-wood-pulps, to use their facetious moniker-are very
numerous, roughly they number more than a hundred, and their reader following goes
well into the millions.
From the few hundred thousand of the first years of rough paper magazine
appearance, this market has broadened satisfactorily and has now attained proportions
that are very worthwhile to reckon with. When you consider that in numbers, approximately
one out of every twenty men, women and children in the United States each month read
a wood-pulp, you have an idea of what a source of entertainment and enjoyment to the
people of the country this type of periodical has become. It is too big a market to
be taken lightly from any angle, too filled with possibilities to be looked upon disparagingly.
Indeed, it is worthy and deserving of the most thoughtful consideration and serious
effort not only to retain its present scope but also to increase its magnitude in possible
and logical directions.
Granted a measure of natural gift and normal erudition, it should not be
difficult to enter this broad field as a writer. To maintain it in an assured position
of monetary success requires a measure of study, adaptability and whatever work may
be necessary to attain facility and skill.
At the outset it might be helpful to the new writer to have a broad understanding
of the field he is about to exploit.
In the first place, due to economic reasons, rough paper fiction attempts
less to guide than it does to gauge and meet public taste.
Unlike the several contributing factors in the smooth paper magazines-format,
illustrations, advertising, style, fad and what not-rough paper magazines are dependent
for their circulation upon the popularity of their fiction alone. It must be popular,
it must be what the majority of certain classes of the people want or they go out of
Under the circumstances you should not look for altruistic motives on the
part of the editors and publishers of the pulps. No doubt many of them would like to
see this distinctively virile field as a whole on a higher plane than its greatest
volume typifies; but adventuring along such lines, commendable as it might be from
certain points of view, is not warranted as a commercial experiment.
Popular taste-honest, in that it reads what it likes regardless of fads
and the preferences and opinions of others-popular demand molds the character of rough
paper fiction more than does editorial and writer inspiration.
The editors act for the most part in an interpretive capacity; the writers
deliver merchandise specified.
Get clear in your mind, then, at the outset that to be successful in the rough paper field you must
write to popular taste.
In this connection I am reminded of one very successful writer in this
field who has spent years patiently studying and analyzing public mental capacity and
taste of various markets and framed his stories for the respective magazines accordingly.
The interesting points about this are that he has made money and is versatile. He has
hit his markets with rare shrewdness. He is accounted among the most popular writers
in widely divergent fields, for his stories in one magazine, for example, are not read
or liked by the audience of another.
The ability to gauge this taste accurately is the key to the success of the best paid writers in the
field today, and if they are at all versatile they can employ this ability to advantage in as many
markets as they are capable of supplying.
The earlier newsprint magazines covered a wide range of subjects. Shortly
there followed the idea of specialization, that is, a larger number of magazines each
devoting its contents to a specific subject or section of the field-adventure, romance,
sex, war, aviation, westerns, crime, detective, mystery, the pseudo-scientific, fantasy,
and the like.
The writer has a wide range here from which to choose and will no doubt
make his first try in the particular subject in which he feels himself most familiar
and to which he can give his most natural expression.
Generally speaking, the dominant demand in all sections of the field is in the matter of producing
reader reaction or effects.
That these effects are exaggerated, often beyond the bounds of sane reason,
must be put up to the tastes of this special reading public, many of whom seem not
to quarrel with even absurdities so long as the particular story holds something of
interest to them.
And now let us seek the elements which developed, will produce the most
effective writing skill in this rough paper field, and particularly in its detective
Accepted a certain fluency and an adeptness in the choice of words to express
the mental image simply, clearly and understandably, style has little to do with it
and mannerisms far less if anything at all.
Type and character of stories to be emphasized, likes and dislikes, the use or disuse of the familiar
properties of the crime and detective story vary with the several magazines and can no doubt be ascertained
by a study of the respective magazines or by inquiry of the editorial offices.
So far as Black Mask is concerned there is little we enjoy more
in our editorial work than a chat with a serious writer of promise who wants to go
With regard to our general requirements, we might say that Dashiell Hammett
did his work very well. We are of course seeking another Hammett, but we distinctly
do not want his imitation. And we expect it should be some time before we see another
with his inflexible purpose and indomitable will that disregarded ill health, a measure
of poverty, even the absence of an early scholarly environment and yet achieved their
We are satisfied that Frederick Nebel, Raoul Whitfield, Erle Stanley Gardner, Carroll John Daly, George
Harmon Coxe, Eugene Cunningham, W.T. Ballard, Theodore Tinsley, Roger Torrey, are all doing their work
exceedingly well, and we do not need material along their respectively different lines. We do
want stories unlike those of any one of them in type, character and treatment.
But, as suggested, the requirements of the different magazines are superficial
in many respects so far as the fundamental principles of writing skill are concerned,
since the respective requirements can be expressed at will when writing skill is attained.
And among these cardinal principles simplicity and clarity must rank high.
Your object is to accomplish an emotional effect upon your reader. You have a chance
to do this if he can follow your story clearly and understands what it is all about.
You have little or no chance, outside the sensation of shock, if your story confuses
him, if it is too complicated in expression, structure or plot, or too subtle, so that
he is at a loss himself to know exactly where his sympathy should lie or why it should
be aroused at all.
Buyers in the majority of rough paper magazines want to take their stories
in their stride, to read them while they run or ride. They do not want to stop in the
middle of a story and go back to untangle confused threads or re-identify characters.
It is for this reason that similarity of characters, particularly with respect to names
of similar appearance, should be avoided.
Swift movement and speed of action are other essentials in this age of
fast tempo, but speed of action should not be confused with many rapid, meaningless
Long descriptive openings are for the most part taboo. For that matter
these too often tedious stretches have little place in any part of a rough paper story
Start your story in action if you can do so quickly. Identify your characters
so that the action will be understandable to the reader; and keep it moving all the
way to the end. To accomplish this, it is not necessary to stage a gun battle from
start to finish, with a murder or a killing in every other paragraph. You can keep
it alive and moving, when sympathy is once aroused, by tension and suspense, through
dialogue or other form of plot development, when action is absent. Action in one form
or another is, however, pretty generally in demand.
Logic and plausibility are much abused terms. As a matter of fact, although
they are at times mentioned editorially, in by far the greatest volume of crime and
detective fiction they are completely disregarded, while rapidity of motion, exaggerated
menace and exaggerated action are substituted in their stead, and, let it be
said, with the apparent approval of many readers of the crime magazines today.
While it must be admitted that their use can produce the strongest possible emotional effects-since
the happenings carry the illusion of reality-the danger lies in the fact that unless skillfully employed,
their demands tend to clog the smooth, swift run of the story.
After all, their acceptability depends upon the treatment, upon the manner
in which the material is presented to the reader. If it is done in such a way as to
seem logical, the writer has little further worry in that regard and he may speed up
his action as much as he sees fit. Where plausibility enters the question, the writer
merely has to have his characters move and talk, act and react as real human beings
would do in like situation, however imaginary, and his task in that respect is done.
In addition to these elements there is one general principle that is quite
fundamental. Unless you have a clear mental picture yourself, you can scarcely expect
your reader to get a clear, understandable impression of your thought. If your own
ideas are undeveloped or confused, your purpose in your story unclear in your mind,
its presentation will not be less so. Thus it would seem that word choice and arrangement,
diction if you will, come secondary to clear thinking. If your mental image is clear,
you will have no difficulty in expressing it in the simple language and simple technique
of rough paper fiction.
I often wonder if this preliminary fumbling at the typewriter, of which
writers so frequently speak, is not due less to meager facilities of expression than
to a confused idea of what it is desired to express.
It is hardly to be expected that you will have a clear image of your whole picture before you begin
to express a part of it; and often it requires a partial expression of the whole before you observe
that it is not complete.
Of course, where speed of production is so important to the moneymaker in this field, such reworking
is apt to be costly, but is nevertheless practiced by many successful rough paper writers whose hold
upon the audiences they have built up seems to warrant a greater care in workmanship than is typical
of the great majority of this fiction of the moment.
Thus, if a writer enters this field with the sole purpose of making money
in it, particularly if he wishes to cash in on the wild surges that endeavor to capitalize
the utmost of popular fancy, he should start with no illusions of literary ambition.
If he will train himself in clear thinking he will have an asset that will contribute
greatly to speed of production. If he will attain a writing skill combining the various
elements suggested, and is possessed of ordinary creative imagination he should have
all that will be required.