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Why I write for the Internet
By Lawrence Henry
A fellow Internet columnist sent me a nice note the other day, and we exchanged e-mails, getting to know one another. Like me, he has worked as a commercial writers. "Nowadays," he said in one missive, "I write mostly for fun."
That phrase has stuck with me. Before the Internet, how rare that was - and how sad. What do writers really want? To get published. Before the Internet, you had to fight to get published. As with music, acting, dance, or other forms of show biz, the fighters tend to win out over the writers. Aggression trumps competence.
"We can all name people in this business who aren't very good," an old friend of mine, a Warner Brothers record executive, told me many years ago, "who simply got where they are through an iron will to get across."
Bill Clinton took that essential lesson of show business - that aggression beats competence - and spread it nationwide, corrupting our culture in the process. To be fair, if he hadn't done it, somebody else would have. Like bad currency driving out good in an economy, aggression will drive competence out of a culture at large.
A dozen years ago or so, I made my living writing for magazines and newspapers. I have published in about 35 of them under my own byline, and have published all over the world in my work for wire services. At the peak of my effectiveness, I was writing and publishing about 10,000 words a month.
I was on every newsstand in the United States every week for more than two years. And I made about $25,000 a year.
Since I had the clips and had the record, I decided to push for publishing in higher-profile magazines. I started sending out two queries a day. I did that for eight months. Figure it out: Dozens of ideas, written up by a professional writer with lots of experience and exposure, sent out to about a hundred magazines, totaling nearly 500 queries in all.
Out out that blizzard of queries, fully a third of magazines never replied at all - not to the original query, with self-addressed stamped enveloped, and not to a follow-up letter written a month later (also with SASE). From the rest, I got perhaps six assignments.
Often, when I did publish in a magazine, the resulting article would be unrecognizable. Only the quotes remained, floating in a sea of turgid prose written by some "editor" whose idea of "editing" was to recycle phrases from the popular culture. The two most commonly used - still - are "He's ba-a-a-ack!" and some variant on "Sex, Lies, and Videotape."
As a colleague of mine said back then, "I don't mind them editing my work. I just wish they wouldn't put my name on it."
Like most of my colleagues who still work as writers, I went native. Because I wrote mostly for business magazines, I had met a number of business executives. The executives were inevitably smarter, nicer, better educated, more charitably motivated people than the young and increasingly younger editors I worked for. So I started taking commercial jobs instead, and that's what I still do (with a current vacation to raise a newly adopted child).
I imagine my new Internet friend did the same.
Meantime, however, we can have fun. We can write what we want to write, publish it almost immediately, and get reader reactions just about that quickly. We can enjoy the real pleasures of writing, the whisper and sear and snap of good sentences, and not worry that some lumpen clod with a title will make the words go clunk.
The equality of opportunity is staggering. You're a couple of clicks away from George Will, and you're a couple of clicks away from me. My colleagues in the print press have proven amiable, and I've struck up epistolary friendships with many of them.
Cultures do find a way to revive themselves. On the Internet, I'm part of the revival of this one.
Lawrence Henry is a regular contributor to Enter Stage Right.
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