Johnston McCulley (Creator of Zorro) article about writing

[Originally appeared in The Editor, v. 52, Jan-Jun 1920]

Twelve years ago we sold our first story; three years ago we felt that we had “arrived”; at present we cannot begin to supply direct requests from magazine editors for fiction along certain lines. Perhaps that is success in a measure. How was it attained? Not easily, you may be sure—but neither was the attainment particularly difficult.

There never was a time when there was such a demand for fiction and creative work of all kinds as now. There never was a time when the new and unknown writer had such chances of getting a hearing. He, or she, does not have to be a genius. A capacity for hard and earnest work, a spirit of optimism, and a reasonable amount of ability is all that is required. And the rewards are far greater than they ever were in the history of the world.

I always wanted to be a writer. I went into newspaper work and took the steps from office boy to managing editor. When I could I wrote stories. The first dozen or so made the rounds of the magazine offices until the manuscripts were worn out. I put them aside and stopped for a time. Six months later I read them over, and it came to me like a flash that they were all wrong—not in conception, but in mechanics. I sat down and wrote a fresh story, sent it to Karl Edwin Harriman, of the Red Book (this was in 1907), and Mr. Harriman purchased it, asked for more, and gave me encouragement. A year later I was writing—and, what is more to the point, selling—short stories, novelettes and serials, all I could turn out.

There were disappointments, of course.

Stories that were my “pets” frequently came back. But I kept at work, studied the magazines and the markets, made it my business. If an editor “turned down” a tale, I sent him another. I broke into more magazines. I got money for film rights. And every acceptance, every publication helped advance me.

To the beginner who sometimes grows discouraged, let me say this, straight from the shoulder and without egotism—for I am by no means an extraordinary man.

I sold more than two million words of fiction before I ever met a magazine editor personally. Where is the old “howl” that a writer must have a “pull”?

I had my rate raised voluntarily by three publishing concerns without expecting it.

I found editors honest, courteous and agreeable by mail—and the same when I later met them personally.

With possibly a few exceptions, the magazine editor wants “stories” as much as names, and he always is eager to make a discovery. Naturally, your manuscripts will be worth more to him if he has purchased some of your stories and his readers are acquainted with your work and like it.

There is only one way—work! Don’t waste time trying to be “literary,” cursing editors who return your tales, or inventing schemes to prove to yourself that your story has not been read. Most magazines pay good salaries to men to read manuscripts, and your story will be read through, and from a friendly standpoint, unless the first page convinces the reader that it is hopeless as far as his publication is concerned.

Study the market! If you were a traveling salesman for a hardware jobber, you would not try to sell a bill of goods to a beauty parlor proprietor. Use common sense in marketing your fiction. Don’t send a salacious story to The Youth’s Companion or an essay on a religious subject to Snappy Stories. That last sentence is not so foolish as it sounds; writers make mistakes as grave as that every day. A certain great magazine will print nothing dealing with crime—cannot you see that you might write a crime story that was a masterpiece, and yet not sell it there? And would that be reason for feeling discouraged?

Read—always read! Read the classics— and then forget them. Read them for brain exercise only and do not try to analyze them. They have had their day. Shakespeare could not get a new play produced on Broadway now. Read the magazines, at least skim through them. See what other writers are selling. Watch those to which you hope to contribute. Say to yourself that there must be some reason why those stories are accepted and yours returned—find that reason and you’ll begin to sell. That’s what I did.

And the thrill when your first story is in print! I still remember it. And then the great thrill—when you hold in your hands your first book. I never shall forget that. Those thrills are worth all the money you’ll get.

Writing nowadays is a business, and the writer must be a business man. It pays well. More members of the Authors’ League of America than people at large think are making in excess of $10,000 per year. But you can do nothing by writing in a desultory fashion. Make it your business. If you write as a “side line,” make it your business just the same during the hours you write. Literature is a jealous mistress; she demands considerable attention and will not endure neglect. Fame and Fortune are fickle goddesses that will turn their backs if you turn your head away for a moment.

How to write? That is a difficult question. I suppose every author has a different method. The best I know is this: get your basic idea; walk around and view it from all sides; convinced that it is all right in every particular, that it is original to a degree and not contrary to good taste, seek some good point of attack. Claim the interest of the reader immediately. Remember the old thrillers? “Bang! Bang! The shots rang out on the midnight air!” Silly? Yes, but that is the idea. Every reader wants to know who was shot, if anybody, who did the shooting, why, and how the crime will be brought home to the guilty person. A hundred questions rise in the reader’s mind when he sees that opening sentence. And the reader will stick to your story until all those questions are answered. That’s your task—answering them in an entertaining manner—and when you have all of them answered, for heaven’s sake, stop! Ending a story is as important as beginning it.

Don’t preach—we hire men to do that. If you point a moral, do it in a quiet fashion. Don’t look up all the big words in the dictionary—the editors themselves might not know what they mean. Be human, be natural, be optimistic, above all, be kind. Get in the right frame of mind before you write a word, and never write at all unless you are in the right frame of mind.

Write about things with which you are acquainted. People of today are travelled and educated. Don’t write about Hong Kong unless you have been there, or some reader will make sarcastic remarks to your editor. Don’t get the idea that writing for children is easy—it is the hardest of all. Don’t write a love story unless you have felt the thrill of love. By the way, if you can write original stories of young love, there are magazine editors waiting with hundred-dollar bills in their hands—waiting and longing for you.

And don’t give up! If you ran a store, would you give up if you failed to sell a pair of shoes to the first customer? You’d try to sell them to the next, wouldn’t you? Very well, then!

How do stories start? With me, sometimes they start with something observed on the street, possibly with a title that comes to mind, perhaps with some phrase I have read. At times they develop quickly, like a flash almost ; at other times they do not develop for considerable time. It’s a funny affair, the development of a story. Sometimes, I have a tale plotted to the last minor incident, to the “tag,” and then, again, I start with an original opening and let the tale develop itself. Letting a story write itself is a sure way to success if your mode of thinking is proper and you are in the right state of mind.

Most writers need a specialty. Only a few can write in a dozen different channels. Get your specialty. Be known as a writer of love stories, of mystery tales, of outdoor adventure—whatever is your choice. Take time to find out what you can do best—what you like to do best—generally they are the same.

Experience comes with every completed manuscript, whether it is sold or not. Recently, finishing a serial for a magazine, I wrote 21,000 words in 24 hours. I couldn’t have done that five years ago. Why? Simply because, almost unconsciously, as I am writing now I evade pitfalls which used to cause me trouble. The construction of scenes and sentences comes easier—merely experience. And a lot of that experience was gained by writing stories that never did sell and never will.

And have faith in yourself, and grin when anybody seeks to discourage you. That’s all.


  1. I just found it ironic that almost a hundred years ago there was plenty of markets for fiction and a writer could make a living at writing. Now however, almost all the fiction markets are gone, especially for short stories, and most writers cannot make a living at writing. This to me is a definite decrease in our quality of life. I'm sorry but all the electronic gadgets that we play with cannot replace our literary heritage which appears to be disappearing. There used to be a hundred fiction magazines on the newstands each month; now we have 5 fiction digests and a bunch of online magazines. A sorry state of affairs.

    Thanks Sai, for this interesting article by Johnston McCulley.

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