Mistake No. 59: Not reading (Part II)

“No time to read, no tools to write” commented Lorraine Mace, 34 errors and almost 12 months ago, the last time I addressed this subject at Mistake No. 25. Succinct and accurate, I’d say. Perhaps I’m revisiting this too soon – particularly in light of my last post which also concerned reading, albeit how you read – but it’s pretty important so I can’t apologise for it.

Another commenter Glenda confessed to an ‘aversion’ to tabloids, and “The Daily Mail makes me vomit” has featured more than once in letters to me from new writers. (Don’t hold back, dear students.) I regularly receive comments concerning newspapers being too ‘depressing’, as well as swipes at women’s magazines (especially weeklies) being too obsessed with vacuous celebrities and skinny models and obsessive diets and banal stories of love triangles and so on.

The world which these publications represent may not be to your liking but everyone is a part of that world, and you can’t disconnect from it absolutely. As a writer, it is even more a part of your world, because these publications feature the works of fellow writers and reveal the interests of those who are keeping you in business – readers. These publications are read by millions, are discussed by millions, and are a big part of popular culture. I don’t think it’s wise as a writer to block it out entirely. And weekly women’s magazines can of course be good markets too, especially for fillers.

In my response to Glenda last time I wrote “If something makes you angry – it can be the inspiration for an article”. I don’t think anger is a unique emotion in this respect. Depression – by which I mean something like ‘despondency’ – would work. You’ve read about underprivileged teens, say. Yep, depressing. Well what about writing about a local initiative that’s being set up with the aim of helping them? Or about how these kids are helping themselves? Can you go talk to some young people and find out what’s going on their world – and seeing whether this inspires a story?

If you don’t read about this stuff, you can’t react to it or explore it or potentially influence it.

I won’t bang on about this – and if you really cannot stick popular and populist daily and weekly publications, and you insist on an avoidance policy, then that’s that and I still want to help you. But let’s make a deal here.

Please open your eyes.

Do so properly, at a major newsagent. You don’t necessarily have to shop there – I want you to support your small local independents too – but the exercise needs to be conducted at the biggest you can access.

Then I want you to do what I do not usually do.

What I usually do is let my legs lead me blindly to the men’s magazines, then check out the health magazines, scan the nationals, and perhaps a local, then embark on the expedition to discover this month’s nominated hiding place for the writing magazines – ah, behind the architecture titles! Who’d have thought! – and finally take whatever I have retained in my arms to the till. All a bit automatic.

Don’t do this. Instead, stand a bit back. Imagine you’ve been asked to take a photograph of the magazine section in its entirety – and look at it all, from a slight distance. Take in the body of magazines and papers as a whole. Vast, isn’t it. Start at one end, and move a bit closer. Look at the categories of titles: those you wouldn’t even normally notice if they on fire. Cycling magazines, combat magazines, knitting magazines, art magazines, train magazines. Really properly take them in. Count a category. Twenty-odd car magazines? Amazing, right? Move on through, slowly, taking them all in.

If you feel the usual pull towards The Lady, Reader’s Digest, People’s Friend or Psychologies, then resist. These, along with Saga, appear to be the most commonly targeted publications by new writers, if my workload is anything to go by. Yet even in these cases sometimes I wonder whether students actually bother to read them: Arlene Usden left the Lady a while ago, but I’m not convinced everybody has noticed Rachel Johnson’s modernising revamp, while Reader’s Digest is a far more sophisticated magazine than many people give it credit for, thanks to the brilliant editorship of Gill Hudson.

If you’re restricting yourself to a handful of magazines – and not even reading those properly – and you’re eliminating entire categories of other publications (those newspapers and women’s magazines I wrote of earlier), then you’re reducing your chances of selling work two-fold, three-fold, lots-fold.

Increase your chances by looking at less commonly targeted publications. Look beyond the obvious. Jets Monthly. Practical Pigs. Blonde Hair. Koi Carp. First Eleven. Music Teacher. I can’t remember ever having read a piece for these magazines from my students. Pick some of them up. Spend five minutes looking through them. Take one to the till.

Might it be one of the best pieces of advice for a new writer to make a point of buying a magazine you’ve never thought or heard of – let alone read – about a subject you assume you have no interest in, and read it cover to cover and back again?

Shall we do this? I will – it’s been a while – if you will. Let’s do it without putting pressure on ourselves to come up with ideas for the publication we end up with, but let’s see whether it changes our perspective on an unknown subject, on reading, and on writing for publication.

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