Mistake No. 61: New mags only

A very quick post which I hope you’ll forgive – though it does at least suitably reflect the urgency of today’s advice: drop everything at once and go buy a copy of Woman’s Weekly’s special centenary collector’s edition – if you can still find one. Not because it’s a nice investment for your grandchildren, not because there’s a voucher for a free bag of toffee inside, but because the first, 1911 edition of the magazine is included inside as a bonus. If you can’t find one, go through next week’s neighbourhood recycling bins if you need to, as it is just priceless.

There are too many reasons – the fiction, the advertisements, the ‘HOW I ENLARGED MY BUST’ article – but I’ll let you discover those joys yourself. I’m interested in what you, the jobbing non-fiction writer, can get from it. The answer: ideas.

There are enough in here to keep you going for months.

Take an article on good health hints for babies. It discusses the relative virtues of types of milk, the importance of water for a baby, how to cope with convulsions. Extract: “The gums should be examined by a doctor, and if necessary they should be lanced.”

Ideas. One, “Have we forgotten the importance of water for babies?” Two, “How has infant medical care changed over the last century?” Three, “Will we ever find a way of making formula milk as good as human milk?” All for health, medical or parenting magazines.

Take an article ‘Dainty Dishes for the Invalid’. Dainty, in this context, includes ‘beef tea’ (devoid of tea leaves, but filled with beef), ‘savoury custard’ (cornflour with beef tea) and arrowroot pudding.

Ideas. One, “Ten great uses for arrowroot – a forgotten ingredient”. Two, “Food for the sick – how has it changed?” Three, “Old English recipes – due for a revival?” All for women’s, health or food magazines.

We’re in the business of words, so study words, language and phrases too. Certain things stuck out for me: use of the word ‘to-day’ (which I still see, charmingly, among older students), a careless tautology (“endless and countless”), full stops at the end of headlines, few bylines (I can’t even find the editor’s name – although she does bossily ask “that you will not only at once order No 2 ready next Wednesday…”), bold and boastfully worded advertisements (including for a cheese which will “eliminate the poisons that other foods create…”) – and much more.

Ideas. One, “Has the nation’s grammar and punctuation improved or worsened?” Two, “How have words changed their meaning?” Three, “How have advertising claims and laws changed over the years?” All for writing, language, education or marketing magazines.

The deeper you read, the more ideas you’ll get. It’s impossible to fail in this respect.

It’s rare that we get a chance to look at a one hundred year old magazine – but there’s no reason a publication has to be that ancient to inspire ideas. Thirty, twenty or even just ten years ago, magazines were very different – and yet, in so many ways, the same – and these are just as likely to provide food for thought for you to adapt to the modern day, or to inject a new twist into. Look in the loft. Go to a boot sale. I know you need to study recent copies of papers and magazines before submitting to them, but old copies can be priceless in other ways. Happy reading. And bust enlarging...

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