Thursday, October 27, 2011

Editorial Standards, Pulp Fiction and eHow

I used to have a blog of tips and information for eHow writers.

eHow was an SEO article farm, which specialized in "How To" articles. The articles were "consumer written" -- which meant often by non-writers, or by writers who were hacking out crap just to make money. And there were no actual "editors," only a team who swept through the site after publication, looking for spam and other undesirable articles to delete.

I stumbled across this article in my archives, and I thought, golly, this is really apropos to the discussion of writing quality and editors, etc.

Editorial Standards, Pulp Fiction and eHow

The front page article today on eHow has some typos in it (probably fixed by now). This has prompted much green-eyed discussion (especially among writers who have had articles deleted recently) about how low eHow's standards are.

Don't get me wrong. Scads of typos in the front page "Article of the Day" doesn't look very professional. eHow should at least spend a little editorial time making sure that one article is perfect. It's not like it would cost much.

But eHow is not a slick (i.e. a high end magazine). They don't pay hundreds or even thousands for a front cover article. They don't even have a real editorial staff. eHow is more like a pulp magazine. They're down, they're dirty, and they are focused on giving the readers what they want. Pulps are more pragmatic and less polished. That's just the way it is.

I'll tell you a story I heard from Harlan Ellison to illustrate the point:

Ellison is an amazing, prize-winning short story writer. His stuff is gut-grabbing and literary, but he started in the pulps. He wrote for fractions of pennies per word, so he had to write a lot to make a living, and that volume made him fast and sure. Every word became like the strokes of a chef's knife, pretty only when necessary, but always accurate and to the point.

Now, the editorial needs of a pulp magazine are somewhat different than a fancier, high-paying magazine. They need what they need when they need it. For instance, the magazines would commission their lurid covers well in advance of getting the stories for the magazine. They'd just make up titles and author names, and writers would compete to get to write the stories. Of course, the biggest prize was the cover story itself - the story that matched the glowing yellow cover with the monster and the sexy babe on it.

Harlan tells of one time getting the cover story by luck. He found an editor one day all in a tizzy. The writer for the cover story of the next issue had flaked out on him. He needed a 20,000 word story the very next day, and he had nothing.

Harlan looked at the cover, which featured a giant glowing earthworm tearing the clothes off a buxom woman, and thought about it.

"You know, I've got a giant earthworm story that might fit."

"Great! Can you have to me tomorrow?"

"Gee, I don't know. It's only 18,000 words. I guess I could stay up all night working on it...."

Harlan got the assignment, got the money and glory for writing a featured cover story, and got paid extra for doing the rush job.

The thing is, he didn't have an 18,000 word story about alien worms raping the women of earth. Until he saw the cover, he hadn't even thought about such a story. He just went home and wrote the whole thing from scratch that night, turned it in in the morning and took home his payment and honor.

That story probably wasn't very good. Even with the Ellison touch, it probably would have been rejected by that same editor if it had come in over the transom (i.e., if it had been an unsolicited submission).

But because it was exactly what that client needed at that time, it didn't matter. It got the money and glory anyway.

That's just the nature of the business.

So, when it comes to the front page articles on eHow, let's spend less time being jealous and disdainful, and more time trying to understand just what makes that article so valuable to eHow - our client. Because when it comes down to it, it doesn't matter how professional or not eHow's standards are, our professionalism demands that we understand what they need.

Next Thursday I'll talk about why this is relevant, and also my experiences reading slush and grading student papers.

See you in the funny papers.


Krista D. Ball said...

I do a little freelance writing off and on. I got called at the end of the work day and asked if I could have two articles (plus my normal one) in by the next morning because an author flaked out on them.

I wrote those articles and got paid a premium for pumping out the stories on exactly what they needed. They weren't my best work, that's for sure, but they were clean, researched, and finished.

The Daring Novelist said...

Exactly --

and under the right circumstances, sometimes a market won't care about whether it's clean or researched either. Just whether it's on time and has giant earthworms.

I actually have another point I'm going to be making down the road, but I decided that first readers have to have some background. Unfortunately these days writers have a very narrow range of experience.

But the gates have been blown wide open, and that narrow range of experience just won't cut it.