Yes, You Can Be A Philatelic Writer
By John M. Hotchner
There is a wonderful New Yorker cartoon in which a man on a rack is being stretched to his limits by a masked Middle Ages sort of person, who is saying, "Don't talk to me about suffering in my spare time, I'm a writer."
Sadly, many of us in philately associate the fear of writer's block or the possibility of being criticized for what we write with becoming a philatelic writer. The fear of exposing oneself as a writer is probably second only to the fear of exposing oneself as a public speaker. I remember back when I started that those were psychic hurdles I had to get over.
At the time, I was a youngster of just over 30, a collector since age 5, and a devoted and regular reader of Linn's, Western Stamp Collector, and the American Philatelist, which my father subscribed to; and any other philatelic publications I could get my claws on. I had a decent collection, and was getting deeply into Christmas Seals, Worldwide Errors, Freaks and Oddities, U.S. precancels, worldwide stamps honoring the U.N., and half a dozen other specialties.
An opportunity came along to edit our local club newsletter, and though I had some doubts, I took on the task because no one else would. And I thought I knew my way around the hobby. It worked out well, and I wrote more and more of the content, finding I enjoyed writing, and had things to say. Even when I tried to be provocative, none of the members of the club felt the need to make an issue of my opinions, or chose not to.
And when I found myself in a time of professional retrenchment, suddenly not working the normal 12 hours a day I had been, it came into my head that I would like to write a regular column for Linn's. I did some samples, sent them in to editor Ed Neuce, and got a trial as ŇThe Philatelic Philosopher." Thirty-three years later, I think I am qualified to say that the hardest part of writing is getting started. It may not be a breeze for everyone after getting started, but the more you do, the easier it gets.
So, let's look at some of the reasons you might be skittish about getting started.
"Where would my stuff get printed?" This is the first question to settle, as it draws a boundary around what you can write about, length or your articles, how often you might write, and the depth of your articles. My recommendation is that you start by being reactive. When you see something in your favorite journals, from club newsletters to national publications, about which you have thoughts and feelings, write a letter to the editor setting forth what you want to say on the subject. Thus will the editor get to know your name, and you will get some experience in seeing what gets printed and what does not.
"Who would care what I think?" Remember that the hobby of stamp collecting lives for a great many of its participants because of the discoveries and research and conclusions recorded by writers setting pen to paper, or finger tips to computer keyboards, for the past 160 years. Not all philatelic writing is deathless prose, but much of it is deathless history, a reflection of its time, and a basis for current research by serious philatelists. All of it started off with a collector saying, "I can do this, I can record what I know, and what I think." And readers are always looking for guidance, for tips, for entertainment, and for ideas that they might pursue. You can fill those needs.
"I don't know what I could write about." What trips your wires? I began by writing about my interests, new material I had found, and setting forth the conclusions I had reached about that material and that corner of the hobby. I also told the readers, as I do now, that I don't pretend to know every thing about the subjects I write about in national publications, society journals or club newsletters, and invite them to contribute their opinions and what they know. Readers wrote, and that back-and-forth with readers has generated hundreds of new subjects to write about, and answers to a lot of philatelic puzzles. So you don't need to be an authority. What you do need is excitement, curiosity, and a willingness to spend as much time researching your subject(s) as writing about them.
"I've never done any serious writing, and itŐs hard to do." Writing is less hard than you might imagine. I am regularly amazed at what is inside my head waiting to get out. In some respects the task is to let your conscious self get out of the way. Choose a quiet time; early in the day when well rested, and not rushed, works best for me. I also find I do my best work when drafting with pen and paper, which I later convert to typed text. Not only does pen and paper free me to draft anywhere, any time, but it seems to promote trying out ideas and words. Get ideas down and polish later. Trying to find the perfect word, turn words into perfect sentences, and perfect sentences into perfect paragraphs takes energy and time. Get the concepts on paper, and then, after you have given your unconscious time to mull it over, go back and work on it some more. But remember that The Perfect is the enemy of The Good. Spending a lot of time making a written piece 5% better is not a good use of time.
"I don't want to embarrass myself." There are times you will be wrong, and I am. It is only embarrassing if you present something as fact that is incompletely researched and not acknowledged as such, or "only" an opinion. Be careful about how you portray your opinions and you will rarely embarrass yourself. Even if you are way out of the mainstream, there is nothing to be embarrassed about if you really believe what you say, and can make a good show of defending your opinions. Factual errors are embarrassing but a publicly stated apology with publication of the truth blunts that problem.
"Why spend all that time? What do I get out of it?" I think it is a human trait to want to be heard and understood. Being a writer promotes that, and gives you the chance to convert others to your way of seeing things. Beyond that, whether anyone reads your stuff or not, the very act of writing moves things off your mind and onto a page, and helps you to think through the matters about which you are writing. And then, if you get to national publications, there is often a modest honorarium paid for your work. For those of us on a tight budget, that little extra money is justifiably spent on philatelic purchases.
Now, of course, the punchline: I am looking for writers for U.S. Stamp News [of which John is the editor]. Over the years we have introduced half a dozen new philatelic writers who now produce regularly for this and other publications. I like to work with new writers, and feel it is a contribution to the future of the hobby to do so. If you have an idea for an article, for a series of articles, or a continuing feature, drop me a line and let's talk about it, or send an article in draft. Keep in mind that you don't have to write long or complicated pieces to get published. I don't mind working through several drafts the first several times you write. The editor's job is to help you strut your stuff. And once you have some practice at it, both writing and editing are easier.
So, think about it, but not so that "analysis paralysis" gets in the way. All authors had to get started at some point. Make this your time. Can you be a philatelic writer? Yes, you can!
Should you wish to comment on this editorial, or have questions or ideas you would like to have explored in a future column, please write to John Hotchner, VSC Contributor, P.O. Box 1125, Falls Church, VA 22041-0125, or email, putting "VSC" in the subject line, at firstname.lastname@example.org
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