Mr. Thackeray has said, that nothing is so easy as to be an author; for you have only to get pen, ink, and paper, and your stock in trade is complete. You sit down and write, and when our writing is finished, you are the author you wished to be. But Mr. Thackeray was probably thinking of an author whose publishers are very glad to get every scrap that falls from the pen that once drew Becky Sharpe. It is easier to sit down to write than to write, and it is easier to write than to get the writing published. A young writer always finds that it takes some time and trouble to get his articles regularly accepted by a first-class periodical. The delusion that any one can write so very simple a thing as a leading article or a review prevails widely, and nothing but experience will convince a beginner of the difficulty. Some very few persons, after going through the routine of a good education, can write almost at once; but they are either men who, singularly gifted by nature, have had opportunities of living in a society that has sharpened and polished their intellect, or they write well from a peculiar facility of composition, but have no power of going on to write very well. In ordinary cases, however, there is an absolute necessity for a long special training in journalism before the highest excellence is attained, and we may say that, without an exception, the very best writing is always that of a man who has had long practice. It is obvious that this must be so when we consider that the style is only a small part of good writing, and that richness of allusion and variety of thought are elements equally essential. A considerable number of those who are anxious to enter on the occupation of writing will never make anything of it, and even of those who are qualified to succeed, a large majority will only learn their business slowly. The great advantage of journalism, as compared with other professions, is that it is so much easier to get a chance. All editors are on the look-out for reinforcements of strength, and will willingly give a fair trial to every one who has any pretensions to ask for it. But aspirants are almost always too ambitious, because they underrate the difficulty of the task; and they generally choose the most difficult subjects, because these subjects are the most talked about, and are the richest in obvious materials. To express thought on paper is so hard that the expression it receives even from a practised writer will often seem poor as compared with the unexpressed thoughts of the reader; and a clever man feels that so much more might be said on any of the prominent political or literary topics of the day than is said, that he is apt to persuade himself that he could say it. Even if he attempts to write what he thinks, it may probably take some time and experience to convince him of the emptiness of his writing, because he sees his own unexpressed thoughts in his composition. How quickly he will pass through the necessary training will depend on his abilities and his industry; but, as a general rule, some training must be undergone, and all training involves some disappointments to be incurred, and many difficulties to be surmounted.
Let us, however, suppose that a person has established his position as a periodical writer. What are the practical advantages and disadvantages of that position? We must say that, if we take a survey of other professions generally, the advantages seem to us considerable. It is true that the writer's probably income is not great. If he is determined not to overwrite himself, and is resolute in doing his best for periodicals only of the highest class, his income from writing may possibly not exceed four hundred a year. But then he may begin to gain this income at six or seven-and-twenty, when in most other professions men are spending rather than receiving money, and there is no other calling under the sun by which such an income is so pleasantly earned. The time of the writer is almost entirely his own—he is engaged on subjects of the greatest interest to him —he keeps up an acquaintance with the best current literature— he is in the way of hearing politics discussed by men who . are within the range of real influence; and above all he is thrown into the companionship of men who have similar tastes, hopes, and interests, who keep alive in him all that he is most anxious to cherish, and who enable him to preserve in later life those habits of intimate and equal companionship which are the most pleasant, and perhaps, the most useful, fruits of the days of his education. He has the zest of increasing knowledge, and he exercises his intellect in a way that produces results that are definite and immediate, if not of the highest character. Generally, too, a person who has passed successfully through the protracted and expensive course of a good English education is either possessed of some private means or is a sharer in the revenues of the splendid o which have enriched the great seats of English learning. The addition of his professional income gives him the command of all that he can reasonably want, if he remains unmarried; and if he marries he will probably pass through the happiest phase of human existence—that of love in the sort of cottage where there is very ample hope and very little anxiety.
But the time will of course come when such an income will seem narrow, and fortunately there is generally a summer to follow the writer's spring. There is no recognised path of advancement, but as a matter of fact advancement comes. Through one of many channels, each in itself uncertain, an increase of income is tolerably certain to be put in his way. Either some sort of editorship is offered him, or some Government or educational appointment, or some slight success in a secondary profession rewards his patience, and perseverance. If a periodical writer, connected with the higher kinds of publications, makes four hundred a year at thirty, he will in all probability have the option of making a thousand a year long before he is forty. We speak in these direct terms of money, because our object is to consider writing as a profession, and it is idle to talk of a profession without talking of the money to be made in it. Undoubtedly it is the weak point of the profession that there is nothing beyond this secondary stage; and it is only by unusual luck, or by work so severe as to be necessarily temporary, that even the successful man can hope to go greatly beyond this modest elevation. He will see his contemporaries who have been successful in other lines blossom into bishops, judges, and medical baronets, while he remains comparatively obscure and comparatively poor. He must console himself as best he may with the thought that his success has come earlier and been obtained more pleasantly; and if he is of a nature to derive any gratification from the misfortunes of others, he may cheer himself with reflecting how many beneficed clergymen, and how many captains in the army and navy, find it harder to maintain a decent figure than he does. Of a comparison with men absolutely unsuccessful—starving curates and patronless lieutenants, with every merit and every species of ill luck under the sun–we do not think it necessary to speak, partly because we are not sure that they exist out of novels, and partly because, when misfortune is positively outrageous, no one really proposes its victim as a fit object of comparison with himself.
In nine cases out of ten, a writer in the position of which we have been speaking is called to the bar, and this is greatly to his advantage. He obtains a recognised social status, which, until journalism is more of an acknowledged profession than it is at present, is a gain not to be despised. He also puts himself in the road of advancement in the bye-paths of the law, and there is no reason why he should shut himself out of advancement in the main road. It is not often that very successful lawyers have carried on the occupation of writing long after their call, but a man of exceptional courage, perseverance, and ability, might pass from success as a writer to success as a lawyer, especially if he used Parliament as the gate to professional elevation. The greatest gain, however, is neither in the acquisition of social status, nor in the hope of advancement—it is in the opportunity afforded for pursuing legal study, and maintaining a practical connexion with legal life. It is impossible to over-estimate the profit which a writer of periodical literature may derive from forcing himself to acquire a mastery of a grave and difficult subject having reference to real life and the daily business of mankind. Not only will he be saved from many blunders, and kept right under many temptations, but he will thus give his mind a strength, and his opinions a weight, which will be invaluable in a calling where haste and flippancy are such obvious and constant dangers. This, then, is the conclusion we come to. The profession of journalism is not one to which a wise counsellor would zealously persuade a young friend possessing the requisite qualifications, because success is not very certain, and will in all probability not be very splendid; but he would not zealously dissuade from it, if he believed the seeker of advice would be satisfied with early and moderate success, and would resolutely cling to the prosecution of some line of grave and continuous study, or to the maintenance of a connexion with an active and practical profession.
Saturday Review, February 12, 1859.