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The Writer: the how to of selling facts and fiction

By Kathleen HirschSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / November 19, 1982


The Writer magazine recently turned 95, and at that venerable age it readily qualifies as one of the oldest American magazines in continuous existence.

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Situated for the past 50 years in offices shared by The Atlantic Monthly overlooking Boston's Public Garden, it also qualifies as one of the city's most tenacious tenants. When The Atlantic was purchased by Mortimer Zuckerman in 1980, The Writer stayed put, while other residents, the Boston office of The New Yorker and Worldpaper, moved.

Many observers attribute these endurance feats to the feisty wit and shrewd management of its editor, Sylvia Burack. Mrs. Burack has probably worked as hard as any woman now living for the interests of literacy in Massachusetts, allegedly still drives like a New York cabbie, and sums herself up with the remark, ''I loathe neutrality. Not because it's so boring, but because it's so nothing.''

''She's terrific. She's a great lady,'' says her landlord, Mortimer Zuckerman. ''She possesses a remarkable combination of tact and force, and she does a good job.''

Sylvia Burack (most of the time with her late husband, Abraham) has owned and published The Writer for nearly 45 years. She has also served as a trustee of Boston State College and the Massachusetts Board of Higher Education. In addition, she has edited 11 books of children's plays for The Writer's adjunct organization, Plays Inc. Mrs. Burack is less interested in laurels than in her work, however, and quips in a worldly, gravelly voice, ''My life, as they say, is an open book - quite literally.''

Until the advent of Writer's Digest, and much more recently the spate of newsletters that circulate trade talk and aid aspiring authors to new markets, The Writer occupied a unique place in the world of letters. For its circulation of 55,000 the magazine has devoted itself to common sense strategies on everything from tips by established authors on marketing suspense novels to advice from poets.

The magazine performs a crucial function, according to Kay Cassill, author of 'The Complete Handbook for Freelance Writers.''

''Writers are by description isolated human beings,'' she says. ''And in this very large country, more so, especially with huge, centralized publishing conglomerates. Increasingly, the star system of publishing is isolating new writers, and they don't really know how to go about doing the things that they have to in order to get published. They need some kind of human contact, and The Writer fills that void. Writers have a sense that by reading it, they're getting the inside scoop.''

By and large, The Writer's articles are written by well-established authors. Though they are not all household names, they represent the body of craftsmen who have achieved success in their chosen genre, and whose advice is intended to steer new writers in the same direction.

As early as 1921, the magazine was warning writers away from ''Common Weaknesses in Manuscripts.'' Among these was ''Thinness. By this is meant lack of substance, i.e., the main idea of the story has little foundation, or the author tries to go swimming in a sea of literature like a bubble instead of a bladder, like Shakespeare's 'wanton boys.' ''

More recent issues have reports on selling screenplays, the children's book market, and a piece on the ''requirements'' of poetry, and one reprinted an article on censorship. ''One very important role that The Writer performs,'' says Sally Wendkos Olds, past president of the American Society of Journalists and Authors, ''is its insistence on standards of integrity. I started reading it when I began writing, and it's been consistently good. It has never taken advertising from vanity presses, or agents who charge for reading manuscripts, and this is very good for new writers to see.''

Sylvia Burack sees herself as something of an earnest hustler after quality, an inveterate letter writer, a seeker after new talent, and perhaps most important, as a champion of writers' rights. She works from 9 to 5 in her offices, reads manuscripts until well past midnight, and by 3 a. m. can be found finishing off the New York Times.

In many ways, she has the habits and convictions of editors of an earlier era , a fact that has its critics as well as its supporters. Having worked continuously for nearly half a century in the field of popular and serious writing, she has an increasingly rare perspective on the care and nurturing of writers. She has steered the magazine through the changes wrought by radio and television (which she notes ruined careers for a fair number of writers), and learned from that experience that ''you can't ignore the realities of the marketplace.''

''I consider The Writer a service magazine for writers,'' Mrs. Burack said recently. ''Most of our manuscripts are solicited, and what we're doing is asking our authors to take time away from their main source of income and for a very small fee write something for us."