Why are North American Train Magazines so Tedious?

Railroad Model Craftsman arrived on Friday.  I haven’t even finished reading the last one, and to be honest, I don’t know if I ever will.  It’s been drowning in the pile of books beside my bed for weeks now, occasionally thrusting out a feeble page when I resurrect the book atop, but sinking ever lower.

By contrast, I devour every issue of Model Railway Journal.  I even read the letters, well most of them.  This month’s cover story was about a 7 mm finescale model set in England’s scenic equivalent to Saskatchewan.  The layout is fifteen feet long and admits only half a dozen turnouts, and yet, the article extends to nineteen pages with 22 photographs (only five of which include locomotives).  Needless to say, the modelling and photography is topnotch – this is MRJ.

More to the point I enjoyed reading it for two nights.

I can’t recall the last time I read an article in the North American modelling press that I found entertaining, and I have to include my own in that list.  Oh sure, some of them are informative, and most articles contain at least one good idea, which is usually enough to get me to slog through them.  But to be honest, the articles are about as entertaining as shopping lists for vegans.

We’re not dull people here in Canada and the United States (well, in the US, at least – we Canadians have a certain reputation to live up to).  Why is it that when we get around to putting pen to paper, we lose our authentic voices, and assume a detached tone?

What’s more, when we do aim for humour, we get it wrong!  Humorous articles in the North American press tend toward sarcasm, which falls flat in written form.  When we’re not being sarcastic, we’re alluding to a story without telling it:  “Don’t ask me how I know” is not uncommon in the press.  I bet many of these are actually very entertaining stories in which we could all see ourselves; how about telling them?

I can’t promise that you’ll enjoy my next article in the June issue of Model Railroad Hobbyist, or even this one, but I’m going to make more of an effort from now on.


15 thoughts on “Why are North American Train Magazines so Tedious?

  1. Hi René,

    We do have other magazines in the UK, and they suffer from the same ennui as you complain about. One of the reasons – and I think this is a common thread – is that many of the articles are written or re-written into a “house style”, and cover the same sort of material over and over again. This stifles good writing, and is a discouragement. I have friends who will not write again for the “mainstream” press, having had their carefully worded articles turned into something different.

    But there used to be other magazines in North America: RMJ and Mainline Modeller, for example. What happened? Was it the cost of production, or the cost of distribution? Are there simply too few railway modellers in North America who are interested in the craft of the finescale end of the holiday? I ask this as I know that MRJ is very much a labour of love, and has had its shares of distribution issues over the years, and this is a much smaller country than the USA, so I imagine that the logistics might be more demanding, and I haven’t even got to the enormous expanse that is Canada, with fewer people than live within 100 miles of London. (Not the one in Ontario, nor the “New” Lenin Connecticut, either!)


    1. Hi Simon, I believe Model Railroader is the only one with a house style. The rest of them aren’t that sophisticated. So, we really must blame ourselves.
      Having written for Kalmbach and for Carstens, I found that the big difference was that Kalmbach (MR) felt like a proper business, with contracts and payments and such, whereas Carstens (RMC) did not.
      I think each of the magazines that has gone away has had their own story, and I wouldn’t want to speculate about them. We don’t, however, have a strong newsagent culture here in North America. When I was living in England, you had a Smiths on every corner, and any would put all bet the best newsagent here to shame. I blame the lack of commuters. People spend their time in the car rather than on a train.

  2. Hi Rene,

    I agree with you 100% about the rather turgid style of writing in many magazines these days.

    Whilst magazines might not have a particular house style, the fact is that many writers are making only an occasional contribution and therefore they tend to follow what appears to them to be custom and practice for that audience. Over time, many of these articles have become little more than a list of components used, or a very shallow description of the layout which tends to do little more than duplicate what you can see in the pictures.

    At the other end of the spectrum there are the articles which go into the most intricate of details about the construction of a particular kit, which are only understandable if you have the same kit in front of you on the workbench, and where, more often than not, there aren’t enough pictures to explain the points made.

    It seems we can’t win! So it’s all the more refreshing when something like the MRJ article on Tollesbury Quay comes along. I’ve read it through several times, and it always entertains because of the style of writing, the story he is trying to tell and the atmosphere the pictures create. Inspiring!

    I wrote a short piece for Continental Modeller recently on my p87 layout, in which I consciously tried to ‘break the mould’ a little. I’ll leave it to you to determine whether I was successful!




    1. Oh Geraint!

      I like this theory very much. Not only does it explain what may be going on, but it also tells us how to stop it.

      Which month of CM are you in? It is almost as hard to get here as MRJ.


    2. I just picked up your article, Geraint, and I think you successfully “broke the mould.” The nice thing about your article is that it tells a story, rather than being a mere description of your layout.

      Maybe story writing is something we should all study as we’re taking up writing about model railways.

  3. My model railroader is more often than not more about looking at the pictures than reading the articles and I don’t read MRH very often because, at least for me, I can’t even just flip through it for the pictures because each page loads so slow (maybe it’s just me but every page loads blurry and after a bit focuses).

    Here is a question, how can we as bloggers keep our blog writing interesting? Personally I have never really put much thought into my writing style, I just kind of start writing about what I’m working on.

    1. On MRH: I have the same problems. I’ve tried it on a few different machines and it’s just difficult to move through – slow. I’m not a fan of the MRH presentation style and combining that with slow load times I just find I give up too early.

      Pity, there’s some darn fine content waiting in those pages…


      1. Matt and Chris,

        It sounds like there is a bandwidth issue for you guys on MRH. Do you mind if I let the publisher know? Would either be willing to work with them to resolve the issue?


    2. With regards to making our own blog writing interesting, I think there are a number of things we can do. First of all, and you are already doing this: write. As with anything else, writing improves with practice. So, we model railroading bloggers will get better with age.

      I think the second thing we can do is treat our writing seriously as we do with our modelling. Occasionally, we should look for resources to learn more about how to write, or improve deliberately in some other way. For example, I took a blogging 101 course through WordPress.com, and I feel it did help with my blog. But, I have to keep at it, or it will wear away. Right after writing the piece above, I read a bunch of articles about how to add entertainment to my writing. If I practice that, maybe it will get better; so far it is a bit synthetic, I feel.

  4. Reflecting on the latest magazines I’ve bought or just flipped through at Indigo there’s such a lack of passion or enthusiasm in the subject matter, regardless of the part of the hobby the magazine is aimed at. The author doesn’t seem to be able to communicate any of his interest in the subject and I inherit that lack of interest as a reader. Not to pick on RMC but it’s just so cold. It’s hard to connect with. Does that sound silly?

    I still think that model railroading is cool. Model trains themselves are still exciting to me and I gravitate toward places where we still “get” that. I’m still so very happy with the hobby and I still look forward to it – all of it.

    What’s on my magazine rack lately? I still really look forward to new issues of the newsletters from the 2mm Assocation and the S Scale Society. From the mainstream, my current favourite is by far British Railway Modelling. I can’t quite put my finger on it but something in the BRM formula just makes me want to model trains.

    It’s invigorating.


    1. Yes, I agree. Interestingly, I think RMC is trying to be an entertaining read. Bob Walker’s column and “Look Both Ways” feel like they’re trying to have fun, but somehow they fall a little flat. The banter doesn’t work as well in written form, and I just feel a little uncomfortable.

      I should go back and re-read Trevor’s article on telegraphy. I recall it being well-written (no surprise as he’s a pro), but straightforward.

      Maybe the challenge with the hobby press is that they’re focused on providing information, rather than entertainment. Perhaps I need to lower my expectations.

  5. The more I think about this problem of how to write about model railways, the more I think that it has something to do with the pronoun, “I.” You might almost be able to measure the interest of an article by the number of times that word is used.

    Certainly, the articles that use the imperative tense (eg. “Fold flap A into slot B.”) are not interesting to read at all.

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