Editors Working With Writers—the Power of Mutual Enthusiasm

By Jack Limpert

Last week Bill O’Sullivan had five tips for editors on working with writers, and this was my favorite:

2. A compliment goes a long way. After a session of questions, suggestions, and proposed fixes, an  editor might expect to hear the writer say, “I’ll get right on it.” But at least as often the response is “Was there anything you liked about the piece?” It’s amazing how well “nice job” can grease the wheels—better yet, pick out something more specific: maybe the writer’s knack for catchy subheads or an overall strong structure. I’ve received heartfelt thank-you notes for something as simple as that. And because it’s easy to forget, I always make sure to lead with the compliment.”

Alan Halpern, the longtime editor of Philadelphia magazine, understood the power of that kind of positive thinking. Alan created the first really good city magazine, and back in the 1970s I found out one of the reasons why his writers loved him: If Alan read your piece and it was pretty good, he’d say “Terrific.” If it was better than pretty good, he’d say, “Terrific, terrific.” What his writers really worked for was “Terrific, terrific, terrific.” The three meant you’d nailed it.

I had a young articles editor back then who’d started out as a copy editor and never had been a writer. One day she was talking on the phone to one of our writers and after she hung up she almost shouted, “Dumb beast.” She was gone within three months—she needed to get some experience as a writer to realize how hard writing can be and to understand how damaging an editor can be.

My editing approach was to rarely change the writer’s language. I did a lot of pruning—I liked to think I was taking a piece that was going 50 or 60 miles an hour and speeding it up for the reader to maybe 70. Most writers seemed to live with that—the cuts could be explained by the space available for the story, where changing the writer’s words was more personal.

I always thought the editor-writer relationship had to come down to mutual enthusiasm. When a writer suggested a story that seemed interesting, the next step was to talk for 20 minutes about the story, what kind of research and reporting, the time involved, what the headline might be. What we came up with wasn’t set in stone—it could be changed as the story progressed—but we started out with both of us enthusiastic about where the story was going and what it could be.

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