ABOUT EDITING

Why Does Someone Become an Editor? Because It’s Too Hard to be a Writer?

By Jack Limpert

I’ve been an editor for almost 50 years and I know lots of editors and I’ve never asked any of them, “Why did you become an editor?”

I became an editor in 1964 not because of any desire to edit copy but because it was the best job offer at the time. After dropping out of law school, I’d spent four years with UPI in Minneapolis, St. Louis, and Detroit and UPI wanted to move me to Chicago. I was being moved too much and wanted to settle down so looked for a job in Detroit. The daily paper in Mt. Clemens, just north of the city, was looking for someone to edit a weekly they owned in Warren, a fast-growing Detroit suburb. The money was decent and I’d be able to report and write and learn to be an editor.


Something Surprising an Editor Can Learn from Ben Bradlee

By Jack Limpert

For a good close-up portrait of an editor at work, pick up Yours in Truth: A Personal Portrait of Ben Bradlee, by Jeff Himmelman.  It’s a lively, entertaining book, and it is so intimate that some of its characters—notably Sally Quinn and Bob Woodward—are not likely to speak to the author again.

The book has lots of insights into how Bradlee made the Washington Post the nation’s hottest newspaper. Late in the book, Himmelman writes about a part of an editor’s job that doesn’t often get talked about:


What an Editor Can’t Learn from the World’s Greatest Sushi Chef

By Jack Limpert

Jiro Dreams of Sushi is a charming documentary film about an 85-year-old chef who runs a Tokyo restaurant that serves the world’s best sushi. The visuals and music are wonderful to see and hear, but I couldn’t help thinking about what an editor could learn from how Jiro Ono produces such consistent high quality. I kept thinking that running a restaurant is a little like running a magazine: You’re offering something to the public that you hope they’ll enjoy and they’ll think is worth the money, and your success depends on word of mouth and repeat business.


Editors at Work: What You Can Learn from 60 Minutes

By Jack Limpert

One of the great storytellers in American journalism was Don Hewitt, who created 60 Minutes for CBS television. He approached the weekly television show like a magazine or newspaper editor. In his 2001 book, Tell Me a Story: Fifty Years and 60 Minutes in Television, he described how he operated:

If 60 Minutes is anything, it’s a loose shop….We make it work not with meetings and memos, but with ideas and an open-door policy. Any member of our extended family—our on-air reporters, our executive editor Phil Scheffler, our off-air reporters-producers, the assistants and secretaries—can weigh in. When Mike [Wallace] gets an idea, he storms into my office with a “Hey, kid, why don’t we…”


Editors at Work: Painful Experiences With Lawyers (Part Three)

By Jack Limpert

Here’s an expensive, exhausting, almost-got-me-fired lesson I learned the hard way: As an editor, don’t get in between a man and a woman who went through an angry divorce.

It was a lawsuit involving a Washington man who was a very public figure. He and his wife had met overseas, had gotten married, had been a fairly high-profile couple in Washington, and then got divorced. The woman came to us wanting to tell her story, which included a somewhat unusual courtship and many visits to the White House. We did the story, co-authored by the ex-wife and a staff writer, and we used quotes from letters the man had sent to the woman early in the relationship. The lawsuit was for copyright violation and invasion of privacy.


Editors at Work: When a Writer Gets an Agent

By Jack Limpert

We had a very talented freelance writer at The Washingtonian who couldn’t meet deadlines. If he hadn’t been so good we’d have cut ties with him months earlier, but we kept trying to be positive, giving him monthly payments of $2,000 to keep his rent paid, promising him even more money if he could get his stories in on time. You’ll get $2000 a month now, we said, but in six months we’ll raise it to $2200 and in a year even more. Please keep writing.


Editors at Work: Painful Experiences With Lawyers (Part Two)

By Jack Limpert

Nothing can intimidate an editor like a lawyer. A phone call, a letter—it can make your heart skip a beat and ruin your day, month, or career.

In the early 1970s I got a call from Edward Bennett Williams, the best-known litigator in Washington. He had founded the Williams and Connolly law firm, and was famous for representing some of the nation’s  most colorful people—Frank Costello, Jimmy Hoffa, Frank Sinatra. And he represented the Washington Post and was close to publisher Katharine Graham and editor Ben Bradlee.


Editors at Work: Preaching the Virtues of Fowler, Strunk, and Orwell

By Jack Limpert

Frank Waldrop, the editor of the Washington Times-Herald before it was bought and killed by the Washington Post in 1954, was my early Washington mentor. Frank lived most of the 20th century—from 1905 to 1997—and he was a tough, old-fashioned newspaperman. Here are three pieces of his writing  advice.

1. Who was it that said “First, murder your darlings” to the friend who set out to write? Whoever he was, he knew himself and he knew the writer’s dangers, attachment to some “airs and graces” as Fowler calls them, that stand in the way of directness and plain speaking.


Why You Don’t See Editors on Sunday Talk Shows

By Jack Limpert

Watching the Sunday morning talk shows, I sometimes remember back to 1981 when ABC-TV redefined the Sunday morning talk show with This Week With David Brinkley. A regular panelist on the new show was Ben Bradlee, executive editor of the Washington Post, who was at the height of his fame after guiding the Post through Watergate and being played by Jason Robards in the movie version of All the President’s Men.


When Editors Do Something Really Dumb

By Jack Limpert

I edited 490 issues of The Washingtonian and every month when the new issue arrived I opened it thinking, What little time bombs are ticking this month? Mistakes come with the territory when you’re putting together a good-sized magazine.

Your first wish is that there be no certified letters from law firms. Then you wait for the calls, e-mails, and letters. The most abusive phone calls usually came from fellow members of the media: Oscars for loudest vocal performances by an aggrieved journalist go to Sy Hersh and Carl Bernstein,