Reporting, Writing—and Being Smart

By Jack Limpert

A magazine editor usually works closely with a writer–the magazine editor is trying to figure out what will make the story something special, something that will make it interesting in six months.  Don Hewitt, the legendary top gun at 60 Minutes, once talked about finding stories that were based on an idea, not a subject. That made a lot of sense, and it was one way to decide whether to say yes or no to a story proposal.

So what kind of writer can do that kind of story?

When I became a magazine editor in 1969, I had no clue what to look for in a writer. Some seemed smarter than others, some had track records, some were easier to deal with, some seemed more interested in the money than the story. As the 1970s went on, I began to think about left brain-right brain–left brain types being better at logic and analysis, right brain better at imagination and creativity. It seemed to play out most noticeably with art directors–we went through lots of them and it seemed that we’d go from one that was creative and disorganized to another that was well-organized and not very interesting. I kept thinking the best art director had some balance between the two.

But it still seemed hard to figure out how writers were different, what writers would be good at what kind of stories. When you work with writers and edit their copy, you get a window into the way they think and I’d say to myself things like “good researcher” or “street smart” or “great at getting people to talk.”  Then in 1983 I read Frames of Mind, a book about multiple intelligences by Howard Gardner. He was mostly interested in how a better understanding of intelligence could improve the schools, but it opened up new ways to think about writers.

Gardner had seven intelligences, and the one that schools focused on and rewarded was logical-analytical. But Gardner felt the other intelligences also were important to learning and success. There’s visual-spatial intelligence–people who probably would be good at architecture, auto mechanics, art directing a magazine. There’s bodily-kinesthetic intelligence–athletes, dancers, surgeons. There’s musical–good at sounds and rhythms. Linguistic–good at making up stories, doing crosswords, reading. And then there were the intrapersonal and interpersonal intelligences. Intrapersonal is understanding yourself, your strengths and weaknesses, your goals. Interpersonal is good at interaction, at empathy, at understanding others. Gardner came down to DC  from Harvard to talk about the book, and after his presentation, I talked with him and suggested that Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan were good examples of different intelligences at work. He agreed and talked about what Carter was good at (mostly logical-analytical) and Reagan was good at (intrapersonal and interpersonal).

Then in 1995 came Daniel Goleman and his book Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More Than IQ. And last year came Thinking, Fast and Slow, by Daniel Kahneman–it’s not an easy book to get through but it’s really interesting. He has System 1 and System 2 ways of thinking: System 1 operates automatically and quickly, with little or no effort. System 2 gives attention to effortful mental activities and can override the impulses of System l.

Do any of these theories help an editor figure out how smart a writer is? I’ve had writers who were great at research–one of the best would completely outline the story and then decide the people he could interview to flesh out each part of the story. Others had no interest in outlines or planning–let’s start talking to people and then we’ll figure out what the story is and how to write it. Often I seemed to be grading writers on their ability to report, to write, to think. It was great if a writer was good at all three but usually you tried to look at the writer’s strengths and what you thought the story needed. I had one writer who was a great reporter–he came in one day after doing a big story and said he needed a change, he wanted to write mostly essays for a year. He was a terrific reporter, a good writer, not much of a thinker. He stayed doing what he did well.

If you’re an editor, how do you look at writers and how smart they are and what they’re best at? If you’re a writer, how do you look at editors and how smart they are?


  1. Larry Van Dyne says

    On the left brain/right brain dichotomy: It seems to me the trick in putting together a story is knowing when to deploy which side of the brain. I’ve always thought of the process like the movement of an accordion. There are times in the process when you want to open it wide and be as creative and imaginative as possible in thinking about the right questions, the best people to interview, the key documents, etc. But there also are points when you need to squeeze the accordion tightly—to be tough-mined and analytical about what to pursue and what to ignore, coming to a focus, whittling down the key questions, etc. In the writing, you need to be analytical in getting a good structure, creative with language and wit, then back to being analytical and tough-minded in the polishing. At least that’s the way I work.

    On Gardner: I think he’s correct that people have different gifts, but not sure I’d call them “intelligence.” Yes, empathy and the ability to establish rapport is a great gift, but I’m not sure it’s emotional intelligence. I think cautious empathy is one of the talents most important for a great reporter. You need enough empathy to relate to sources and open them up, but not so much that you get suckered. Athletic ability seems to me to be just that, not “bodily intelligence.” When it comes to intelligence, I’m sticking with Einstein.

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