Editors at Work: Make It an Idea Competition

By Richard Babcock

A few days ago, my old editor buddy Lee Walburn offered some suggestions for finding good story ideas. Like everything Lee says and writes, the advice went down like fine bourbon. So I hope Lee doesn’t mind if I sully his drink with a small footnote.

Lee’s right that everything begins with ideas. In fact, I’ve long held that if the idea is strong enough, good editors can coax it into a publishable story, even if the proposal originates with a writer who needs help reporting and more help writing. But in my years as an editor, I also found that the great ideas—the kind that sell magazines, delight readers, impact the community, win prizes—remain terribly elusive.

In general, I stand by the Lone Wolf Theory of creation—i.e., the best ideas pop up when a writer or editor is meandering along on a solitary walk or (as Lee suggests) standing in line at the grocery or taking a leisurely shower. Partly, this notion reflects my impatience with group brainstorming. Some people excel at facilitating workshops of that sort, but I could never strike the balance between encouragement (and suffering interminable polite but useless discussions) and candor (squashing an idiotic proposal and thus crushing the mood in the room).

After listening to me bemoan the dearth of great ideas at a meeting of editors, one of my city magazine colleagues—I think it was Kit Rachlis, then at Los Angeles magazine—suggested a simple gambit: Divide the staff into teams, give them three or four days to huddle, then bring everyone together for an idea competition. I know, I know, the exercise seems alarmingly close to what you did in Miss Crabapple’s class back in fourth grade, but it paid off at Chicago, providing the staff with a burst of creative energy. Working in small groups (only four or five people, a mixture of art, edit, and web folks) reduced the individual pressure and helped spark imaginations. The ideas arrived more fully formed, often with suggestions for headlines and art attached. And the competitions turned out to be fun—our Olympics produced plenty of laughs, along with a handful of terrific ideas.

We tried it again six months or so later, shuffling the teams, and the results stayed strong, so we kept it up at that semi-annual pace for a few years. Eventually, of course, entropy set in—like many worthy efforts, the competition needed a rest. I didn’t stay in the job much beyond that (I needed a rest, too), but I’m sure the magazine could revive the process after another year or so to good effect.

As I said, this is only a footnote to Lee’s essential advice. But I offer it as a possible tactic to invigorate those fallow periods—I’ve known more than my share—when nothing and no one seems interesting enough.

Richard Babcock was a top editor at New York magazine for more than a decade and served as editor in chief of Chicago for 20 years. After stepping down from Chicago last year, he has been teaching and writing. His third novel, Are You Happy Now?, will be published in the fall.  

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