Editors at Work: Saying Yes and No

By Jack Limpert

As a magazine editor, you knew going to work in the morning that you’d be saying a lot of yes and no as the day went on. Is this story going to run in September? Should we lead with this photo? Available for lunch with the publisher tomorrow? Any raises going to be given out mid-year?

Saying yes usually was more fun than saying no, and the hardest no was talking to a writer who wanted to do a story and had a good idea and was bright and full of enthusiasm and really wanted you to commit to it. An editor has to love that kind of enthusiasm, but at magazines, less so at newspapers, a lot of pretty good ideas don’t result in a published story. If we had 100 edit pages in the next issue, maybe four or five big pieces could run and four or five got pushed back and a few of those never did see the light of day. So editors learn the hard way that saying yes too often can lead to lots of headaches down the road.

The problem I had at the start of life as an editor was thinking that writers deserved a good reason if their story was going to get a no. I’d listen to the pitch and if I couldn’t come up with a decent reason for saying no, I’d often say okay. Then I’d wake up the next morning and think, I’m not so sure that story idea I said yes to yesterday is going to work. Actually, when I had listened to that story idea, there likely were little doubts bouncing around in my head but I couldn’t express them clearly so I didn’t say them out loud. The next morning, though, it had dawned on me why the story idea maybe wasn’t going to work. And then I had two lousy choices: Either keep quiet and hope for the best, or call the writer and say I wanted to take back the yes and we’d have to talk about it again.

Okay, lots of smart editors may not need some time to think things through and figure things out, but I did. So I learned to say yes only if the story seemed like one of those slam dunks that just couldn’t miss. When there were little doubts, I learned to buy time, to say it’s a good idea, an interesting idea, but let me think about it and let’s talk about it again. When I let them know a few days later–or sometimes a few weeks later–it usually was a no. If the maybe had turned to a yes, the writer was very happy.

The lesson for editors: Once you say yes, it’s very hard to take it back. But it’s easy to change a no or maybe to a yes.
When Abe Rosenthal stepped down as executive editor of the New York Times in 1988, I wrote him, asking if he’d be interested in writing a piece for us titled “If I Ran the Washington Post.” I knew Rosenthal had no love for Ben Bradlee, executive editor of the Post, and I thought maybe he’d take the opportunity to put the needle into Bradlee. I got back a hand-written note saying something like “It’s an interesting idea but a little bird is telling me not to do it….” If you have to tell someone no, that’s another way to do it.
In Daniel Kahneman’s book, Thinking Fast and Slow, he writes about two systems of thinking.

System 1 operates automatically and quickly, with little or no effort. Examples include: Make a face when shown a horrible picture. Detect hostility in a voice. Drive a car on an empty road. Answer a 2 + 2 question.

System 2 allocates attention to the mental activities that demand it. It can overrule the freewheeling impulses and associations of System 1. The diverse operations of System 2 require attention and are disrupted when attention is drawn away. Some examples of System 2: Tell someone your phone number. Fill out a tax form.

It’s instinct versus rational thinking. When an editor is deciding on a story idea, both come into play. What I was doing early in my  editing career was focusing on rational thinking. As time went on, I learned to trust my instincts–the problem was it took time to figure out what my instincts were saying.
Coming up next: An editor doesn’t get great stories by saying yes and no. So where do great stories come from?


  1. Nice piece on the editor’s dilemma. Speaking as one who free-lanced for various magazines, I can say that it’s the writer who suffers a lot more than the editor in these situations. He begins the work of researching and writing a story; perhaps he finishes it. Then he gets nothing. I always thought The Washingtonian and other magazines ought to pay a kill fee in cases like that. The fee would have compensated the writers for their time and effort. It would also have forced editors to think carefully before they gave the green light to a proposal.

  2. Jack Limpert says

    There’s a good cartoon to be done showing a writer sitting across the table from an editor with two bubbles above each of them: What each one is saying, what each one is thinking. In real life, when a freelance writer deals with an editor it always works best to nail down things like approximate length, deadline, amount of payment, when payment is made, amount of kill fee, under what circumstances the kill fee will be paid.

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