Since When Do You Have to Like the Damn Writer

By Jack Limpert

Fox News personality Bill O’Reilly has sold more than three million copies of Killing Lincoln, more than two  million copies of Killing Kennedy, and now, aided by his ghostwriter Martin Dugard, he’s signed to write Killing Jesus, which might outsell both Lincoln and Kennedy. I mentioned to a writer friend, now mostly a ghostwriter, that Dugard must be the world’s richest ghost.

“Probably so,” the writer friend said, “but he’s got to work with Bill O’Reilly. I’m beyond wanting money that badly.”

Okay, maybe a ghostwriter has to like, or at least not detest, the person he’s ghosting for, but my first reaction as a journalist was since when do we have to like the people we’re working with? As an editor, I always thought one of the great sins was favoring writers you personally liked. It violates the most important editor’s rule of all: All that matters is what you put in front of the reader. Whether a writer is charming or alluring is irrelevant. Whether a writer is a pain in the ass is irrelevant. All that matters is what goes in front of the reader.

At The Washingtonian, we had about 10 editors and eight staff writers and we worked with lots of freelancers. And the challenge always was to look at  the words, not the writer.

With freelancers, the challenge was keeping the liking-or-not-liking of the writer completely out of the decision-making. Was the story worth publishing or not? With staff writers, it was a little different—you’re not likely to have a staff writer you can’t stand to eat lunch with, but the moment of truth came when the editor decides what goes into an magazine and what doesn’t. (Yeah, I know that in the digital world space is infinite but if you want regular readers there always will be some role for editors to say this is good or this is dumb-sophomoric-etc.) Writers live to be read and it was never fun to tell a staff writer that his or her story was on the infamous “hold” list.

All this leads into one of the other challenges for an editor: When to be warm-blooded, when to be cold-blooded. Ruth Whitney, who edited Glamour magazine from 1967 to 1998, was a successful editor and nice person. This is how she told me she handled the problem: “I don’t like to get to know the writers all that well. It’s hard to play Lord High Executioner if you know them too well.”

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