How Editors Talk to Editors Is Not How Editors Talk to Writers

By Jack Limpert

Recent posts about dangerous or scary writers reflect how editors talk candidly to other editors, but no editor I know talks to writers that way. A good editor knows it’s hard to be a writer—writers have to put their minds out there on display and most need encouragement, not the kind of feedback that destroys a writer’s self-confidence.

A sports analogy: A young girl I knew was a good high school athlete with dreams of using sports to get her into a top college. She played soccer, tennis, and basketball and was pretty good but not good enough to make a college coach tell admissions, “I want this kid.” She was well-coordinated but not quick or fast. So at age 15 she decided to try golf, a sport where quickness is what you don’t need.

To get started, she took a few lessons from Bill Strausbaugh, then the Washington area’s top golf teacher. Strausbaugh, in his  70s and nearing the end, was respected across the country for his teaching ability. Her father went with her to the lessons and he described how Strausbaugh, called “Coach,” did his teaching: “I was sitting with him watching my daughter hit shots and Coach said, ‘I can see what she’s doing wrong.” He went over to her and what surprised me—and has always stuck with me—was how positive he was. There was no feeling or talk about you’re doing this wrong. It was all about what she was doing right and how she could do it better.”

Alan Halpern, who edited Philadelphia magazine from the 1950s into the 1980s, took that approach. Alan made Philadelphia into the first really good city magazine because he hired talented writers and got the best from them. According to several of his writers: When they turned in a story and he read it and thought it was okay, he’d say “Terrific.” If it was better than okay, he’d say, “Terrific, terrific.” And if it was really good, the writer would get “Terrrific, terrific, terrific.” The three terrifics were what they all worked and lived for.

Most editors have to say no a lot more than they say yes. I probably wrote several thousand notes along the lines of “This is interesting and well-written but we’re not able to use it in an upcoming issue and….” Not very honest but it’d take too long to provide real feedback. (Editors who don’t learn to manage their time don’t last long.) About once a week we’d get a story or proposal that made us think, “This is an interesting mind at work—let’s find out more about this writer.” And often some notes back and forth or a meeting paid off in a good story.

Sometimes a piece or two from a writer would work but then he or she would do something that made it clear the writer was a ticking time bomb, almost always because of temperament, not the ability to write. At any given time I usually had several writers on what we called “the DB list”—over my dead body will that writer ever do anything more for us.

In the digital age who needs that kind of editing? An open question but I do know that for many years readers of The Washingtonian paid more than $4 million a year to subscribe to the magazine and buy it on newsstands. The publisher took $2 million a year of that and paid editors and writers. Writers were paid to do real reporting, to have interesting minds, to not bore the reader, to not bullshit the reader. Editors were paid to protect the reader from writers who are lazy or careless, who are too full of themselves, who want to be loved, who are borderline psychopaths, who are selling a point of view, who are PR people in disguise.

It’s now easy to find those writers and you don’t have to pay to read them.


  1. Why do you say it’s now easy to find those writers? How do you even know who they are much less where to look? Isn’t that a problem?

  2. ‘You’ as in ‘we.’

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