More Nominations for the Dangerous Writers Hall of Fame

By editors who wish to be nameless

Beware of writers who are so enamored of talking about their stories that they have a hard time getting around to writing them. I know that it’s important to talk through a story with your editor and I know that a writers’ natural inclination is to do anything to avoid writing but I’ve had cases where I’ve had to finish stories from a writer’s notes because he wasn’t able to get it done on time. Yet he always had time to talk more about it.

And beware of a writer who sees his or her stories as treatments for a made-for-TV movie. Everything fits together a bit too neatly and the messy facts end up on the floor. Fortunately, there are not so many made-for-TV movies any more. Then again, there are so few places now to publish these kind of narratives.
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Sitting with a writer I was giving a late read to a business story and I remarked that a company name as presented in the piece, Joe Smith Drums, might actually be Joe Smith, Inc.

The writer looked at me across the table and said, “That doesn’t matter.”

It’s true enough that the Joe Smith company makes and sells drums. But the phrase the writer used shot a chill down my spine. The … NAME … of the frigging company doesn’t… MATTER?

I’m a magazine guy and I care at least as much about style and zippy writing—yea, even about imaginative approaches—as I do about news and journalism. But in my view getting the very first things correct matters more than anything. In my view it’s the price of entry.
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The most dangerous writers are those who allow their sources to create their own versions of history.
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Most dangerous in the obvious way are the writers who through recklessness or laziness or stupidity will get you sued, with all that might imply for your career as well as theirs. But a possible secondary effect is almost as bad, because fear of future suits can paralyze you and drain your will to go ahead with hard-hitting stories even by writers who you think are reliable.

In a less-dramatic way, writers who are great at the pitch but don’t deliver the goods in their stories were always the ones who made me the craziest.
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I was always leery of writers who took on important stories thinking they already knew it all. Big stories are usually too complicated for someone to really know the truth about at the outset, and preconceived ideas have a way of crumbling as real reporting takes place. The problem arises when the writer’s ego—and commitment to his original notion—gets in the way of his uncovering the real story. I’ve seen that happen.

I don’t know if they are dangerous, but equally annoying are writers who love the sound of their own voices more than they care about the stories they have to tell. Overwriting, imputing motives, belaboring minor points in showy language—nothing makes me want to quit reading (or makes me distrust the writer) faster than that sort of thing.
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About once a year I’d get burned by a freelancer who’d come in with a story that he (or she) had written for a good magazine—I’d read the story and think, “This guy can really write.” So I’d assign a piece and it’d come in a mess–some good reporting and decent writing but very badly thought out. When I was thinking of hiring a writer, I’d always call an editor or two to check out the writer, but for a freelance piece it never seemed worth it. If it was a good clip, you took it at face value.

If you reverse it, I had writers who came in knowing a subject and we’d come up with a good idea and then the piece would come in a mess. I’d invested enough time and money in the story that we’d go to great lengths to get it into publishable shape. After the story was published, I’d think, “This guy is going to use this piece to get an assignment from another magazine and I feel sorry for that editor.”

What kind of writers do you think are the most dangerous to good journalism?  Any further thoughts will be welcomed—either as a comment to this post or as a separate post.

Comments

  1. All these grumps against us “dangerous” writers make me feel mopey. All we do is give up all security and peace of mind for life to buy our own equipment and supplies, turn on our own lights, and let you pay only for work done and ignore us the rest of the time. Hmpf. I could list dangerous (to our careers) things editors do, believe me. I once had an editor let a govt source rewrite my whole story. I also had an expert reviewer at a very well-known website change some crucial medical info from correct to incorrect. That was fun.

    But then, after calming down, I realized both writers and editors have a common enemy: sources! LOL. I once, early in my career, asked a woman named Dina did she spell her name D-I-N-A? She said, with sarcasm I was supposed to “get,” No–D-E-E-N-A. So used that, which of course was wrong.

    What a business this is!

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