The Yin and Yang of Being an Editor

By Jack Limpert

In Chinese philosophy yin and yang are opposite forces that interact to form a whole greater than either part. Looking back at  a life of editing, there was a surprising amount of this kind of duality.

Are good editors warm-blooded? Sure. When someone had a story idea that seemed promising, I tried to sit down and talk about it with the writer, making sure we both were on the same page and enthusiastic about taking it on. I always thought that mutual enthusiasm with writers, editors, designers, and everyone at the magazine was key to getting the best work out of all of us.

Are good editors also cold-blooded? You better be. Sit in on a publication’s annual budget meeting and you quickly learn you have to decide where to invest time and money and where to cut. As an editor, I was judged by two numbers: the subscriber renewal rate and newsstand sales. Both are measurements of how much readers want a publication. Yes, there are other ways to judge journalism quality but if readers aren’t interested in what you’re publishing, there’s not much future in it.

Ruth Whitney, the legendary editor of Glamour magazine, once told me that she didn’t like to get to know her writers because it then made it hard for her “to play lord high executioner.” She was referring to whether a writer got published or got paid. But at most publications the editor knows the writers, spends a lot of time being supportive of their work, and only reluctantly swings the axe.

Some editors can’t do it. But to survive, an editor has to be decisive about how you spend your time (this writer is worth five minutes, this one an hour), how much space to give a story proposal (a nice idea but it’s a two-pager), how much cutting you do after the story comes in (“You’re taking out my voice!”) how much to pay (sorry, it’s the best we can do), and when to sever the connection when a writer no longer is worth the money.

Cold-blooded, but publications survive when readers feel they aren’t wasting their time and money by buying the publication.

Yin and yang cuts across all parts of journalism. Reporters and writers use whatever charm and wiles they have to get people to tell them things. Profile writers tend to be especially empathetic: As star writer Lisa DePaulo once put it, “I marry them in the interviews and divorce them at the keyboard.” Warmth and kindness is one thing, journalism is something else.

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