Can a Great Editor Tell You How to be a Good Editor?

By Jack Limpert

Harold Hayes edited Esquire from 1964 to 1973, creating a magazine that was called “the center of  the new journalism.” To those of us who went into journalism in the 1960s Hayes was the most creative and influential editor of them all. After Hayes died in 1989, Tom Wolfe told the New York Times, “Under him, Esquire was the red-hot center of magazine journalism. There was such excitement about experimenting in nonfiction. It made people want to extend themselves for Harold.”

In 1977, I wrote to Hayes, sending him an issue of The Washingtonian and seeking his advice on how to improve the magazine. “Esquire under your direction is my favorite magazine of all time,” my letter began. He wrote back, “Thanks for sending me a copy of the April issue, which I liked lots.” After the obligatory kind words, he said, “It is still awfully tight in presentation given the great number of pages you have.” Reading his letter now, I expect what he really was thinking that this guy has no clue but maybe I can talk some sense into him.

He then agreed, for $1,000, to look at several issues and come down from New York and spend a day with us. I have two pages of notes summarizing his advice. Here’s some of it:

“Put Xeroxes of the center section up on a wall so you can see how pages relate to one another.

“Get some sample copy set in what you’re now using and also in nine on ten Times Roman.

“Pick a basic head face–use a consistent face for decks and quotes.

“Use the magazine logo on the opening spread of the center section.

“Keep the front of the book as tight as possible.

“Make more use of quotes—use bigger type, shorter quotes.

“Type on cover almost unreadable—too small, not enough contrast.

“Consistent style for department illustrations.

“Use more quotes as captions—try to make captions better teasers.

“Not enough change in scale  in photos–everything looks middle distance.

“Too many mug shots in magazine—pictures of people are good but make them good pictures.

“Stop repeating illustrations, elements of illustrations.

“Spreads should pull together as spreads—now look like separate pages.

“Jump more stories out of the center section—open it up more.

“Don’t bop around so much. Stop trying to use so many tricks. The key is clean, tasteful, bold, simple.”

All helpful design advice and most of it still works. But looking back, what I think I really wanted was for Hayes to tell me how to be a great editor, how to come up with the Gay Talese “Frank Sinatra Has a Cold” kinds of stories that made everyone read and think and talk and admire the magazine.

That, it became clear in our one-day discussion, wasn’t something that could be communicated.

So for the $1,000 I didn’t find out what made Hayes great He was a genius, probably the most interesting editorial mind of the 20th century. But he couldn’t tell anyone how to be great or have an interesting mind. He’d probably say to learn to be a good editor read interesting magazines and newspapers and try to absorb what makes them good. The same for writers: Read really interesting writers and let it all bounce around in your head and hope it makes you better. You can’t buy being good.


I’ve never found a good book about Esquire and Harold Hayes but here’s a link to a very good 2007 Vanity Fair piece by Frank DiGiacomo.

A note from Jack Shafer, the media columnist for Reuters: Have you never read It Wasn’t Pretty, Folks, but Didn’t We Have Fun?: Esquire in the Sixties. I thought it was smashing!


  1. If memory serves, a decent work on Hayes and the period is called, “It Wasn’t Pretty, Folks, But Didn’t We Have Fun?”

  2. david pybas says

    Did you take any of his advice?

    • His more specific design advice was helpful, but most important was his general advice: “Don’t bop around so much. Stop trying to use so many tricks. The key is clean, tasteful, bold, simple.”

      The Washingtonian was my first magazine job and, even after eight years there, I didn’t have much sense of good publication design or confidence that I could play much of a role in the magazine’s design. Before the Hayes visit, I pretty much deferred to a series of art directors.

      After the Hayes visit, I began to push much harder on clarity and simplicity. I figured my job was to represent the reader: Is the layout easily understandable? Is the design faithful to the story? I used the Hayes name to push art directors to read the story and then talk about what it was trying to do, making the design much more of an art-edit collaboration. Simple and bold. Cleverness and tricks are overrated. Stop bopping around so much.

      I guess that’s one virtue of using of a high-profile outside consultant–the consultant can provide ammunition for making changes and staking out a direction and sticking to it. So I think the $1,000 was money well spent. And it sure was fun to spend a day with the great Harold Hayes.

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