If It Makes You Laugh or Cry—Don Moser’s Word for It Was “Loft”

By Jack Limpert

Don Moser, who edited Smithsonian magazine from 1981 to 2001, died December 8 at his home in Sag Harbor, New York, and on December 31 the Washington Post ran a good obit, calling him an editor whose “eclectic vision found a warm reception among readers.”

Moser grew up in Cleveland, graduated from Ohio University in 1957, and studied writing at Stanford under novelist Wallace Stegner. He joined Life magazine in 1961 and was a writer and bureau chief there until Life folded in 1972. He then wrote for the National Geographic before joining Smithsonian magazine in 1977, working for Ed Thompson, the former Life managing editor who was Smithsonian’s founding editor in 1970. He then succeeded Thompson as Smithsonian editor in 1981.

We crossed paths in Washington but I never talked editing with him and was stopped by these three grafs in the Post obit:

He convened no focus groups or committees to tell him what to publish. To maintain the elusive blend of stories, photographs and essays in the magazine, he turned down many more submissions than he accepted.

When he scrawled the letters “FMD” across a manuscript, it had no chance of appearing in print. The letters stood for “fatal middle distance,” or a story with weak reporting, poor focus and a lack of engagement with the subject.

“He was a connoisseur of good writing,” Doherty said. “He appreciated something he called ‘loft,’ or reaching an emotional crescendo.”

FMD? Fatal middle distance? What does it mean? I said no to many thousands of queries and manuscripts during 40 years at The Washingtonian but just wrote “pass” in blue pencil.

I asked Dick Babcock, a longtime editor at New York and Chicago magazines, about FMD and he said, “FMD seems like a story that can’t get over the hump—kind of a good idea, but not enough material to complete a narrative.”

Anyone know more about FMD?

“Loft” is a great editing word. For a writer, “reaching an emotional crescendo” is about as good as it gets. As an editor, I loved stories that had you wiping away tears as you finished reading it.

One of our National Magazine Award wins was “Like Something the Lord Made,” a story about a young African-American man, Vivien Thomas, who wanted to go to college but couldn’t and then went on to change the world of heart surgery. The writer, Katie McCabe, submitted it to us on spec. It was 20,000 words and set in Baltimore, and as a city magazine we almost never ran stories set in places other than Washington. I read it, had tears in my eyes finishing it, and called Katie, thinking we still might run it. I asked her about getting good pictures of Thomas. “Oh, he died five years ago,” she said. Did he have any Washington ties? “No.”

I told her it was a great story but she should try the national magazines. About six months later she called to say none of the national magazines wanted it (she said the New Yorker would consider it if it was cut to 4,000 words) and would we look at it again. Finally we said yes to running it, edited it down to about 14,000 words, and published it, winning the 1990 National Magazine Award for feature writing. The story then went on to be an HBO television movie, winning an Emmy.

It was a story that Don Moser would have said had “loft.”

And a story that made me say many times to other editors: “If a story makes you laugh or cry, don’t worry about the details, just run it.”
Here’s a link to an earlier post about “Like Something the Lord Made” and other stories that invite the reader to enter someone else’s emotional life.
You may have noticed that the Washington Post ran the Moser obit 23 days after he died. That’s fairly typical for the Post—some obits are five or six weeks late. In Washington, the death of a prominent local citizen is no longer news.

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