I Have to Do This Story vs. I Want to Do This Story

By Jack Limpert

In talking with other editors, one question that comes up is how much an editor should format a magazine or newspaper—how many features or writers should appear on a regular basis?

Many readers do like anchors in a publication—regular features the reader can look forward to and easily find. It can be a this-is-what-I’m-thinking column by a writer, such as Thomas Friedman in the New York Times, or a column—with lots of reporting—written on a subject, such as the Dr. Gridlock traffic column in the Washington Post.

At The Washingtonian, we had lots of monthly anchors—the Dining Out column, the What I’ve Learned question and answer feature—but I never found a writer I wanted to have do a this-is-what-I’m-thinking column every month. That anti-column feeling was partly a result of reading so many newspaper columnists who seemed to struggle to come up  with something interesting to say on a fixed schedule.

I also remembered the Washington Post Magazine, a weekly, once deciding to do theme issues. This week the theme is radio in Washington. Next week the magazine will focus on tennis. I thought it was a dumb move—one of those ideas that sounds okay around a conference table but not in the real world of writing.

It all comes down to having writers doing stories they have to do—damn, the piece is due tomorrow—versus doing pieces they  really want to do.

As an editor, I  wanted to sit down with a writer and come up with an idea that we both wanted to get done. Often the writer has the idea and the editor just says sure. But lots of times the editor and writer bounce ideas back and forth and finally agree that, yes, this sounds good, this could be terrific. When will it be published? When the writer and editor are both smiling.

The fun of editing—and I suspect a lot of the fun of writing—is doing something you really want to do and being happy with the way it turns out. That’s different from the editor telling the writer to come up with 600 words or 3,000 words on some subject the writer has little enthusiasm for.

So I always thought that the more an editor formats a publication, the more the writers go to work and think: I have to do this.

I thought you had a better chance of getting good journalism if the writer is thinking:  This could be great. I really want to do this.


  1. “WHAT I’VE LEARNED” — the Ken Adelman edition — is the one regular Washingtonian feature I recall precisely and fondly from my pre-1990 readership of Washingtonian. I cut out several, and I think I even know where the clippings are today.

    I recall Adelman headed Arms Control and Disarmament Agency during part of the Reagan administration, so no obvious journalist / interview background there. Did he then bring a fresh technique to the monthly feature? Was I attracted to it especially because of my stage in life at the time (my 20s). What will draw in the reader’s positive relationship with a regular feature—the subject matter or the author? Would I have read a monthly column, “WHAT I THINK,” with the same enthusiasm?

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