What a Psychiatrist Might Say About Editors

By Jack Limpert

At the recent meeting of magazine editors, three writers talked about what they wanted from editors. At the end of the session one of the writers, Jason Fagone, said, “I’d love to see psychiatric profiles of the top editors.”

Psychiatric profiles? Here is some of what I know about editors.

For about 30 years, the editors of the biggest city magazines got together once a year for a long weekend to talk about what we were doing and how we could do it better. We all were different but there was one split that persisted: Some of us were talkers, some of us listeners.

I was one of the listeners and during the coffee breaks the listeners often would gravitate toward one another. During the discussions we’d sometimes look at one another and silently communicate.

I think we listeners thought we were smarter than the talkers but a few of the talkers became quite successful, showing that for editors—and writers—there are different paths to success. But I’d contend that on balance the listeners were more successful, lasted longer in their jobs, and put out better magazines.

Back in the 1980s and ’90s I was on the board of the American Society of Magazine Editors and went to New York City for regular lunch meetings. Most of the 15 or so ASME board members edited magazines that were part of Hearst, Conde Nast, and the other big media companies. And many of the editors were talkers who were used to being the most important talker at any lunch meeting, which created some wonderful moments.

I’ve always been a note-taker and on the day of one board meeting I rushed up to New York City with plenty of note paper but no pencils or pens. I was like a chain-smoker with no cigarettes. As we stood and talked before the luncheon, I asked various editors if they had a spare pencil. Not a chance, though one offered to let me borrow his Mark Cross pen. My reading on the ASME board meetings was that most big-time editors didn’t do much editing of stories or listening and taking notes.

In talking with other editors, I sensed that some of them, especially at the bigger publishing companies, spent more time managing up than managing down. I was lucky enough during my years at The Washingtonian to work for an individual owner, and thus didn’t have to write many memos or deal with layers of bureaucracy, freeing time to work with writers. I’d suggest that people—by temperament or necessity— who spend too much time managing up don’t make good bosses or good editors.

Other ways editors can be looked at:

I think the best ones are mostly warm-blooded—supportive and encouraging—but capable of killing stories and firing someone when it has to be done. Ruth Whitney, the legendary editor of Glamour, once told me she didn’t like to get to know her writers too well because it made it too hard “to play lord high executioner.”

I think the best editors are inner-directed (by an internal gyroscope), not other-directed (taking cues from  other people). (See The Lonely Crowd, by David Riesman, a book published in 1950). The job of the editor is to work for the reader, and I’ve seen lots of editors, and writers, who are trying too hard to impress friends and other journalists at the expense of the reader.

Being a slow-thinking editor (“Let me sleep on it”) , I’ve always thought fast-thinking was overrated and in 2011 enjoyed the book, Thinking, Fast and Slow, by Daniel Kahneman. He has two ways of thinking: Fast thinking operates automatically and quickly, with little or no effort. Slow thinking, Kahneman says, gives attention to effortful mental activities and can override the impulses of thinking fast.

Kahneman’s slow and fast thinking ties into one of my favorite quotes from the late Phil Merrill, longtime publisher at The Washingtonian: “A lot of damage is done by bright, articulate people with very bad judgment.” Phil was a strategic thinker who mostly left the tactics to others and I think he would have agreed that “fast thinkers” could be substituted for “bright, articulate people.”
Two editor quotes that have stuck with me but I can’t find them on Google to get the exact wording:

John Fischer was editor of Harper’s from 1953 to 1968 and he once said that you have no friends when you’re working as an editor. The editor is there only to serve the reader and not to please anyone else.

Anthea Disney, who’s had an interesting career editing magazines and books, once advised fellow editors: If you need a friend, get a dog.


  1. “Anthea Disney, who’s had an interesting career editing magazines and books, once advised fellow editors: If you need a friend, get a dog.”

    This quote is often attributed to Harry Truman but Wikiquotes says it can find no evidence he originated it. Here’s Wikiquotes:

    If you want a friend in Washington, get a dog.

    Despite being quoted as a remark of Truman by both George H. W. Bush and Bill Clinton, this apparently originates from a line in the portrayal of Truman in the play Give ‘Em Hell, Harry (1975) by Samuel Gallu: “You want a friend in life, get a dog!” This was later paraphrased by Maureen Dowd (10 March 1989): “If you want a friend in Washington, buy a dog.” But prior to Gallu’s play their is no actual indication Truman ever said this, according to investigations by David Rothman In “Google Book Search, Harry S. Truman and the get-a-dog quote: Presidential library unable to confirm it” (28 June 2008)

  2. Tim Hays says

    It sounds Trumanesque enough to be accepted as one of HST’s aphorisms. I’ll bet we could find it somewhere in his Independence library– perhaps in the “Mark: Not Sent” file.
    Let’s not forget, though, that the line was immortalized in 1987 by Michael Douglas in the movie “Wall Street” (written by Oliver Stone and Stanley Weiser). . .and we could ask them for their source.

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