Editors at Work: Four Words We Don’t Want to Hear

By Jack Limpert

When we wrote headlines for the magazine, we usually pulled together a half dozen editors and writers to see what we could come up with. Lots of puns and wordplay—it was fun. The challenge for the editor was to come up with a head and deck that might have some mystery or cleverness but still let the reader know what the story was about.

It was even more challenging on the design side. The tendency there was to be really creative, to impress other designers. Sometimes being really creative worked—it helped if the designer actually had read the story.

Then it was the editor’s job to represent the reader: The challenge was to put yourself into the mind of the reader—they’re looking at the story opening without knowing anything about it. What’s this story about? Do I want to read it?

When I vetoed a proposed layout because it didn’t tell the reader enough of what the story was about, the reaction I often got from the designer was:

“They’ll figure it out.”

I’d think, “No, no, no, they won’t figure it out. They’ll turn the page.” What I’d say was, “Let’s try to make it clearer.”

It’s a basic editorial challenge: Editors know what the story is about–we worked on it for a month. Some editors and designers never could blank that out—they assumed the reader had some of their knowledge of the story. And some editors and designers assumed readers would be willing to work just as hard reading the magazine as we did putting it together.

I always pictured the reader on the Washington Metro with maybe 20 minutes to go through the magazine. The reader would turn the page, look at the story opening, and either get hooked in three seconds or turn the page. Washingtonian readers said they spent 96 minutes reading each issue of the magazine, but I still figured if we got the Metro rider, we’d also get most everyone else.

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