“I Liked the Element of Surprise, of Learning Something New”

Screen Shot 2014-10-09 at 9.48.03 AMBy Jack Limpert

William Zinsser, writer, editor, and teacher, turned 92 this week and his 1988 book, Writing to Learn, is still wonderful reading. In it he tells how at age 48, after living in New York for 24 years, first as a New York Herald Tribune reporter and then a free-lance writer, he was moving to Yale to teach non-fiction writing. Here’s how he describes his reaction to being drafted to also edit the Yale Alumni Magazine:

“At first I thought it was an absurd thing for a middle-aged Princeton man to do. But luckily I had a second thought. What quicker way to get to know a great university? Editors are licensed to be curious. Besides, I enjoyed editing more than writing. I liked thinking of story ideas; I liked working with writers and helping them to present their writing at its strongest, and I especially liked the element of surprise. Every day an editor learns something new. I signed up for the job and did it for seven years.”

A job where you learn something new every day—it may be the best part of being a journalist. I was at The Washingtonian for 40 years and almost every day meant working with interesting people and interesting ideas. At a city magazine, we could write about any subject—politics, dining, education, fashion, healthcare—as long as it related to Washington. We got paid to be curious, to learn something new.

Back in the mid-1970s there was an unhappy Washingtonian period and I talked with CBS magazines in New York about editing its tennis magazine. I was playing a lot of tennis and thought editing a magazine about a sport I enjoyed would be fun. The job didn’t work out and I look back and wonder: What was I thinking? How many different ways can you write about hitting a better backhand? After a couple of years of stories about one narrow subject, any editor or writer would go a little crazy.

Which raises the question: As most of digital journalism becomes more vertical and less horizontal, is it harder for journalists to find interesting jobs? At the Washingtonian, we had a stable of writers who could write about anything as long as it was local and interesting. They could write short or long, they could take three hours or three months. No rules, no inflexible formats—just is it interesting, is it a a great read?

A lot of those good journalism jobs—those with the element of surprise—are disappearing. I now talk to more writers who are stuck in narrow reporting jobs—they file six times a day and it’s mostly just grind-it-out journalism. You want a job, you better specialize.

Will some of the good jobs come back as the most successful digital sites move beyond the lists and clicks? Will there be more jobs where an interesting mind like William Zissner could learn something new every day?
For more about the life and ideas of William Zissner, see his website. About helping other writers, he says: “Many younger writers have taken me as a mentor. They just look me up in the Manhattan telephone book. ‘I know how busy you are,’ they say, assuming that I spend every minute writing at my computer. I tell them I have many ways of being busy, and this is one of the ways I like best. I particularly like to be busy with people who want their writing to make a difference and by now I have a small shelf of their books.”

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