How Do Editors Decide Yes or No

By Jack Limpert

I’ve talked with a lot of editors about how they do their jobs—looking for talent, managing their time, dealing with publishers—but rarely about how do you decide whether to say yes or no to a story proposal.

So I asked Dick Babcock, a long-time editor at New York and Chicago magazines, now writing books and teaching at Northwestern’s Medill School of Journalism, how he decided. He came back with this:

For my students, I’ve tried to dissect what makes a story (a feature or narrative story), and I came up with these four criteria:


Obviously, there are many caveats. “Interesting” can vary among audiences—what’s interesting to subscribers to Cat Fancy may not be interesting to fans of Vanity Fair. What’s more, something can be interesting (random gossip; a pothole in shape of Abe Lincoln’s profile) without being important enough to merit a story.

Freshness is clear—you can’t do another story on Bruce Jenner without something new.

As for gettable, I use the example of the Russian taxi driver who tells me that his wife’s second cousin lives in Moscow and swears that Vladimir Putin goes home at night, snorts cocaine, and throws sex parties where guests dress up as Disney characters. Interesting (if true) and fresh, but almost certainly not gettable.

I arrived at the four elements by trying to pick apart the analysis I would go through in green-lighting stories.
My reaction was that’s all very analytical but I think there’s more to it. What I sent back to Dick:

I used to say we’d publish any story that made the reader laugh or cry. Finding good humor is really hard, but we were pretty good at finding emotional stories that might make you shed a tear. Mostly they were stories that showed people dealing with an illness or some other challenge. Overcoming tough breaks, tough times. I found women writers better at those stories.

I liked stories that appealed to the reader’s idealistic side—this could make the world better. Righting wrongs. Giving people a fair chance.

And service stories that appealed to the reader’s self-interest side—this  story might make my life better.

I looked for stories that appealed to the reader’s emotions and I always thought every issue of a magazine needed a mix of those.

Stories that appeal to your mind? I always loved explanatory pieces—stories that made readers say now I understand. And investigative pieces—stories that made the reader say wow, I’m glad somebody is going after that.

Good feature writers, people who can write light, are almost a breed apart. You have to trust their instincts.

Aside from the subject matter of the story, I also tried to figure out: Does this writer have an interesting mind?

And as for the subjects of stories, I was more interested in the idea behind the story.

I’ll keep thinking. Any other ideas much appreciated.


  1. ekosner says

    Was it boring?
    Did it matter?
    Was it honest?
    All you need to know.

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