Dear Big Name: Here’s Some Money, Please Write Something

By Jack Limpert

The Washingtonian is celebrating its 50th anniversary in October and the question has been asked, “Who were some of our big name writers?”

I’d rather answer the question, “Who were the writers who wrote really good pieces?”

I learned early the perils of chasing big names. Back in the 1970s I’d call the big name writer (or more often the writer’s agent) and ask if big name might write something for us. Think of the prestige, we told ourselves, of blurbing that name on the cover.

Our normal rate back then was, say, 50 cents a word but because of the prestige of the writer we said we’d pay $1 a word. The counteroffer: How about $2,000 for 1,500 words? (You could quadruple those dollar numbers today.)

But chasing big names was hardly ever worth it. I finally learned that almost all good writing is hard work, not something a writer can knock off just for the money. The really good pieces came from a shared passion, a mutual enthusiasm between editor and writer, for an idea, a story. Almost all those pieces took hard work, some mix of great reporting, thinking, and writing.

Samuel Johnson said, “No man but a blockhead ever wrote except for money.” The editor’s version: “No writer does great work just for the money.”

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