Working With Writers: A Mistake I Kept Making

By Jack Limpert

When I got my first magazine editing job, I was coming off a fellowship during which I worked with a lot of the national press—they were covering a presidential campaign and it was a great experience hanging around with some of the top magazine and newspaper writers.

Then in my first year at the Washingtonian, I needed lots of freelance writers and reconnected with some of the journalists from the presidential campaign. Most the newspaper writers were good—sometimes a little flat but still good. The surprise was getting my first piece from a Time magazine guy, a man I thought was a terrific reporter. Talk about a story with no organization, no flow—a very tough edit.

I soon was able to grasp that some newsmagazine reporters might have been good at sending files to New York but were not magazine writers. They talked good stories; they just couldn’t write good stories.

It’s an editing mistake easy to make—assuming that a good talker is a good writer—and I made it plenty of times with freelancers. You just can’t believe someone that articulate and smart can’t write.

The reverse, of course, also is true. I once called a technology writer who had shown up as a finalist in the National Magazine Awards. He came in and along with a senior editor I sat down with him to explore story ideas. After a couple of minutes, the senior editor and I exchanged glances—we weren’t connecting at all with this guy. How did he make it into the National Magazine Award finals?

After a few minutes, it hit us: he was a lot smarter than we were. We just had to be patient and really listen. He went on to do several good pieces for us.

You’d think in time an editor always would factor this writing-talking disconnect into his decision-making but good talkers can be so seductive. I continued to sometimes commission pieces after a good conversation and then be disappointed. And that kind of mistake is hard on both the editor and writer.

The obvious solution is to take the time and have the discipline to both talk to writers and read enough of their work. That helps avoid some mistakes but it’s not foolproof. If you’re reading clips from a another magazine, who knows how much editing and rewriting had to be done to make the piece that good. A smart editor would not only read the writer’s work but also call the editors at other publications to find out how much editing work was needed on the writer’s stories. That’s a hassle and I rarely did it. And I almost never got a call from another editor asking me about one of our writers.

We once did a lot of work to take a first-person piece from someone who had been involved in a national tragedy and make a good magazine piece out of it. The writer then got a book contract based on the Washingtonian article. I thought: That poor book editor has no idea what he or she is in for.

The bottom line for editors: Read the writer’s work. Don’t be seduced by talkers. Most important, don’t shy away from writers who aren’t talkers. Writing and talking are different skills.
Here’s an earlier post on some of what editors should look for in writers.

I couldn’t find much research on how writing and talking are different skills. Here’s something from Hamilton College on speaking versus writing. And a piece from Paul Graham on speaking versus writing.

Any suggestions much appreciated.

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