Editors at Work: Balancing the Interests of Writers and Readers

By Jack Limpert

Mark Armstrong, who founded Longreads in 2009 and edits the site, put up a post this week titled “Things I’m Working On: Being a Better Editor.” He emphasized the importance of communicating quickly and clearly with writers, paying competitively and on time, giving writers a promotional push, and giving writers a beautiful space for their stories.

The emphasis on communicating quickly and clearly with writers echoes what I heard from writers at a recent meeting of the City and Regional Magazine Association. In a panel discussion titled, “What Writers Want from Editors,” I was  surprised at how little the writers talked about the way editors edit and how much they complained about editors being too distant. Some of the quotes:

“I’ve never heard a writer complain about too much feedback from editors.”

“I wish they’d give me a faster no.”

“Editors are conflict avoiders. They won’t tell you why they don’t like a story.”

“Too much email, not enough verbal contact.”

All good comments. As a magazine editor, I always felt I was juggling too many balls, dealing with two or three issues of the magazine, with all kinds of problems, and I always wanted to communicate better with writers. That said, lots of stories aren’t a simple yes or no.  We always were dealing with a fair number of stories that were pretty good, that might make it into an upcoming issue, that we didn’t want to say no to right away. And it wasn’t always the quality of the story; it also was the balance and size of the next issue.

But that’s the print world. Longreads is the digital world and the big difference between editing a website and a print magazine is space. Mark Armstrong doesn’t have to cut a story to fit it into four or six pages; there are no space limitations on the web. A blessing and a curse.

It makes editing a website much easier. But it doesn’t encourage editors to really edit, to cut lazy and long-winded writing.

It always amazed me what happened when space limitations forced us to cut as much as two columns from a 10-column story, taking 1,000 words out of a 5,000-word piece.  My first reaction always was that’s painful, I hope it doesn’t hurt the story. Then I’d do the cutting, re-read the story, and almost always think, surprise, it’s a much better read.

It wasn’t always the case—there were times when I felt that much cutting couldn’t be done without hurting the story and we made other changes to solve the problem. But in a surprising number of instances that kind of cutting was doing the reader a favor—taking a piece that meandered along at 45 miles an hour and making it go 65. The piece became much more readable without damaging the ideas or the reporting.

So one of the mixed blessings of digital journalism is the unlimited space. The temptation is why have editors at all when space is unlimited?

For writers, not being edited may seem a blessing. But boring readers isn’t good writing or good journalism. And it won’t attract and keep the readers needed to run a successful publication or website.







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