Editors at Work: What You Don’t Want to Hear from a Designer

By Jack Limpert

An earlier post, Harold Ross and the Virtue of Clarity, had A.J. Liebling, back in 1959, explaining Ross’s passion for making everything in a New Yorker story clear. Liebling wrote: “He would ask scores of marginal questions, including many to which he knew the answer, on the off chance that unless all were pre-explained in the text some particularly stupid woman might pick up a New Yorker in a dentist’s waiting room and be puzzled.”

At the Washingtonian, I tried to emulate Ross’s passion for clarity. In the Writers Guidelines we gave out for four decades, this was the last graf:

One last word: Speak to the reader as an intelligent friend. The best style is clear, honest, and direct. We like sophisticated ideas and simple language, not the reverse. And don’t forget the favorite question of the late New Yorker editor Harold Ross: “What the hell do you mean?”

Most writers were open to making things clear; the most frustrating clarity battles I had were with the art department. The elements of design—the story’s words, head and deck, pictures or illustrations, captions, pull quotes—had to work together to help readers understand enough of the story to get them to start reading it.

When a designer made readers work too hard to understand what the story was about and I tried to make things clear, the classic response I got from designers was “They’ll figure it out.”

No, they won’t figure it out—those may be the four most dangerous words in the battle for the reader’s time.

Ever watched a reader page through a magazine? They get it fast or they turn the page. So keep asking writers and designers, “What the hell do you mean?”

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