A Writer Asks What Makes Editors Tick: Here Are Some Clues

By Jack Limpert

At a meeting of magazine editors, three writers were asked to talk about what they wanted from editors. At the end of the session one of the writers said, “I’d love to see psychiatric profiles of the top editors.”

What I’ve learned about how editors think:

For about 30 years, the editors of the biggest city magazines got together once a year for a long weekend to talk about what we were doing and how we could do it better. We all were different but there was one split that persisted: Some of us were talkers, some of us listeners.

I was one of the listeners and during coffee breaks the listeners often would gravitate toward one another. I think we thought we were smarter than the talkers but a few of the talkers became successful, showing that for editors—and writers—there are different paths to success. But on balance the listeners were more successful and lasted longer in their jobs—many of the talkers came to one meeting and were gone.

Back in the 1980s and ’90s I was on the board of the American Society of Magazine Editors and went to New York City for regular lunch meetings. Most of the ASME board members edited magazines that were part of Hearst, Conde Nast, and the other big media companies. And many of the editors were talkers who were used to being the most important talker at any lunch meeting, which created some wonderful moments.

I’ve always been a note-taker and on the day of one board meeting I rushed up to New York City with note paper but no pencils or pens. I was like a chain-smoker with no cigarettes. As we stood and talked before the luncheon, I asked various editors if they had a spare pencil. Not a chance, though one offered to let me borrow his Mark Cross pen. My reading was that most big-time editors didn’t do much listening and taking notes.

I think the best editors are mostly warm-blooded—supportive and encouraging—but capable of killing stories and firing someone when it has to be done. Ruth Whitney, the legendary editor of Glamour, once told me she didn’t like to get to know her writers too well because it made it too hard “to play lord high executioner.”

Being a slow-thinking editor (“Let me sleep on it”), I’ve always thought fast-thinking was overrated and in 2011 enjoyed the book, Thinking, Fast and Slow, by Daniel Kahneman. He has two ways of thinking: Fast thinking operates automatically and quickly, with little or no effort. Slow thinking, Kahneman says, gives attention to effortful mental activities and can override the impulses of thinking fast.

Kahneman’s slow and fast thinking ties into one of my favorite quotes from the late Phil Merrill, longtime publisher at The Washingtonian: “A lot of damage is done by bright, articulate people with very bad judgment.” I think Phil would agree that fast thinkers often are people without particularly good judgment. Bright, articulate people not only may not be good editors but they often don’t write well. Many of my early mistakes with writers were the result of my thinking that good talkers are likely to be good writers.

Maybe most important, the really good editors aren’t bureaucrats—they don’t love running meetings, they don’t need their egos stroked. They have to manage well-enough to get things done but they care most about finding good writers—people with passion and interesting minds—and they take the time to talk to those writers, to find ways to get the best out of those writers. They live for the great story.

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