Talking a Good Story, Writing a Good Story

By Jack Limpert

Screen Shot 2016-04-11 at 11.29.15 AMIn the preface to the book, Editor to Author: The Letters of Maxwell E. Perkins, author Marcia Davenport quotes legendary book editor Max Perkins as saying: “You can tell more about a writer by listening to him than by reading something he wrote.”

Perkins dealt mostly with fiction writers, which may be why that seems so at odds with what I found working with magazine writers. Early on as an editor, I got burned time after time by relying too much on how well a writer talked about a story. After paying too many kill fees, I learned to talk with all kinds of prospective writers but then take the time to read what they previously had written before saying yes to a story.

Wondering if other magazine editors had similar experiences, I asked: “When dealing with writers, did you focus mostly on what they had written versus how well they talked about a story?”

From Ed Kosner, who edited Newsweek, New York, Esquire, and the New York Daily News:

“I only cared about how they wrote. Over the years, I worked with writers who were frighteningly articulate and others who could hardly describe what they wanted to do. Some of the big talkers were pedestrian writers and some of the mumblers wrote like a dream. When I had come to trust a writer, all I needed to hear was ‘This is a good one’ or ‘I don’t have it yet, but I’ll get it’ or ‘This one might not work out’ to know what was coming.

“Whether they were talkers or monosyllabic, the one thing I hated to hear when someone turned in a story was, ‘I love this piece’—which almost always meant it was overwritten or self-indulgent. The pieces handed in diffidently were invariably the better ones.”

From Dick Babcock, an editor at New York, then editor of Chicago for 20 years, now a j-school teacher and novelist:

“I’m with you exactly. Let me see something in type. Even story pitches—I almost always wanted them written out. I grew to be wary of people who talked a great game—it was as if they were so busy gassing on that they didn’t have time for hard reporting.

“I find it very odd that Perkins had an opposite reaction. I’m sure it has to do with the fiction/nonfiction divide, but there still seems to be a chasm between the ease of gabbing away and the discipline of putting words in careful, thoughtful order in written sentences.”

From Ken DeCell, a longtime senior editor at the Washingtonian:

“I agree. I enjoyed talking with writers—hell, I enjoy talking—but what they’d written told me a lot more about how they wrote.”

So the talking-writing divide may be the difference between writing ficti0n and writing journalism.
As for not trusting great talkers, Phil Merrill, the longtime publisher of the Washingtonian, often had worked in government and he liked to say: “The most dangerous people in Washington are bright, charming, and articulate but with very bad judgment.” He said he knew a lot of them in Washington think tanks, politics, and government. And some in journalism.


  1. Marcia Davenport wrote one of my all-time favorite books, “My Brother’s Keeper.” I would say some writers are better at spinning yarns orally, some are better at spinning yarns in print — and the very, very rare ones are great at both.

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