Writing 101: Don’t be Too Quick to Take No for an Answer

By Jack Limpert


Philip and Eleanor Merrill.  Photo by Diana Walker.

Yesterday I went to a celebration of the life of Eleanor Merrill, who with her husband Phil bought the Washingtonian magazine in 1979. They ran it until Phil’s death ten years ago; then their daughter, Cathy Merrill Williams, took over and she continues to run it as a very successful city magazine.

When the Merrills bought the Washingtonian, I had been editing it for ten years. Phil and Ellie immediately brought in some of their key people from the Annapolis Capital newspaper, which the Merrills had bought in 1969, to help us run the magazine in a more businesslike way.

One was Fred Glennie, head of accounting—we saw Fred as Phil and Ellie’s numbers guy. Fred was at the celebration yesterday and I reminded him of how he had almost driven me to look for another job. Under the new regime, whenever I wanted to spend money to improve the magazine, I had to make my case to Fred and he always said no.

This was no way to run a magazine with a lot of growth potential.

One day I was complaining to George Cruze, one of the other newspaper guys Phil and Ellie had brought in to help us run the magazine. George was the ad sales wizard and he told me I was giving up too quickly. “Fred is a three no man,” he said.

He meant Fred’s job was to control costs, and Fred’s strategy was to say no the first time you wanted to spend money. Also the second and third times. The fourth time he’d often say, “I don’t give a damn what you do,” meaning it was a yes.

So I learned to do things Fred’s way and everything worked out well and the magazine’s circulation went from 80,000 to 150,000 in ten years.

As an editor, I didn’t have a three-no policy but did reward persistence. Many a time a writer came in with a story idea and I said no. Some writers wouldn’t take no for an answer, came back to ask again, sometimes with added ammunition, and often we went ahead with the story. And often it was a very good story because the writer felt passionately about it.

When writers are passionate and persistent and editors stay open-minded, great journalism can happen.

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