The Good Cop, Bad Cop Approach to Writers and Deadlines

By Jack Limpert

A memo I once sent to the Washingtonian’s editorial staff:

We paid a price in July for too much last-minute editorial copy and too much helter-skelter production.

There is no jump line on the Supreme Court story. The reader gets to the bottom of page 103, the story obviously doesn’t end, the reader turns the page, and it’s the start of a real estate story. The reader is lost.

In Best & Worst, we said Congressman Mel Price was going to seed. He died April 22.

There were other problems too depressing to list. The point is that in the past we’ve been lucky—we’ve been able to avoid a lot of disasters. But if we continue to run this kind of editorial operation we’re going to pay for it.

We’re too good a magazine to let this happen. We have to meet deadlines.

A follow-up note from the deputy editor:

Most of you work very hard, do an excellent job. But some of you are better than others at meeting deadlines. Some of you, in fact, are better than some editors at meeting deadlines. But others of you are causing larger problems that you might imagine. Problems, as Jack’s memo indicates, for everyone.

It may be useful for you to understand that that an editor whose performance as seen by the boss as lacking, simply because he or she has to do too much in the rush at the last minute, is a vindictive editor.

Help stamp out vindictiveness.

Start meeting deadlines.

Help prolong your career.
Deadlines are a bigger problem at monthlies than at weeklies and dailies. I started out at UPI, where they liked to say there was a deadline every minute. Every day you filed copy as fast as you could. Writer’s block? You’ve got to be kidding.

At the weekly papers where I worked everyone seemed to adjust pretty easily to deadlines. A writer had four or five days to produce copy and it then quickly appeared in print and you went on to the next week.

But at a monthly magazine a writer might have two or three months to work on a story and then be expected to produce a very solid piece of journalism. Higher expectations, more time to procrastinate.

At the Washingtonian, free-lancers weren’t the biggest deadline problem—though one well-known writer said, after I called him about missing a deadline, that it was too hot to write.

For a September issue, the deadline for stories was July 15 and most free-lancers, eager to get published, delivered by that date. That gave editors three weeks to edit and fact-check the piece and send it off to design and get it ready to be published about August 20.

The bigger problem were staff writers and regular freelancers who knew that a piece could be delivered as late as August 1 and still make it into the September issue.

The publisher and design staff would tell the editors that if a writer doesn’t meet the deadline don’t run the story. But as editors we wanted to publish the best issue, the best stories, and if it was a late but good story it probably appeared in the next issue.

We only came out 12 times a year. How can you not publish your best stuff?

Thus the constant battle to get stories in by the deadline.

What does it mean that those who had the most trouble meeting deadlines were the magazine’s best writers? Did they think too much, rewrite too much? Or did they know they were so good that they knew we could not publish their story?

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