Good Editing: It’s Not Just Choosing, It Is an Act of Assertion

Esquire’s Harold Hayes.

A passive, inert, dull magazine is usually made up of editors who sit around and wait for writers to send them queries, or pictures, or finished pieces upon which they can react and thus fulfill themselves. Magazine editing is not just the art of choosing, it is an act of assertion.
—Harold Hayes, editor of Esquire from 1963 to 1973.

What gets in the way of assertive editing—the big thing a good editor does—is spending too much time on the many smaller things an editor can do. It’s tempting to burn up the day with the other work: reading everything going into the current issue, making it the best it can be; keeping the publisher, ad director, and circulation director at bay; making sure the design director is designing for the reader, not for other designers; avoiding legal problems; hiring and firing; looking at all the stories already being considered.

Assertive editing? Make time to read magazines, newspapers, and websites, looking for interesting minds. When you find one, send a note. It may lead to a conversation and that interesting mind then writing something for you.

When a good writer is interested in writing for you, don’t ask for a list of story ideas. Have a relaxed half-hour conversation. What are some things—including some offbeat things—the writer is interested in? The interplay can result in an idea you both love. That’s how you get great stories.

Keep up to date on upcoming books and book deals. Some of the best stories can come from a book author looking to promote his or her book, or the author may have a good idea that didn’t fit into the book but makes a good story for you. And at relatively low cost.

Hayes, maybe the best magazine editor of the past 50 years, said that once Esquire editors stopped editing by opening the mail and started asking themselves what Esquire ought to be, they brought the magazine back to life.
The Hayes quote is from Carol Polsgrove’s book, Esquire in the Sixties: It Wasn’t Pretty, Folks, but Didn’t We Have Fun.

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