An Editor Says a Lot of Yes and No

Is this story going to run? Should we lead with this photo? Any raises going to be given out mid-year?

Saying yes was easier than saying no, and the hardest no was talking to a writer who wanted to do a story and had a good idea and was full of enthusiasm. An editor has to love that kind of enthusiasm, but at magazines, less so at newspapers, much less so in the digital world, a lot of pretty good ideas don’t result in a published story. If we had 100 edit pages in the next issue of the Washingtonian, maybe four or five big pieces could run and four or five got pushed back and a few of those never did see the light of day. So editors learn the hard way that saying yes too often can lead to headaches down the road.

One problem I had at the start of life as an editor was thinking that writers deserved a good reason if their story was going to get a no. I’d listen to the pitch and if I couldn’t come up with a decent reason for saying no, I’d often say okay. Then I’d wake up the next morning and think, I’m not so sure that story idea I said yes to yesterday is going to work.

Actually, when I had listened to that story idea, there likely were doubts bouncing around in my head but I couldn’t express them clearly so I didn’t say them out loud. The next morning, though, it had dawned on me why the story idea maybe wasn’t going to work. And then I had two bad choices: Either keep quiet and hope for the best or tell the writer I wanted to take back the yes and we’d have to talk about it again.

The lesson for editors: Once you say yes, it’s very hard to take it back. But it’s easy to change a no or maybe to a yes.

In Daniel Kahneman’s book, Thinking Fast and Slow, he writes about two systems of thinking. System 1 operates automatically and quickly, with little or no effort. Examples include: Drive a car on an empty road. Answer a 2 + 2 question.

System 2 allocates attention to the mental activities that demand it. It can overrule the freewheeling impulses and associations of System 1. The diverse operations of System 2 require attention and are disrupted when attention is drawn away. Some examples of System 2: Tell someone your phone number. Fill out a tax form.

It’s instinct versus rational thinking. When an editor is deciding on a story idea, both come into play. What I was doing early in my  editing career was focusing on rational thinking. As time went on, I learned to trust my instincts.

When Abe Rosenthal stepped down as executive editor of the New York Times in 1988, I wrote him, asking if he’d be interested in writing a piece for us titled “If I Ran the Washington Post.” I knew Rosenthal had no love for Ben Bradlee, executive editor of the Post, and I thought maybe he’d take the opportunity to put the needle into Bradlee. I got back a hand-written note saying “It’s an interesting idea but a little bird is telling me not to do it….” If you have to tell someone no, that’s another way to do it.

I often felt an editor has to say no ten times for every time you say yes. Caroline Miller, once editor of New York magazine, told me that her most dangerous time of day was late in the afternoon when she was tired and it seemed harder to say no. The solution when in doubt: “Let me think about it overnight.”

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