Those Damn Editors, Those Flawed Writers

Jack Shafer, media writer for Politico and many years ago the editor of Washington City Paper, this week tweeted:

I’m going to shoot the next editor who calls me asking me if I can recommend an accomplished feature writer who’s young, productive, and willing to work for peanuts.

Some responses on Twitter:

Felix Salmon
but can you recommend a telegenic young woman who can produce big scoops every day or so, while also working to a bonkers post quota, and who is also willing to work for peanuts?

David Fonseca
Look at it this way, at least the editors are ensuring that those writers become bitter nice and early—a necessary feature not a bug in the business.

they just want someone both priceless and worthless

patrick ogle
I stopped writing for other people. …20 years experience. .and I still occasionally get asked to write for “exposure”

Liz Logan
I love how even now that journalism is a smoking pile of minimum-wage rubble, ageism still is front and center.

Albert Spruce
We have squirrels who could qualify if you drop the accomplished part.

James McCaffery

I’m a middle-aged SWM who writes slowly and never for free. I’ve accomplished nearly nothing.

Daniel Gross
wasn’t that City Paper’s successful business (and career-launching) model?
Editors know that things won’t always go smoothly with writers. For the inaugural issue of the Washington Journalism Review, I was asked to describe some less-than-perfect writers I worked with while editing the Washingtonian:

A Death in the Family. A writer who’s done good things for us in the past hustles us for three advances on an upcoming piece. Each time because mother had to have an operation or there was a death in the family. How can you turn down a small advance request when the guy is burying his stepfather tomorrow? There can’t be many relatives left, but maybe he’ll get married and have kids.

Genius Speaks for Itself. The writer can’t spell, can’t construct sentences, but isn’t that what copy editors are for?

Flawed Talent. A writer with credits in New York and elsewhere comes to town. Has good references from local people, which I check out. Agrees to do an article on the Nobel Prize network in Washington, and on pepper and food, a subject on which he claims to be an expert. I give him an advance. Some time later, I get a call from a local restaurateur who says the writer had come in, interviewed him on the subject of hot food, eaten dinner, and bounced the check. We sent the restaurateur the money.

Several months later I get a letter from the writer saying he had lost a political battle at another magazine and “consequently” was backpacking around New Mexico. He would, however, get the Nobel piece in by July I. The pepper piece, alas, had “not hit critical mass.” I answer him, care of a New Mexico bar, and say go ahead on Nobel article, figuring I might as well get what I can out of the guy. Haven’t heard from him since.

They Come at You from All Directions. I call up my favorite restaurant to order a take-out pizza. The guy who answers the phone, a waiter, asks me to look at a piece he wrote—the memoirs of a waiter. I say okay, pick up pizza and article. I give it to our food section editor, who can’t make up her mind about running it. Every time I go into my favorite restaurant, the waiter is there asking me about it. Now I don’t go there as often.

The Strike It Rich Syndrome. A woman, a great writer, always needed advances. One of the rare cases where I personally advanced her money she also borrowed my tape recorder to interview a famous film director. She took the tape recorder to Boston and lost it. Then she went to New York to interview the film director. She moved in with him. I didn’t hear from her for a year. One morning I got a check in the mail from one of the film director’s companies returning the advance money. No note. Never got tape recorder.

Sometimes the Editor Should Keep His Mouth Shut Lesson. A long-overdue piece arrives. Too long and wanders all over the place. Writer says he knows it’s not any good but he figures I can help him rewrite it. All the frustrations of the past year come out and I really lay into the guy, tell him I’m tired of people expecting me to do what any self-respecting professional writer ought to do before he brings a piece in. He is shaken but takes it. I feel better. Next day I get a letter from him saying the reason it took him so long to finish the piece is that he’s got cancer and the radiation therapy has been very hard on him.

Other writer communications:

“Listen, I know this story has a different angle from what we talked about but I think you’ll like it.”

“It’s been too hot to write.”

“I need a quick response because I’m going to Brazil tomorrow for six months.”

“I’m a charter subscriber and my daughter writes beautiful poetry.”

“This story is so hot I can’t talk to you about it over the phone.”

Editors react differently to all this. One editor we had could lie to writers better than they could lie to her. Another sees every letter and phone call as a loaded gun. Which raises the question of why would anyone want to be an editor. Nobody ever comes up to you at a party and says, “That was a great piece you edited,” least of all the writer.

You spend much of your time being a psychiatrist at much less than $50 an hour. You’re a welfare worker without the civil service protection. But then, who in his right mind would want to be a freelance writer?
The psychiatrist fee is low because the Washington Journalism Review piece ran in 1977. Not much in editor-writer relations has changed.


  1. Jack: Now that I somehow find myself as a magazine editor (for Will Hearst’s new mag about California, Alta), I can’t begin to tell you how helpful I find these remembrances and pieces of advice from you about editing. It’s good to know I’m not alone in dealing with the craziness. And your advice a while back about being firm in saying “no” to bad pitches has been particularly valuable. Please keep these posts coming!

  2. Avery Comarow says

    What a topic. I can’t count how many times I would start reading a piece submitted by a freelance (or almost as often from a staff writer) and felt my heart drop. Hate the piece. Where’s the lede? Notebook dump. No transitions. Dull. Why am I reading this crap? What do I tell the writer–find another job?

    Yet somehow most of the time these pieces made it through, and at least a few times over the years a writer has said, “You made it better” and seems to have meant it.

    By then I was probably so sick of dealing with the piece all I could do was smile weakly. Still, years later, I remember the writers who said that.

    The other thing that kept me sem-sane was reporting and writing stories myself. The reporting was so much fun, and the writing reminded me that writing is easy but good writing is very, very hard. At least it was, and is, for me.

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