No, You Can’t Tell Much About a Writer By Listening to Him

In the preface to the book, Editor to Author: The Letters of Maxwell E. Perkins, the legendary book editor is quoted as saying: “You can tell more about a writer by listening to him than by reading something he wrote.”

Perkins dealt mostly with fiction writers, which may be why that seems so at odds with what I found working with writers. Early on as an editor, I got burned time after time by relying too much on how well a writer talked about a story. After paying too many kill fees, I learned to talk with prospective writers but then read what they previously had written before saying yes to a story.

Wondering if other magazine editors had similar experiences, I asked: “When dealing with writers, did you focus mostly on what they had written versus how well they talked about a story?”

From Ed Kosner, who edited Newsweek, New York, Esquire, and the New York Daily News:

“I only cared about how they wrote. Over the years, I worked with writers who were frighteningly articulate and others who could hardly describe what they wanted to do. Some of the big talkers were pedestrian writers and some of the mumblers wrote like a dream.

“Whether they were talkers or monosyllabic, the one thing I hated to hear when someone turned in a story was, ‘I love this piece’—which almost always meant it was overwritten or self-indulgent. The pieces handed in diffidently were invariably the better ones.”

From Dick Babcock, an editor at New York, then editor of Chicago for 20 years, now a j-school teacher and novelist:

“I’m with you exactly. Let me see something in type. I grew to be wary of people who talked a great game—it was as if they were so busy gassing on that they didn’t have time for hard reporting.

“I find it very odd that Perkins had an opposite reaction. I’m sure it has to do with the fiction/nonfiction divide, but there still seems to be a chasm between the ease of gabbing away and the discipline of putting words in careful, thoughtful order in written sentences.”

As for not trusting great talkers, Phil Merrill, the longtime publisher of the Washingtonian, often had worked in government and he liked to say: “The most dangerous people in Washington are bright, charming, and articulate but with very bad judgment.”

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