How an Editor Can and Can’t Help Writers Do Their Best Work

Sukiyabashi Jiro is a Tokyo sushi restaurant that has been awarded three stars from the Michelin Guide and its sushi master, Jiro Ono, once starred in a charming documentary film, Jiro Dreams of Sushi. As an editor, I couldn’t help watching the film and thinking about what I could learn from how Jiro delivers such consistent high quality.

I figured that running a restaurant must be a little like running a magazine: You’re offering something to the public that you hope they’ll enjoy and they’ll think is worth the money, and your success depends on word of mouth and repeat business. So I watched the film a second time and took notes about how Jiro did his work:

He consistently tries to perform at the highest level. He’s passionate about his work. He sets the standard for self-discipline. He’s never satisfied. He’s always looking ahead.

As an editor, I always wanted any story we did to be better than any previous take on the subject. We had to serve the reader better than anyone else, we had to publish stories that readers would talk about, we had to keep trying to make the magazine better every month.

But then a little voice said, wait a minute, what an editor does is not like what Jiro is doing.

Jiro is training everyone on his staff to think and work the way he does. That’s not what an editor should do. An editor can get some credit for hiring interesting minds and talented writers, an editor can protect the writers from the publisher, accountants, and lawyers, an editor can try to see a story with fresh eyes and help the writer make the story the best it can be, an editor can try to make sure talent gets rewarded. But an editor shouldn’t walk around and tell writers do it my way.

So while Jiro is the most important person at his three-star restaurant, the most important people at a magazine aren’t the editors. When I went to work, I always looked around the office and thought, it’s got to be hard to write great pieces—all the reporting, thinking, and writing—and I should do everything I can to help. And that meant not trying to tell writers how to write but mostly staying out of their way.

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