Asking Harold Hayes How to Be a Great Editor

Jay Fielden is out as editor of Esquire, the New York Times reports. He lasted three years.

Fielden succeeded David Granger, who had edited Esquire for 19 years, winning awards and keeping it afloat as the  digital revolution began to decimate print magazines.

Esquire’s glory years were 1961 to 1973, when Harold Hayes made it the country’s best magazine, pioneering the New Journalism with writers like Gay Talese, Tom Wolfe, and Norman Mailer. For a great look at the Hayes years, see “The Esquire Decade,” by Frank Digiacomo in Vanity Fair.

In 1977, four years after Hayes left Esquire, I wrote him. I sent him an issue of the Washingtonian and asked his advice on how to improve the magazine. “Esquire under your direction is my favorite magazine of all time,” my letter began.

He wrote back, “Thanks for sending me a copy of the April issue, which I liked lots.” After the obligatory kind words, he said, “It is still awfully tight in presentation given the great number of pages you have.” Reading his letter now, I expect what he really was thinking was that this guy has no clue but maybe I can talk some sense into him.

He then agreed, for $1,000, to look at several issues and come down from New York and spend a day with us in Washington. I have two pages of notes summarizing his advice. Here’s some of it:

Put Xeroxes of the center section up on a wall so you can see how pages relate to one another.

Get some sample copy set in what you’re now using and also in nine on ten Times Roman.

Pick a basic head face–use a consistent face for decks and quotes.

Use the magazine logo on the opening spread of the center section.

Keep the front of the book as tight as possible.

Make more use of quotes—use bigger type, shorter quotes.

Type on cover almost unreadable—too small, not enough contrast.

Consistent style for department illustrations.

Use more quotes as captions—try to make captions better teasers.

Not enough change in scale in photos–everything looks middle distance.

Too many mug shots in magazine—pictures of people are good but make them good pictures.

Stop repeating illustrations, elements of illustrations.

Spreads should pull together as spreads—now look like separate pages.

Jump more stories out of the center section—open it up more.

Don’t bop around so much. Stop trying to use so many tricks. The key is clean, tasteful, bold, simple.

All helpful design advice but what I think I really wanted was for Hayes to tell me how to be a great editor. That, it became clear in our one-day discussion, wasn’t something that could be communicated.

So for the $1,000 I didn’t find out what made Hayes great. He was the most interesting editorial mind of the 20th century but he couldn’t tell anyone how to have an interesting mind.

He’d probably say to learn to be a good editor read interesting books and magazines and newspapers and try to absorb what makes them good. The same for writers: Read interesting writers and hope it makes you better.


  1. Several regular readers emailed me to point out that this sentence has an apparent typo:

    “Get some sample copy set in what you’re now using and also in nine on ten Times Roman.”

    My response:

    This doesn’t need fixing. Nine on ten Times Roman is type lingo–it means the Times Roman type is nine points (a size measurement) in depth in ten points of space. Those were the old days when magazines were readable.

    Now, with the number of pages declining, art directors make the type smaller and smaller–often six on seven or seven on eight. Most art directors don’t care if readers read the stories–they think flashy design is what magazines are all about.

    But maybe small type bothers old editors more than young readers.

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