About Editing

What Editors Should Look for in Writers

By Jack Limpert

When I became a magazine editor, I had no clue what to look for in a writer. As time went on, I began to think about left brain-right brain types of writers–left brain types being better at logic and analysis, right brain better at imagination and creativity. The split seemed to play out most noticeably with art directors–we went through lots of them and it seemed that we’d go from one that was creative and disorganized to another that was well-organized and not very interesting.

The editorial challenge seemed to be figuring out what a writer was good at and then matching the writer to the story. When you work with writers and edit their copy, you get a window into the way they think and I’d say to myself things like “good researcher” or “street smart” or “great at getting people to talk.”

Then in 1983 I read Frames of Mind, a book about multiple intelligences by Howard Gardner. He was mostly interested in how a better understanding of intelligence could improve the schools, but it opened up new ways to think about writers. Gardner listed seven intelligences, and the one that schools focused on and rewarded was logical-analytical. But Gardner felt the other intelligences also were important to learning and success.

There’s visual-spatial intelligence–people who probably would be good at architecture, auto mechanics, art directing a magazine. There’s bodily-kinesthetic intelligence–athletes, dancers, surgeons. Musical–good at sounds and rhythms. Linguistic–good at making up stories, doing crosswords, reading. And then there were the intrapersonal and interpersonal intelligences. Intrapersonal is understanding yourself, your strengths and weaknesses, your goals. Interpersonal is good at interaction, at empathy, at understanding others.

Back in the 1980s Gardner came down to DC  from Harvard to talk about the book, and after his presentation, I talked with him and suggested that Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan were good examples of different intelligences at work. He agreed and talked about what Carter was good at (logical-analytical) and Reagan was good at (intrapersonal and interpersonal).

Then in 1995 came Daniel Goleman and his book Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More Than IQ. And in 2011 came Thinking, Fast and Slow, by Daniel Kahneman. He has System 1 and System 2 ways of thinking: System 1 operates automatically and quickly, with little or no effort. System 2 gives attention to effortful mental activities and can override the impulses of System l.

Do any of these theories help an editor? Over the years I moved from good writer-bad writer to left brain-right brain to seeing all kinds of strengths and weaknesses. I’ve had writers who were great at research–one of the best would completely outline the story and then decide the people he could interview to flesh out each part of the story. Others had no interest in outlines or planning–let’s start talking to people and then we’ll figure out what the story is and how to write it. Some had very good b.s. detectors and others had too much empathy. Some had the commitment and energy level to take on a big story.

A memorable example of the different kinds of intelligence was one of the best writers I’ve worked with. She told me that at her Catholic high school her algebra teacher said she was too dumb to be at that school. She was saved by an English teacher at the same school who who told her she was a remarkably talented poet. That gave her the confidence to go to a good college and aim for a career as a writer.

All that suggests that editors can learn something from educators—just as this woman was weak at algebra but strong at poetry, most writers have strengths and weaknesses. And that means an editor should work to figure out a writer’s strengths and then help the writer find the kinds of  stories that take advantage of those strengths.

Conversely,  I had one writer who was a great reporter and one day he came in after doing a big story and said he needed a change, he wanted to write mostly essays for a year. He was a terrific reporter, a good writer, not much of a thinker. He stayed doing what he did well.

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