About Editing

Editors at Work: Doing Stories About People

By Jack Limpert

Let’s say that one rule of magazine editing should be that you can’t have too many good people stories. I’m old enough to remember when People magazine started in 1974. The Time magazine reporters I talked with back then laughed it off, saying that Time was real journalism–politics, the economy, world affairs–while People was just celebrity fluff. But People was very shrewdly edited, mixing plenty of stories of real people in with the celebrities. As the years went by, People  grew and grew and Time and the other newsmagazines got smaller. U.S. News & World Report is gone, Newsweek is on life support, and Time’s ad and circulation revenues continue to fall. How much do readers value People and Time? A year of People is $112, while Time is $30. Ad revenues are even more skewed in favor of People.

One way a city magazine can get more pieces about people is to run a First Person column. It’s a way for writers to tell their own life stories–the kind of stories they might tell a cousin or friend–and it’s also a way to get contributions from people who don’t make a living as writers but who’ve had a life experience that has some emotional impact. The best of these are life-affirming, showing that virtues like resiliency and courage and passion are what’s really important. The best of them can bring tears to the eyes of readers, and if you can make readers laugh or cry, you’ve got a good story.

The Washingtonian runs its First Person column on its back page and the column’s editor, Bill O’Sullivan, actively solicits contributions from readers. Bill first came to the magazine as an editorial intern–our best source of young talent–and after the internship joined us as an assistant editor. He developed an interest in the personal essay and fiction, taking workshops at a local writer’s center. He then left us and went back to college, getting a master’s degree in fiction from DC’s American University. Heading back to editorial work at magazines, he became managing editor of Common Boundary, a magazine about psychology and spirituality, and then he was a senior editor at the Center for Public Integrity.

In 1999 he returned to The Washingtonian as features editor and since 2007 has been senior managing editor. He says studying fiction has helped him better understand how to write and edit personal essays and First Person pieces. “Just about everything I learned as a fiction writer is just as applicable to the personal essay,” he says. His own writing has been cited three times among the notable essays of the year in The Best American Essays. He recently wrote his own First Person piece for us: In the magazine it was called “One Last Time” and was about the emotional impact of selling the family house after 50 years. http://www.washingtonian.com/blogarticles/20821.html

Here are Bill’s suggestions for coming up with good First Person stories.

As editor of The Washingtonian’s back-page First Person department for the last 13 years and of many longer essays that appear in the magazine, I’m often asked what makes a good first-person piece.

Because the back page is only about 600 words (sometimes less, depending on the art), the most important things there are that you have something to say, that you get to your subject fast, that you write about an experience or experiences (as opposed to opinions—there’s another place for that, the op-ed page of a newspaper), and that you fill the piece with as many details and mini-anecdotes as possible.

By “something to say” I mean a story that really means something—or that at least contains an honest stab at finding meaning—as opposed to an incident that merely happened to you. That’s a dinner-party anecdote, while a successful first-person piece is an essay.

The harsh truth of any personal writing is that just because it happened doesn’t mean it’s interesting. It’s your job to make it interesting.

There are very few original stories out there but lots of original ways of telling them, of burrowing in—whether directly or between the lines—to get at what you discovered about yourself, the world, or the place you live.

When combing through unsolicited manuscripts, I look for fresh voices, unexpected ways of putting words together (not to be confused with writing that calls attention to itself), and, yes, simply interesting stories. Probably the two most common first-person submissions I get: (1) comparisons of Washington to another city—whether that’s the place the author is from or the one he or she has just moved to—and (2) pieces by parents who find themselves driving a minivan and wonder, “How in the world did I become a person who drives a minivan?” There must be surprising and original ways of writing about these subjects, but I haven’t seen them yet.

Some of my favorite back-page articles we’ve run in the last year or so are a piece [http://www.washingtonian.com/blogarticles/21150.html] by a 15-year-old heart-transplant recipient who met her donor family; an eightysomething man’s story [http://www.washingtonian.com/blogarticles/20581.html] of how a fraternity pin in the 1950s led to a 60-year marriage without his ever having proposed; an essay [http://www.washingtonian.com/blogarticles/19733.html] by a public defender about why she does work that many find indefensible; and a reminiscence [http://www.washingtonian.com/blogarticles/18841.html] about a Beatles obsession in the early ’60s and how it bonded the author with a pen pal.

Some arrived in my in box pretty much finished, while others required working with the author through revisions. But all caught my eye because they had something worth saying, a distinctive way of doing so, and lots of specific details and examples (or at least the potential for them—see previous comment about revisions).

The same elements generally apply to longer essays—you just have more room to tell your story. One memorable piece by former Washingtonian senior writer (now contributing editor) Cindy Rich, “When Jared Stopped Smiling,” [http://www.washingtonian.com/articles/health/6423.html] movingly told of a friend’s suicide and its impact on their circle of twentysomethings. It was cited as a notable essay in that year’s edition of The Best American Essays. In our August 2011 issue, we published two personal essays in addition to the back page—one [http://www.washingtonian.com/articles/health/20302.html] by a mother writing about a yoga retreat she took with her daughter and the transformations that occurred, the other [http://www.washingtonian.com/articles/health/20301.htm] by a former college professor writing about his struggle with Parkinson’s disease. One of the most unusual things about the second of those, by Kermit Moyer, is that it’s written in the third person. Writing a first-person piece in the third person is a gimmick I’d almost always advise against, but I believe he really pulls it off—in fact, the point of view is an integral part of the story, for reasons that become clear by the end.

A final note about first persons for a city or regional magazine, which is probably obvious to editors but not to all writers: The stories should have a relationship to the place the magazine covers. In some cases, the main connection is that the author lives there—for instance, not every back-page piece we run contains overt references to the Washington area. But we would never publish a piece set substantially elsewhere, such as an essay by a Washingtonian looking back on his childhood in Brooklyn or Beirut; no matter how long he’s lived here, that’s not a Washington story. In all of our articles, we seek to explore what it’s like to live here.

I love editing first persons because I love reading them. People often tell me the back page is the first page they read. That could partly be because some people naturally start a magazine at the back, but I think it’s also because there’s a universal attraction to storytelling—and story-listening—in humans. We want to know how other people get through the business of living, especially in the place we call home.

First published in the April 2012 newsletter of the City and Regional Magazine Association.

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