How I Became An Editor

Jack Limpert, former long-time Washingtonian editor, asked me to write something about how I became an editor for his excellent blog, well worth exploring. Here’s my response:


I only ever wanted to write. First I wanted to write fiction, but I discovered I never actually WROTE fiction unless I had a hard deadline for a class. So I went in search of deadlines and joined the college newspaper, where I discovered that I actually preferred finding stories in real-life sets of facts to making stories up out of my head. I was lucky enough to get paid for that, and ten years later I was writing long-form enterprise stories for the Cincinnati Enquirer, which was a good gig, but I wanted to go to a bigger, more ambitious and accomplished paper.

I applied to the Miami Herald feature section, and was disappointed not to get the job. A few months later I got a call from Gene Weingarten, then the number two editor at the Herald’s magazine, Tropic. Weingarten said that the feature editor there had shown him the clips of all the applicants for the feature job and asked his opinion. He said he told them there was no contest: they should hire me. They had ignored his advice, but now he was going to be promoted to Tropic editor, and he needed a number two, and he wanted me to apply. I told him the only editing I had done had been in college, and he said he didn’t care. He said what he really needed in an editor was someone who could write a magazine story himself, who understood what narrative nonfiction required and could take manuscripts from good reporters who didn’t understand that and make them over into full-fledged magazine stories. He said that if I took the job, he would be satisfied only if every story I edited turned out as fully formed as if I had written it myself.

I had always admired Tropic, and Gene’s goal intrigued me. So with some regret at “giving up” writing, I took the job. Within a month I realized that not only was editing for a magazine in many ways as creatively challenging, and satisfying, as writing, it was going to improve my own writing in the bargain. Instead of writing a handful of major narrative projects a year, I was managing the creation of scores of them, from the conception to the reporting to the mapping out and final execution. I was, in effect, getting hundreds of reps for the key writing muscles, as well as benefiting from the more elevated perspective that is the inherent luxury of being an editor — intimate with the guts of the story, but at one remove, a general surveying the gory battle from a hilltop bunker, above the smoke and clamor and fog of war that engulfs the infantry.

In the end, I believe, that after editing for almost 30 years now, I am a better writer than I would have been if I had only been a writer. Also, I may have learned something about editing.

Speak Your Mind