Secret Santa

What Editors and Writers Wish For in 2003

At year's end, falling revenues and shrinking feature wells have left many editors and writers depressed and prone to squabbling. But Press Clips wants wordsmiths to be happy, so we asked two dozen writers and editors to name the gifts they want most from each other. Of those who responded, nine spoke on the record; six asked to remain anonymous. Though some are older, most of those polled are thirtysomethings, rising talents with long, happy lives ahead of them—if they can all just get along.

Asked to name the gift they want most from writers, many editors bristled, recalling ghosts of assignments past. "More spell check—and less identity theft!" quipped Details executive editor Andrew Essex, referring to a piece Details published last summer whose mysterious author claimed to be Kurt Andersen, but was not.

As the Details incident demonstrated, every editor wants to work with brand-name writers—but stars have their shortcomings, too. An editor at a glossy men's magazine said, "What I want writers to do is not get their agents involved. And don't show it to The New Yorker first." An editor at a women's magazine expressed a similar instinct: "What I would like from my writers is that they put in half as much effort for my stories as they do when they write for The Atlantic."

Some editors wished for better-quality writing, period. "I would ask writers to spend an extra 10 minutes on the lead," said Audubon senior editor Keith Kloor, "so I don't have to apply CPR to a story that seems dead on arrival." Groused one magazine editor, "I'd love a story that I didn't have to fix."

"I would like writers never to use the word 'riveting' to describe a cultural product," said Andrew Hultkrans, editor in chief of Bookforum. "And never write a sentence in a review that can be so easily blurbed that the publicist doesn't have to use creative ellipses."

Boston Globe Ideas editor Alex Star spoke with tongue partly in cheek. "It would be a great gift to editors," he said, "if freelancers were eager to be paid in review copies instead of cash, and if they did not pitch stories simultaneously to the Daily Australian."

A book editor who works for a major publishing house pleaded, "I would like for once for an author to be on time, to have the manuscript literally show up the day that it's contractually agreed to." Mother Jones editor in chief Roger Cohn had a more extreme fantasy, saying, "I wish writers would ask me if it's all right if they hand in their stories a few days before the deadline."

If writers want to please editors, they might read the publication they're pitching to. For example, Cohn said he wishes "conspiracy nuts" would stop thinking of Mother Jones as "a place to peddle their latest conspiracy theories." Entertainment Weekly senior editor Thom Geier said, "I want writers to be able to read my mind and to know everything we've ever written or contemplated writing—which I realize is grossly unfair." Geier recalled a recent pitch about "all the ways in which the battles and characters in The Lord of the Rings are inspired by historical events," a idea the editor said might be better suited to "jazzing up Classical Scholar Monthly."

A features editor for a New York newspaper said one gift she doesn't want is pitches involving trendy subjects about which the writer knows next to nothing. "Teen prostitutes, the World Economic Forum, underage children working in Pakistan," she offered by way of example. "In a tight market, you just don't have space for these stories. Go out and find me a piece of news. Tell me something I don't already know."

Forget gifts. Audubon's Kloor said he thinks query-writing is "a skill that needs to be emphasized in J-school. I've gotten some good queries that synthesize all the angles, but they're usually very one-dimensional."

If you ask writers, it's the editors who need enlightening. One freelance writer sent out this prayer to editors: "Read my proposals. I would consider it a great gift if I ever received thoughtful feedback on a proposal. Proof that they've read the pitch." These days, according to the source, he and his friends feel that "even though we're fairly painstaking, making sure that we're pitching something we can deliver and that has levels to it, the typical response is, 'How about a piece on 36 hours in New Orleans?' "

Another freelancer wished for a responsive editor. "The worst is when you're in limbo," he said. "When you've filed something and you don't know what's going on."

Jesse Kornbluth, who recently left a top job at AOL to resume magazine writing, said he is finding editors "very serious." Asked what he wants from them, he said, "Inspire me. And please don't ask me about my point of view before I've started reporting."

"Respect," said one freelancer. "Just a little respect."

An experienced journalist moaned, "Don't put writers through interviews for a job you don't intend to fill."

"Mostly, what editors and writers want from each other is acknowledgment," said magazine writer Brad Wieners, who has worked both sides of the desk. "An editor wants to hear the writer say, 'Hey, you saved my butt,' and the writer wants the editor to say, 'Thanks for making our magazine great.' "

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