Participants at the Nieman Narrative Journalism Conference.
A good reporter sees the world and questions. Everything they do is in the form of questions. Their lives are a major jeopardy game.
A really good editor sees the world in terms of problem solving, and they have all of these logistical minefields to negotiate through the day.
If the writers out there can see this world and what the editor is up against with the goal of taking all these wonderful ideas and questions and figuring out how to get them into this box, or into the magazine version of this box and, eventually, how to get them up here with the picture and art and not have any of them go away. Make those two worlds merge because, quite frankly, we need each other. Whether or not we think we’re on opposite sides, we only do stories when we do them together.
One day I realized as a writer, I was blaming my editor. I had spent 15 years blaming my editor for not being perfect, for not understanding me, for not knowing when I was having a bad day, for not having a perfectly toned ear. So I walked into his office one day and I sat down and I handed him a document, and he said, “What’s that?” And I said, “It’s the owner’s manual.” And he said, “Well, what do you mean?” I said, “I’ve listed for you who I am. I’ve sat and thought about my process as a reporter and writer, who I am, what I do. And I’ve listed the things that if you do these things, I will be loyal to you and follow you around forever and be your best advocate and guardian angel in the newsroom.”
And he looked at it and said, “Well, what are we supposed to do with this?” I said, “I’m trying to give you a language to negotiate with me when we have problems. I’m trying to let you know where my motherboard of push buttons are because I don’t want to battle with you, I want this to work. I want it to work for you, for me, and for the newspaper. And I realize it’s time I take responsibility for that. Now, what do you need from me?”
And it occurred to me, very seldom do writers ask editors, “What do you need?” “What are you up against?” But by giving him that, I opened the door. Now, the reason that owner’s manual was important was because it taught me some things. It forced me to assess myself, to take kind of a fearless and searching moral inventory of myself as a reporter/writer. It forced me to articulate what I need, what gets in the way, and what helps when I’m writing. It forced me to identify gaps in the process and then to take stock of who had responsibility for those gaps. Was it me? Was it the editor? Was it the system? Was it just the news of the day? So I could quit kind of being in this battle and wasting time.
Most importantly it created this contract between us. And I’ve used it ever since and with writers as an editor: “Here’s my contract. Where’s yours?” Mostly what I like about it is you have to assess your process and your writer’s process—or, if you’re a writer, your process and your editor’s process.
The relationship between the reporter and the editor is one-on-one. The relationship among the editor and writers/reporters is one-on-four, one-on-eight, one-on-50, one-on-300, depending on what level the editor is at. You need to let the writer know that, because as the writer, I lose sight of it. I’m only worried about my story. My editor occasionally has to let me know there’s a bigger world out there, treat me like an adult and say, “Let’s negotiate the rest of this context so you know what you’re doing.”
I have what I call the seven-out-of-10 rule in life, which is, if you can list 10 things you really want in life—out of a partner, out of an editor, out of a job, out of a house—if you’re really lucky and really smart, you’ll get seven.
For writers this rule is really important because they need to understand that no one editor can give them everything. Some editors are great at line editing, they’re skilled with looking inside words and figuring out how to restructure them so it has just the right tone and pacing. Some are real good puzzle masters: They can look at a story and figure out which pieces go where and what’s missing and which are just sort of out of sorts. Some are very good “heart” editors: They can hold writers’ hands and make them feel like, yes, everything is possible, you can do this work. Some are very good political editors: They can maneuver through the system to get stuff taken care of and elbow things out of the way.
Very few are good at everything. So if the writer learns that they can’t expect the editor to be everything for them, then my challenge to editors is, you can’t try to be everything for your writers. You can’t try to own them entirely: You have to give them permission to go to other places where they’re going to get those needs met.
Part of the reason that I really believe in having this big discussion ahead of time about who are we and what do we want from each other is so we know what mutually we’re committed to. Writers are committed to their stories, but they also have a lot of other stuff going on—ego, competition in the newsroom, concern about where they stand in the pecking order, lack of knowledge about where they stand. There is no such thing as enough feedback for a reporter and writer. You can talk to them 12 hours a day and, you know what, they need 13.
And many editors are very good at telling writers what’s wrong—that there’s something wrong with their copy or their story. Very few are good at telling them what’s wrong with it in a specific way, and extremely few are good at helping them come up with options for what might be better about it and at the same time leave the ownership in the writers’ hands. It’s a very rare quality. “Here’s where I stumbled as a reader, and here were the speed bumps. Here’s what got in my way, and let me suggest a few options. Here are some ways to think about making it better.” That’s very rare, and writers don’t get much of that.
Start opening up and being honest, because your writers need that from you. I would encourage you to ask your reporters to open up their process so you can see what they need and how they work and how they think, so you can start working in it. Communication all along the line so the writer can get course-corrected or can vent or can panic and the editor knows when to course-correct, what needs to be addressed, and how to calm the panic. By the end, then, you’re totally in sync and you can say things like, “Gee, Dan showed up in your story way too often, let’s peel him back,” because by then the writer’s like, “Yeah, okay,” because you’re in it together, and it still feels like theirs.