Things I’m Working On: Being a Better Editor

Millions of people wish they could be a great writer, but I suspect fewer dream of becoming a great editor. It’s always the writer. I recently met Chris Vogel, the articles editor for Boston Magazine, and he compared being an editor to parenting, because it’s about “selfless love.” “Editors are in the people game as much as the words business.” Editors aren’t the stars, but they’re coaxing, listening, pushing, making the writer comfortable that she can do great work. Maybe they’re part coach or therapist, or maybe they’re just customer support. They can help make someone else shine—or at the very least, get out of the way and do as little damage as possible before passing it along to readers.

I’ve been an editor for a lot of different companies over the years, but if I get down to it, the last decade for me professionally has been more about being an entrepreneur or manager—of projects, ideas, or people—than it has been about the actual in-the-dirt *editing* of stories and words.

When Longreads embarked on Originals a little less than a year ago, it felt daunting to come back to the words again, and also to tackle features in a way that I never had in my career previously. I started my career as a journalist, but I started Longreads purely as a reader and a fan. Longreads Originals forced me to take a much closer look at what it really means to edit a story, and what it means to be a good editor—particularly when building working relationships with freelance writers. How can we draw out the best stories, and the best pitches, from the best writers? How can we become known as a wonderful home for both emerging and established writers? What could I do to become “good,” or at least “better”?

I’ve gotten to know many writers over the last six years, so when confronted with the opportunity to work directly with them on new, original work, I couldn’t pass that up. But I also wanted to confront my own strengths and weaknesses. I didn’t have the depth of traditional “print” experience that others at national magazines might have. I needed to have different advantages. Longreads is new to Originals, we don’t have a history like The New Yorker, so we too needed different advantages. If we wanted to be considered a great place for original journalism—and I think we’re already well on our way—we needed to focus on what distinct advantages we could offer to freelancers.

In venture capital terms—which I hate to use as a comparison, but if it counters the prevailing narrative that freelancing writing is a futile endeavor for the broke or the trust-funded, why not—Marc Andreessen obsessed over “deal flow” to make sure his firm was getting the best startup pitches in the world. Every editor and publisher should be considering this same question. Freelancers are increasingly finding more publishers who could (and should) compete aggressively for the best story pitches. And as I have learned, the best story pitches are still rare.

What could we do well as editors at Longreads, and how are we doing with them? Here’s my own self-analysis:

1. Communicate quickly and clearly with writers, and respond quickly to submissions.

This was something I drastically underestimated. The New Yorker’s Adam Gopnik spoke at Berkeley last fall about the most important thing an editor can do for a writer—and that was, to paraphrase, “return emails quickly!” Like everything else, it comes down to relationships and attention. Writers may have toiled for months on a first draft, so silence must feel like a unique form of mental torture. Gopnik’s words hit me hard at the time, because my inbox was full of emails that I hadn’t yet responded to, and drafts of stories and pitches that were sitting untouched. I felt awful and vowed that I would improve my response times. Right now, I’m giving myself a C: Some days I’m great, other days I’m not.

Vowing to respond faster, sadly, also means knowing my limits—saying “no” more often, knowing my limits, that I can’t be everywhere for everyone.

2. Pay competitively.

I’d give us a solid B- here. We are not quite there in terms of matching what I believe are the top national magazine rates, but I think we’re closing in and will soon be at parity. The biggest issue is that we don’t currently cover travel expenses, which keeps us out of the running for many ambitious stories, but I think with a bit more Longreads Member growth (join today!) in the coming year we can bridge that gap.

Many digital publishers will use their revenue growth to simply fund more stories at the same rate, but I think with #longreads you start to see diminishing returns if you publish too many stories and overwhelm readers. As a publisher you also run the risk of overwhelming your own ability to market and promote a story properly if you’re not giving tentpole stories any time to take hold or doing your best to make sure they are seen. This is why direct reader financing is such a critical piece of the puzzle for online publishers who want to do highest-quality work. The temptation for traffic at all costs is too great to ignore if volume of advertising impressions are your only measure of success.

3. Pay on time and without hassle.

I’d give us an A. We’re pretty solid here, with many thanks to our parent company Automattic. I really hate excess paperwork and hope to cut more of it in the future, but I think our system is already one of the best in the business. Writers invoice, and we pay at the time of publication or sooner.

4. Give writers a big promotional push for their work.

A+. Longreads has built a tremendous following of readers over the past six years on our site, not to mention within the communities of WordPress.com (3 million followers), Facebook (100k+ followers), Twitter (174k followers), and our own weekly email. Even better is that our mission is baked into our name, so people come to us already expecting to read something in-depth. We have a few celebrity followers (we love you Anna Kendrick, Katie Couric, Judd Apatow), and a strong following of publishers, editors, and agents who’ve given book deals to writers we’ve featured.

5. Give writers a beautiful space for their stories.

A+ here, with special kudos going to Longreads designer Kjell Reigstad, who’s created a gorgeous reading experience with minimal distraction—not to mention beautiful illustrations for some of those stories.

What else do writers appreciate in their editors? And who are your favorite people to work with? Give them love in the comments.

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