Editors don’t make stories better because we’re pedantic about grammar and sentence structure (although we are) or because we’re better writers (we’re not) or because we have some kind of special insight into what people want to read (we wish). Editors make stories better because we free writers: to experiment, to push boundaries, to explore the limits of their topics. Editors give writers the support they need to take risks, and risks lead to more interesting, thought-provoking stories.
A good story takes you on a journey. Think of it like being on a bus tour. No, really; stay with me here.
The writer is the guide driving the tour bus, taking you past the key sights and using color commentary to explain how they’re linked and to give you context and insight. The reader — you — are sitting on the bus, sometimes listening closely, sometimes lost in thoughts inspired by the trip. And the editor is the person in the passenger seat, keeping track of the time, checking the map so we don’t miss any exits, turning on the A/C when the bus gets stuffy and off again when it gets too chilly, making a note of that interesting new building on the side of the road.
(In case you’re wondering, we’re on a double-decker bus here, because that’s obviously the most fun kind of bus.)
A good tour guide needs to be engaging and in-the-moment, or the tour’s boring. They need to describe things to the passengers in interesting and accessible and fresh ways, and make sure passengers get the detail necessary to understand what they’re seeing. That is, they need to be focused and present. But they can’t be focused if they’re thinking about whether their new anecdote is landing, or about whether a stop has gotten boring and should be removed from the tour. And they can’t be present if they have to worry about logistics — how to deal with a detour or how much gas is left or what that weird clanking noise is. They need someone in the passenger seat taking care of all that. That person — the editor — takes the notes that enable the tour guide to do their thing and helps them hone their delivery for the next group.
Tragically, most double-decker bus tours don’t have editors, so they’re rote and boring and the stops are in the wrong order. But Longreads stories do have editors, which is why Anne Thériault can have fun with the text message dialogues in her “Queens of Infamy” pieces — her editor has his eye on the overall shape of the story. It means Rachel Somerstein can lay her pain bare in “How to Survive a Vivisection,” because her editor is there to make sure that every detail is both checked and handled with the utmost care. It means writers can write, knowing that someone will tell them if a paragraph is unclear or a flight of fancy flutters a little too far, knowing that someone’s making sure facts get checked and typos get found, knowing that their blind spots will be IDed and their strongest ideas brought to the fore.
For the past two years or so, I’ve edited Soraya Roberts‘s culture columns for Longreads. Here’s a selection of the notes I’ve left on her drafts lo these past 24 months:
- Obviously, we are a shitty country. But is it just us? Is this not a larger Western issue?
- It feels like a significant gap in the piece to say that “I believe X” rather than laying out the why. It’s important to explain, not least because the simple statement is going to raise hackles and prevent people from engaging with your actual arguments, but also because then you can compare contrast U.S./French actions later on in the piece to really illustrate the ramifications of this understanding of #MeToo.
- I think you need more of a segue into this quote, and then a little more unpacking; it’ll better set up the final section. I’d put a para break here and then flesh this out a little more.
- Master’s house, master’s tools, why do we never listen to Audre Lorde.
- Small potato? Pshaw. You’re at least a medium-sized potato, with a healthy blorp of sour cream.
The push and pull has (I think) resulted in some remarkable criticism from Soraya, and it’s helped me hone my own philosophies and politics, both as an editor and a human being. Supporting our writers like this is a gift. Every day, I get to ride new buses, see new places, hear new voices. I lend my support to every journey, and in turn learn things that I’ll be able to bring to the next trip I get to go on.
Every Longreads story is a partnership between a passionate writer and an equally passionate editor, and always will be. It’s how we best serve our writers and our readers. When writers have that support and freedom, they produce amazing work that we’re privileged to publish for you.
We can only keep doing this with your support. If I may stretch my already-exhausted metaphor: bus tours aren’t free, and neither is publishing the calibre of work we publish (and compensating writers fairly). We don’t put Longreads stories behind a paywall, but we do ask for your help.
Become a member, or give a one-time gift. Click the button. You know what to do.