Just Get the Facts: Four Questions with Jeff Pearlman

Interviews
Jeff Pearlman is the New York Times best-selling author of nine books and the host of the Two Writers Slinging Yang podcast. His weekly journalism substack can be found at pearlman.substack.com


What’s the most important lesson you’ve learned as a writer?

Nothing is as important as I used to believe. I used to live and die with every word, every paragraph, every comma and period—and if an editor dared mess with my copy, I’d prepare for battle. Over time, I’ve come to understand three things: A. I’m not nearly as good as I once thought I was. B. It doesn’t matter nearly as much as I thought it did. C. The stuff that infuriates you as a writer—the reader almost never notices. Like, “You’ve ruined this story by [doing X]!” is almost always nonsense. So having those realizations set me free. And, I hope, made me better at this job. I take myself far less seriously.

What has been the biggest surprise of your writing life?

My dream from boyhood was to become a Sports Illustrated writer. It was everything I wanted. The goal of all goals. Then I achieved it at a fairly young age (I got to the magazine at 24) and sorta kinda came to the surprising realization that chasing a dream is oftentimes more engrossing than the dream itself. I arrived at SI in 1996. I left in early 2003. I loved it—but after a while, it grew sort of stale and repetitive. The dream was 50 years of SI bliss. The surprising reality: It lasted a mere six years.

If you had to use a metaphor to describe yourself as a writer, what would it be?

I’m the chef who never likes his own food. I just find it really hard to not see the warts. I’ll read something I wrote and find every single regret. A word I accidentally used twice. A sentence that sounded better in my mind than it does on the page. On and on. I try making a meal to be served at Per Se, but most of the time it feels like a soggy Whopper Junior.

What’s the best piece of writing advice anyone ever gave you?

My first job was as a features writer at The Tennessean in Nashville. I was 24, straight out of college—and I couldn’t do anything right. Mistake after mistake after mistake. I didn’t listen to people, didn’t seek advice. I was just a cocky fuck. My editor, Catherine Mayhew, sent me to the late-night police beat. “Don’t worry about writing funky ledes, don’t worry about impressing anyone. Just get the facts.” It changed my life.

It’s Not About Fixing the Copy: Four Questions with Alexandra Zayas

Interviews

Alexandra Zayas is a deputy managing editor at ProPublica, running a team of reporters and overseeing senior editors of its global public health and visual storytelling teams. Since joining ProPublica in 2017, stories she edited have won two National Magazine Awards, two George Polk Awards and a Pulitzer Prize for Feature Writing. She worked at the Tampa Bay Times for 12 years, ultimately as the newspaper’s enterprise editor. As a reporter, her investigation into abuse at unlicensed religious children’s homes won the Selden Ring Award for Investigative Reporting and the Livingston Award for Young Journalists and was named a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for Investigative Reporting. She also teaches investigative journalism at Poynter.

Alexandra Zayas/Photo courtesy of The Poynter Institute

What’s the greatest lesson you’ve learned as an editor?

Editing isn’t about fixing the copy in front of you, it’s about squeezing the best possible version of the story out of the universe by helping the writer to see it and capture it. What that help looks like will vary between individuals and fluctuate for the same writer at different points in the process. A big part of the job is removing obstacles, especially those that are self-imposed. One writer may need help seeing the forest for the caveats. Another may need reminders to get inside subjects’ shoes and hearts. Editing is knowing when to stay out of their hair and when to give them a nudge, when to insist they keep pushing for the impossible and when to let them cut bait. It’s making sure they feel comfortable arguing with you and recognizing when they’re right — but also recognizing when, amid a nasty bout of 11th-hour second-guessing, the writer is just tired and hangry; then, you send them a sandwich. You can’t do this job without legitimately loving these people and living for their victories and growth.

What has been the biggest surprise of your editing life?

How different editing is from reporting and writing. An editor is a trusted partner, a blind-spot detector, a high-stakes decision maker, a structural engineer. You do a lot more thinking about what you don’t see, what’s in the negative space: What Achilles’ heel might this premise have? The language is beautiful, but is the logic sound?

If you had to choose a metaphor to describe yourself as an editor, what would it be and why? 

A writer once called me Spanx because of the way I compress flabby prose. I hope I’m also like a camera drone that helps you see above the weeds and a construction site boss who knows when the scaffolding can come down.

What is the single best piece of editing advice anyone ever gave you?

Sometimes, you won’t see the perfect path from day one. You might be paralyzed by fear when you open a draft and the next step isn’t obvious. Learn to slow down, talk through the problems with the writer, roll the ball forward and trust the process. (Hat tip to Adam Playford for this great advice, which he likely won’t remember giving.)

The Pasta Machine: Four Questions with Frank Bruni

Interviews

Frank Bruni has been a prominent journalist for more than three decades, including more than twenty-five years at The New York Times, the last ten of them as a nationally renowned op-ed columnist who appeared frequently as a television commentator. (His archive of columns, starting with the most recent, can be found here.) He was also a White House correspondent for the Times, its Rome bureau chief and, for five years, its chief restaurant critic. He is the author of four New York Times bestsellers, including The Beauty of Dusk, which reached #5 on both the hardcover nonfiction and the combined print and e-book nonfiction lists. In July 2021, he became a professor at Duke University, teaching media-oriented classes in the Sanford School of Public Policy. He continues to write his popular weekly newsletter for the Times (you can sign up here) and to produce occasional essays as one of the newspaper’s Contributing Opinion Writers. He lives in Chapel Hill, N.C.

What’s the greatest lesson you’ve learned as a writer? 

That your first draft is often precisely that, and it can be terrible without being a signal that you should jump ship. Keep sailing. Or rowing. And bailing water. Just don’t overwork a metaphor the way I just did. 

What has been the biggest surprise of your writing life? 

The unpredictability of how much time something will take me and how easy or hard it will be. I’ll zip through two pieces of writing that turn out really well and take minimal effort, and I’ll think: “I’ve cracked the code! I’ve turned the corner!” And then the next piece will be the most sluggishly produced horror show of my career. You just never know. And should never assume. 

If you had to choose a metaphor to describe yourself as a writer, what would it be?

I’m a pasta machine. I can pump out nothing edible unless I’ve put in lots of flour, eggs and water, by which I mean reporting, reading, thinking. I make only noodles – no rice – and only so many kinds of those. I can’t do David Remnick’s erudite agnolotti or David Sedaris’s inimitable farfalle. But my orecchiette aren’t bad. 

What is the single best piece of writing advice anyone ever gave you? 

When you hit a wall, when you’re feeling blocked, step away from the computer. Take a run. Rub the dog’s belly. Read 50 pages of a novel. Watch a stupid situation comedy. Let your brain relax. Let it reboot. No one ever got anywhere by banging on the backspace key for hours on end. 

The Pasta Machine: Four Questions with Frank Bruni

Interviews

Courtesy of the Duke University Sanford School of Public Policy

Frank Bruni has been a prominent journalist for more than three decades, including more than twenty-five years at The New York Times, the last ten of them as a nationally renowned op-ed columnist who appeared frequently as a television commentator. (His archive of columns, starting with the most recent, can be found here.) He was also a White House correspondent for the Times, its Rome bureau chief and, for five years, its chief restaurant critic. He is the author of four New York Times bestsellers, including The Beauty of Dusk, which reached #5 on both the hardcover nonfiction and the combined print and e-book nonfiction lists. In July 2021, he became a professor at Duke University, teaching media-oriented classes in the Sanford School of Public Policy. He continues to write his popular weekly newsletter for the Times (you can sign up here) and to produce occasional essays as one of the newspaper’s Contributing Opinion Writers. He lives in Chapel Hill, N.C.

What’s the greatest lesson you’ve learned as a writer? 

That your first draft is often precisely that, and it can be terrible without being a signal that you should jump ship. Keep sailing. Or rowing. And bailing water. Just don’t overwork a metaphor the way I just did. 

What has been the biggest surprise of your writing life? 

The unpredictability of how much time something will take me and how easy or hard it will be. I’ll zip through two pieces of writing that turn out really well and take minimal effort, and I’ll think: “I’ve cracked the code! I’ve turned the corner!” And then the next piece will be the most sluggishly produced horror show of my career. You just never know. And should never assume. 

If you had to choose a metaphor to describe yourself as a writer, what would iit be?

I’m a pasta machine. I can pump out nothing edible unless I’ve put in lots of flour, eggs and water, by which I mean reporting, reading, thinking. I make only noodles – no rice – and only so many kinds of those. I can’t do David Remnick’s erudite agnolotti or David Sedaris’s inimitable farfalle. But my orecchiette aren’t bad. 

What is the single best piece of writing advice anyone ever gave you? 

When you hit a wall, when you’re feeling blocked, step away from the computer. Take a run. Rub the dog’s belly. Read 50 pages of a novel. Watch a stupid situation comedy. Let your brain relax. Let it reboot. No one ever got anywhere by banging on the backspace key for hours on end. 

Servant Authorship: Four Questions with Anne Janzer

Interviews
Anne Janzer

Anne Janzer is the author of multiple award-winning books on writing, including “ˆThe Writer’s Process and “Writing to Be Understood.” She is fascinated by human behavior and cognitive science, and uses that lens to figure out how we can communicate more effectively through writing. As a nonfiction writing coach and developmental editor, she works with authors to get their best work into the world.

What’s the most important lesson you’ve learned as a writer? 


My single most important writing lesson has been learning to trust my process. It’s taken many years (and writing a book on the subject) to truly internalize this lesson.

My personal writing process evolved over years of freelance writing. Because I worked on a project basis, paid for results instead of time, optimizing the process made financial sense. I identified the steps that led to my most productive and successful projects. These included:

  • Diving into research as early as possible in a project
  • Using freewriting to explore what I already know and don’t yet understand
  • Practicing intentional incubation to get new insights 
  • Giving myself permission to write an imperfect first draft
  • Committing time and energy to revision

These steps deliver the best results, most consistently, in the shortest time.

But it’s taken me years to learn to trust that process. It’s always tempting to think that this time is different, that I can go faster by skipping a step. I nearly always regret it when I do.

Only after writing a book about the inner game of writing (“The Writer’s Process”) did I commit myself entirely to it. Even so, I sometimes find myself tempted to try a shortcut. But now I resist. 

What has been the biggest surprise of your writing life? 

When I was younger and dreaming of being a writer, I never envisioned my current path. I imagined myself working with publishers, publishing in magazines, going to bookstores, and being an “author.” 

Instead, I’m an indie author, which means I am also a boutique publisher, a project manager, a book marketer, and more. 

So, that’s been a surprise. The bigger surprise is how much fun I’m having! I love the challenge of operating in an industry that is in flux, looking for creative ways to reach readers, and helping other authors do the same. A couple of smaller presses have approached me about doing books, and I realized that I don’t want to give up the control. I’m having too much fun.

If you had to choose a metaphor to describe yourself as a writer, what would it be?

Writing, for me, is like baking bread, so I suppose I am a baker. 

I follow a general recipe, but don’t have complete control over the results. Unseen processes contribute to the final result, like the yeast in a healthy sourdough starter. 

My job is to gather the ingredients, work them into shape, and then set up the right environment. For example, while bread dough is rising, we keep it away from the cold to protect the delicate yeast. Similarly, when a first draft is coming into being, we need to keep it safe from the cold judgment of the inner critic. At some point it will be ready for hard critical work, like dough being pounded and reshaped. And we must know when to put it in the oven of revision, and when to pull it out. 

The better you get at managing these steps, the greater your success rate. Yet it still, sometimes, feels a bit like magic. 

And it’s messy. (I’m not a neat baker.)

What’s the best piece of writing advice anyone ever gave you?

Late in my senior year of college, after four years as an English literature major, I enrolled in a journalism class. I had some time in my schedule and figured that it would be fun and easy. After all, I was good at cranking out term papers and literary analysis, so how hard could it be? 

[Cue maniacal laughter.]

The teacher (whose name I have tragically misplaced) kept bouncing my drafts back to me for another pass. He challenged me to pare everything down, to cut to the essentials. Without remembering the exact words, this is what he taught me:

The reader may not get past the first paragraph. Tell them what they need to know—clearly and quickly.

What

For someone steeped in academic writing with its captive audience, the idea that someone wouldn’t even bother to read my words was a shock. It felt like someone pulled the rug out from under my writing desk, scattering pens and papers everywhere. It changed everything.

The reader didn’t owe me their attention! I had to earn it, to make their effort worthwhile.

Even though I didn’t go into journalism, that insight has stuck with me, growing more relevant with every passing year. It applies to nearly every kind of writing I’ve done: business writing, technical writing, marketing copy, and nonfiction books. 

This piece of advice eventually matured into my philosophy of servant authorship. It’s inspired by the servant leadership concept, in which a leader serves the team and the community. As authors, shouldn’t we adopt the same goal of serving our readers?

Whether I’m working with my own projects or other writers, I begin with two simple questions: who am I serving with this work, and what do I hope it does for them? This philosophy streamlines and simplifies everything, from deciding what to write and how to approach it to navigating publishing and promotion. Better yet, it de-stresses the writing process by keeping my focus squarely on the reader rather than on myself and my writing ability. It’s not about me at all. It’s about the reader.

Telling Untold Stories: Four Questions with Yukari Iwatani Kane

Interviews
Yukari Iwatani Kane

Yukari Iwatani Kane is a founder and executive director of Prison Journalism Project. She is an author, educator and veteran journalist with 20 years of experience. She was a staff writer and foreign correspondent for The Wall Street Journal and Reuters, and her book Haunted Empire: Apple After Steve Jobs (Harpers Business) was a best-seller, translated into seven languages. Yukari has taught journalism fundamentals, investigative reporting and the Medill Justice Project at Northwestern University and was previously a lecturer at University of California, Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism. At San Quentin News, where she still serves as an advisor, she developed a curriculum and reader for prison journalism. She is a member of Institute for Nonprofit News’ Emerging Leaders Council and is a 2021-2022 Reynolds Journalism Institute fellow.

What’s the most important lesson you’ve learned as a writer?

I remember listening to an NPR program several years ago where two writers were debating whether writing can be taught. I know it can be taught because I used to be a terrible writer. But I’ve also learned that it’s hard work, it’s a messy process, and it always will be.

I’m a better reporter than a writer. I’m good at research, I have a keen eye for observation, and I can get people to open up. I’m also pretty good at coming up with story ideas. But put me in front of a computer to write my story, and I crumble. I might spend hours agonizing over one sentence, sometimes even one word. And even though I care deeply about my writing, my first draft is so bad it makes me want to cry.

Over the years though, I’ve learned that almost every writer I admire goes through a similar process. It helps to have talent for sure, but every gem of a story you come across that you might wish you’d written is the result of lots of blood, sweat and tears — and probably the help of a good editor.

What has been the biggest surprise of your writing life?

I became a journalist because I wanted to tell stories about people and communities that wouldn’t be seen or heard otherwise, and I used to think that would be something that I needed to do myself. But 20 years into my career, I’m realizing that I can also make a difference as an editor.

About five years ago, I started teaching journalism at San Quentin State Prison in California. Every time I went in, I would come across amazing stories, but none of them were mine to tell. I couldn’t do them justice as an outsider. That led to my current work at Prison Journalism Project teaching incarcerated writers the craft of journalism and writing, working with them to develop their story ideas and editing their stories, so they resonate with readers outside.

I never thought of myself as an editor, but I really enjoy it.

If you had to use a metaphor to describe yourself as a writer, what would it be and why?

I wanted to come up with a clever metaphor, but the truth is that I think of myself as a psychologist. I like to step inside my sources and the characters in my stories and imagine what it might be like to be them and try to see and understand the world from their perspective. In my research, I look for information and background that gives me insight into who the person is. That leads me to people in their lives that might be able to shed light in an interesting way. I am always observing and assessing people and situations, looking for clues as to who they are. Before I can write about someone, I need to feel like I understand them.

Nothing gives me more satisfaction than identifying the one feature or item that best defines a person. When I was reporting on a factory girl in China, I noticed she had braces. That said more to me about her ambitions and dreams than anything she could say.

What is the best piece of writing advice anyone ever gave you?

The biggest influence on my writing has been Tom French, who was my writing coach when I wrote “Haunted Empire.” He taught me many things, but there were two lessons in particular that profoundly changed the way I write.

The first is to think of my pen (or keyboard) like a video camera when I’m telling a story. I zoom in on aspects of a scene, and I pan out to describe the overall picture, but I never jump back and forth because I don’t want to give the reader whiplash. When I write, I think cinematically. This allows me to get my sequencing right without getting too technical about it.  


The second is this: Readers are always looking for an excuse to quit reading. That means the last word of every sentence needs to be powerful enough to compel someone to read the next sentence. The last sentence of every paragraph has to be powerful enough to compel them to read the next paragraph, and the last paragraph of every chapter has to compel them to read the next chapter.

Threads of Literary Citizenship: Four Questions with Elaine Monaghan

Interviews
Elaine Monaghan

Elaine Monaghan grew up in Scotland and joined Reuters’ graduate journalism training program in London in 1993. Reuters posted her to Moscow, Kyiv, Dublin and Washington, where she followed Madeleine Albright and Colin Powell for three years. She decided that moving countries every two years was a bad parenting choice and became a Washington correspondent for The (London) Times, where she also penned a column, Abroad in America. She later co-authored a memoir with CIA officer Tyler Drumheller, a behind-the-scenes look at how the Bush Administration misled the public to justify invading Iraq. Monaghan covered foreign policy for Congressional Quarterly and wrote for CQ Weekly magazine. She has blogged for Microsoft UK about the election that produced President Obama, lived in Poland for three years while her husband served as an ambassador, and worked for a progressive, strategic communications firm where her main client was Amnesty International USA. In 2014, Monaghan joined the faculty of The Media School at Indiana University Bloomington. As a professor of practice, she teaches courses in data, ethics, reporting and writing, and serves as coordinator for the school’s news reporting and editing concentration. She is a correspondent for News-Decoder, a not-for-profit news service and forum for young people, and co-education lead at the Observatory on Social Media.

What’s the most important lesson you’ve learned as a writer?

I’ve loved reading and creating written words since I was a child. Fifteen years as a foreign correspondent, and a decade otherwise occupied in the trenchers of journalism taught me that writing takes real labor. I might have churned stories out in minutes, but it felt like it was happening in slow motion. I sweated over every word, every sentence, every paragraph, and still lose sleep over that intro that wasn’t quite right.  In my 50s, I have turned my attention to creative nonfiction, memoir and autofiction. I still sweat over every word, though now I have the luxury of time and life experience, and now I often put it back on the shelf because I think it needs to mature for at least another couple of years. Does that make me a lesser writer than when I was a journalist being read by large audiences every single day? Not at all. I think I’m a much better writer now. 

The main lesson I’ve learned as a writer is that life is not a popularity contest. Put another way, if you are committed to telling stories with words on a page, and to improving your craft no matter who is watching, you are a writer. If people read you, that’s a bonus. 

What has been the biggest surprise of your writing life?

In late 2019, after five years teaching writing and reporting at The Media School at Indiana University, I enrolled in a low-residency MFA program at Mississippi University for Women, determined to make space for a writing life. I was participating in my first writing workshop when the pandemic hit. I got sick and wrote about it. That’s how I had what I consider to be my first creative piece published in 40 years.

The most surprising thing about my writing life, though, is not that I had a 40-year gap in it that was filled with writing. It’s that choosing a writing life is not really about writing at all. It’s about friendship. It’s about the people I think of as my writing family, which includes my actual family both here in the US and back in my homeland, Scotland, the friends around the world I talk to in person, by phone, WhatsApp or Zoom, people I trust enough to look at my writing – to look at me, even if we’ve never met in person, which is often the case – and to care enough to tell me what works and what doesn’t. 

The most surprising thing about my writing life, then, is that it has taught me more than any other experience what true friendship looks like, and a big part of it is service, which I see in the idea of literary citizenship.. Literary citizenship threads through my life, in friendship, teaching, learning and good neighborliness.

If you had to use a metaphor to describe yourself as a writer, what would it be and why? 

Squirrel.

I mean it as a noun and a verb. When I am writing, GReat! I am like the squirrels in my back yard running furiously up and down trees and sending acorns clattering across the roof. Sometimes they just stop and stare. Perhaps they’ve just had a brilliant idea about where to get their next stash of acorns, or maybe they’re puzzling over which tree to go to next. Sometimes they lose their grip on the acorns and they go flying. Sometimes they eat them on the spot.

Sometimes squirrels squirrel and hide their acorns in exactly the right place in the earth so they can find them later.

Some acorns get eaten right away and some don’t. The ones that get used up right away germinate fast or are damaged. The ones that get squirreled away are hardier and less imperfect. 

As I look for inspiration for stories now, it’s those hardier acorns that I go back to turn into stories with a longer shelf life. Much to my surprise, that process is immensely satisfying, even when my memories are imperfect, because when turned into fiction or autofiction, some of those hardy acorns are pretty okay.

What is the single best piece of writing advice anyone ever gave you?

I could trot out all kinds of things I remember from my Reuters training from the unforgettably brilliant George Short, RIP. Here are two.

  • When you don’t know what to write, just say what happened. (Recipe for lead-writing block on deadline. Saved me every time.)
  • Lie, cheat and steal. (In a nutshell: Pretend you want one thing from an interview when really, you want that and something else; borrow and take brilliant structures and story ideas and make them your own.)

But George would also have told me to be kind and show respect to my fellow human, and no doubt did, though I don’t remember now and it would have probably sailed over my ambitious, 25-year-old head. 

Keep Sending Things Out: Four Questions with Patrick Holloway

Interviews, Uncategorized

Patrick Holloway

 Patrick Holloway is a writer of stories and poems. He is the recent winner of the Molly Keane Creative Writing Award. He won second place in The Raymond Carver Short Story Contest and was the winner of HeadStuff Poem of the Year. He’s been published by Poetry Ireland Review, The Stinging Fly, Carve, Overland, The Irish Times, The Moth, Southword, among others. His story ‘Counting Stairs’ was highly commended for the Manchester Fiction Prize. He has been shortlisted for numerous other prizes including: Bath Short Story Prize, Moth Poetry Prize, Moth Short Story Prize, Bath Flash Fiction Prize, Dermot Healy Poetry Prize, Over The Edge New Writer of the Year Award (for both fiction and poetry) and the Alpine Fellowship for Fiction.

What is the most important lesson you’ve learned as a writer? 

To keep sending things out. I remember when I first started, a rejection meant the writing wasn’t good, so I’d stop sending that specific poem or story out. With time I realized the importance of researching where I was sending my work. Also, being kind to myself in terms of my writing. Being tough with what was on the page but by no means taking away its worth. 

What has been the biggest surprise of your writing life? 

How difficult it can be. How, especially when you are not a full-time writer, you have to sacrifice other things in order to write. That can be challenging on relationships and on yourself. Difficult in terms of the craft, in terms of being disciplined and dedicated. Difficult in terms of rejections and self-doubt. Littered among the difficulties though are the joys of writing well, of surprising myself by winning some writing awards and seeing my words among those of brilliant writers I admire.

If you had to use a metaphor to describe yourself as a writer, what would it be and why?

It’d have to be tennis-related — my other passion. Especially writing a novel now, I see it like watching a 5 set grand slam final. There are so many ebbs and flows, lots of layers, lots of backstory, tension, rivalry and conflict. The points themselves are the sentences, some are hard and fast, others full of finesse. Games are chapters. I suppose the win is getting a publisher. 

What’s the single best piece of writing advice anyone ever gave you?

I think a huge shift in how I saw writing and my relationship to it came when I was in the U.S and I had a class with Karen. E. Bender. She told me after to think about doing an MFA. It suddenly made writing something altogether different, gave it stature. Also, I suppose, it gave me the belief I didn’t know I was lacking. 

Words Matter: Four Questions with Steve Padilla

Interviews
Steve Padilla

Steve Padilla is editor of Column One, the showcase for storytelling at the Los Angeles Times. Padilla joined the Times in 1987 as a night-shift police reporter but soon moved on to editing. He has edited a wide variety of subjects—including politics, international news and religion—and helped guide the Times’ Pulitzer-winning coverage of a botched bank robbery in North Hollywood in 1997. He serves as a writing coach and devotes his Twitter feed (@StevePadilla2) to writing technique. Before the Times, he was a reporter for the San Diego Union and editor of Hispanic Link Weekly Report, a national newsletter on Latino affairs. He earned his B.A. in print journalism and history from the University of Southern California.

What’s the most important lesson you’ve learned as an editor?

The biggest lesson came early in my editing career—while serving as editor of the Daily Trojan at the University of Southern California. That’s when I discovered what I call the megaphone effect. When you’re the boss, your words are amplified, both good and bad, especially the bad.

I was chatting with another editor about a story padded with a bunch of unnecessary material and said something like “it was filled with all sorts of extra crap.” The editor looked horrified and earnestly told me I shouldn’t say a fellow student’s story was crap. I tried to tell her that’s not what I meant at all—that I didn’t mean the story was crap. I was just using that word for “stuff.” Too late. The damage was done. As I look back now, I’m grateful that lesson came so early in my editing career because it saved me from unfortunate experiences in professional settings. This doesn’t mean withholding criticism or sugar-coating everything, but ever since that day in the Daily Trojan newsroom, I’ve remembered how words matter, especially if you’re the boss.

What has been the biggest surprise of your editing life?

There have been plenty of unpleasant surprises in my editing career, but I want to share a good one: that the writers who supposedly resist editing actually will embrace it. But this attitude shift comes with an “if.” If the editing is specific, useful and backed by solid reasoning, even the grumpiest of writers will embrace it. (Well, many of them.) Part of the issue is presentation. For example, if I find the perfect opening for a story tucked away in the 25th paragraph, I never say, “You buried the lead.” I’ll say, “This is so good we have to move it up.” I’ve never had anyone complain about that.

If you had to use a metaphor to describe yourself as an editor, what would it be?

May I share two metaphors—one that fits my day-to-day duties and one that expresses my ideal? The first is coach, and not a writing coach. Like a football or basketball coach, I’m standing on the sidelines, guiding, training, cheering, encouraging, sometimes disapproving. The other image is orchestra conductor. That’s my favorite relationship with a writer. I just stand in front of the orchestra and wave my hands around, but the players make the actual music.  Both coach and conductor relate to an inspiring comment about editing I learned reading “Max Perkins, Editor of Genius,” A. Scott Berg’s masterful biography of the editor of Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Thomas Wolfe, among others. Perkins said an editor “releases energy.” Not creates, not controls. Perkins said releases. That’s the goal.

What’s the best piece of editing advice anyone ever gave you?

 The best advice I ever got concerning wordcraft—management is another issue–came from the late and legendary writing coach Jim Hayes. He said, “Put the best stuff at the end of the sentence.” Jim showed me how he could improve a sentence not by adding or deleting words, but by rearranging their order. I’m not shy about snipping or adding words. Sometimes that’s necessary. But I’ve found that if a sentence can end with gusto, that helps story organization, keeps the sentences bouncing and flings the reader into the next sentence. It’s such a simple idea but I’d never had anyone express it so simply. That was the other lesson from Jim: to offering writing guidance in clear, sentence-level terms.

Now a disclaimer, at least for journalistic writing: Yes, some sentences must end with “according to documents,” or “police said Thursday,” but the words just before those should be powerful, interesting or important. I’ve found that much of my coaching emphasizes word order and that the payoffs are almost immediate. And there’s another value to rearranging words, versus overhauling a whole sentence: it stills sounds like the writer, only better.