The following published column was written when the late Rowland Stiteler [1947-2019] was editor of D Magazine, a post he held from the late 1970s to the early 80s. His popular column was called Editor’s Page and this particular selection is refreshing. His insight rings familiar bells with writers and editors everywhere:
“Hazards of Being an Editor”
By Rowland Stiteler
They are good values, those fundamental tenants taught us by the Judeo/Christian culture. Those beliefs have enabled us to build America, cure polio, land on the moon and return safely and feed the poor.
But, as a former writer for this magazine used to say, no deal is perfect. There is one glaring erroneous but widely held value that runs throughout our culture. We revere writers to the point of imitation. We think, God help us, that a good education is not complete unless we are writers.
They are a diverse lot, but generally share one common trait: They can’t write.
The writer’s curse extends beyond those to whom writing is a hobby and real estate or architecture is a profession. It causes thousands of our young people to waste big chucks of their lives in the halls of academe, studying Journalism or English, reading Thomas Wolfe and Tom Wolfe, and dreaming of the day their essays will grace the pages of Esquire & The New Yorker.
The odds of entering a college or university and emerging four years later as a writer are about the same as entering Las Vegas casino with two bucks and a yen for three-card monte and emerging a millionaire. (In some cases your casino odds are going to be a little better than your college odds; it all depends on what casino you choose and how long it has been since the house has been beaten.
But the fact is those of us who aspire to be writers are not a reasoning lot; we are driven by romanticism and ego. (I speak from personal experience.) We are, as a group, willing to work long hours for short wages and the thrill of seeing our names in print. We labor under the naïve concept that by reporting to you that Councilman Smedlap overspent his budget by $31.62, or that the quiche is overcooked at Chez Fred’s, we are somehow changing the course of history. We think each story marks a small stride for mankind and moves us a step close to our first national best seller.
For years a controversy has raged din the editorial offices of my magazine with regard to journalism graduates. One of the top executives has always held that journalism graduates make horrible journalists—and worse writers—and therefore should be categorically barred from consideration as job applicates here. For years, I was the only journalism graduate on the staff, an exception that my boss said merely proved his point. Because I invested four years in journalism school, it is, of course, incumbent on me to take a differing view.
My experience with graduates of college journalism programs as magazine writers has yielded the following unmistakable truth: Journalism schools are benign, not malignant.
There is nothing about going to journalism school that will keep an eager, smart and well-motivated young person from becoming a good writer someday. Therefore, in dealing with potential employees, I never hold it against someone if (s)he has been to journalism school.
A J-schooler is generally no more qualified to write than someone who attended the Midas Muffler Academy, but is certainly not less qualified.
The fact is that there is no set of credentials that identifies a person as a writer, a creative person who can put words on paper/screen in a manner that other people will pay to read. Writers are rich and poor, sophisticates and slobs.
One of the most talented members of the Ft. Worth journalism community for many years, for instance, was a charming individual who had this problem with green teeth. If only he had brushed them once in a while, he would have had a blinding smile. But wow, that guy produced great copy.
By contrast, one of the best writers D Magazine has ever had, contributing writer Jo Brans, is an impeccably groomed woman who looks like a schoolteacher, probably because she is one of those rare writers who is good enough that, as an editor, I basically don’t care what topic he chooses. Good writing is good writing. “What do you want my story to be about,” she asks. “About 20 pages,” I reply.
The dilemma facing all editors is that there is no simple way to tell a Jo Brans from the bus loads of also-rans by looking at them. But these so-sos would do all of us a favor if they’d simply give up and take up stamp collecting or some other form of self-entertainment.
True writers are born and made. They have an innate creativity [there is no substitute for it and there is no way to teach it] and they have usually sharpened that talent through the learning process, be it in college or at the magazine rack of the corner drug store.
But there is just no way to spot them by perusing their resumes or glancing through clippings they have written for other publications. (Sometimes, excellent clippings can be the work not of the writer but of a skillful editor.) And that brings us to my problem—as an editor—and the problem of every other editor who cares about the quality of his/her publication.
There is no substitute for answering every phone call, discussing every story proposal, reading every manuscript (at least in part) that comes in unsolicited. And that is why I do, and will, respond to everyone who has the requisite imagination—or audacity—to propose a writing project for this magazine.
It is my opinion that there are probably 50 people within a 50-mile radius of downtown Dallas who have the skills, talent and wherewithal to write a good magazine article. I only know about 20 of those people, counting D Magazine staff and contributing editors. One of the parts of this job that I consider a duty is to constantly be looking for the other 30.
For those of you interested in becoming one of the 30, I suggest a few commonsense rules. Read our magazine before submitting ideas. (When you ask me on the telephone for our address or to spell may name, that tells me you’ve never seen our masthead.) Don’t send photocopied query letters with “Dear Blank” at the top. Never propose to write anything about J.R. Ewing, Dealey Plaza, the Metroplex or the Dallas Cowboy’s latest hotshot. Never mail us anything you can’t afford to us to lose; we probably will. Most of all, however, don’t think that the editors of this magazine think over the transom proposals are categorically worthless.
I know someone who got a job with a good magazine that way. Me.
PET PEEVES FROM OTHER EDITORS.
--Don’t automatically assume each editor has similar tastes or needs. Some editors return phone calls others don’t.
--Don’t beg. It is not the fault of the editor if you can’t pay the rent if you don’t get an assignment.
--If you wish to get the attention of an editor via Email you still must write in coherent, complete sentences that get to the point.
--Don’t submit same article idea to more than one editor at a time.
--Don’t suggest articles by your PR friends because they probably were on the phone to us the same day with the same idea.
--If it isn’t true don’t put it in your article.
--Understand travel or home/garden magazines can not save the Allende Revolution in Chile.
--If you haven’t heard back from an editor in six months consider his/her answer was “no” to your proposal.
--The busiest [heartless?] editors often automatically return article proposals without reading them because statistically about one percent of unsolicited proposals are worth printing. Not all editors are so inclined. In one editor’s case his staff waited until the “no” stack got two feet high before sending over an intern to mail out the rejection notices.
BEST BUSINESS CARD LINE FROM FREELANCE WRITER.
“If it didn’t happen that way—it should have...” By the late great Tom Basinski, author of “No Good Deed.”