Notes on the Editing (Extended Version)

The New York Times Magazine is introducing credits for editors at the end of its features, to give readers a fuller sense of how the magazine is made. But as anyone who has been an editor can testify—and especially as anyone who has been both editor and editee can testify—adding one more name to a story doesn’t even begin to illuminate the mysteries of the editorial process. Some models for fuller disclosure: 

• Another story that had been scheduled for this issue fell through, and [EDITOR A] remembered seeing this piece in the slush pile. He did not think it was a good piece at all, but it struck him as an easy one to illustrate, and he could see a quick and simple way to rewrite it from a D to a low B minus. It filled the hole.

• The writer pitched this piece to [EDITOR B] as a story about ideas, and [EDITOR B] agreed. But when [EDITOR B]’s boss saw the story, already at the copy desk, he told her it seemed dry and lacking in a human drama. [EDITOR B] then went back and asked the writer to include more personal information about the people in the story, representing it as her own request, even though it contradicted her previous instructions about the piece. The writer, who had done much of the reporting by phone, was at a loss for how to turn his sources into characters, and told his friends that [EDITOR B] was a confused and superficial reader. In the end, [EDITOR B] cut the piece in half, eliminating one of its two major conceptual arguments entirely. Everyone was dissatisfied.

• This story was essentially perfect when it came in. [EDITOR C] called [EDITOR D] into her office to have a look at it. “Am I nuts,” she said, “or could we just print this thing right now?” [EDITOR D] skimmed the first three pages. “Jesus,” he said. “Yeah, I think you’re all good. You should see the pile of crap that [OTHER WRITER] left for me to deal with.” [EDITOR C] hung onto it for another day, for appearances’ sake, and then sent it along.

• Halfway through the fact-checking process, [FACT-CHECKER 1] showed up in [EDITOR E]’s office. “I’m pretty sure this is totally wrong,” [FACT-CHECKER 1] said. Indeed, the central premise of the story was a hoax. Within three hours, the checking desk had assembled a dossier showing exactly how the fraud had been pulled off. Using the checkers’ reporting as a guide, [EDITOR E] rewrote the story, top to bottom, to eliminate all evidence of the writer’s credulity and to turn the fraud itself into the point of the piece. The writer was paid at his usual rate.

• [EDITOR F] hated this piece the minute she saw it. Boring, self-indulgent, and almost indistinguishable from the last two pieces by the same writer. But the writer in question was a senior writer, with a famous name and a big contract—and, moreover, was a social acquaintance of both the editor in chief and the publisher. And [EDITOR F] knew from long experience that he would yell and fuss about any revisions to his copy. This piece makes him look like an asshole , she thought, because he is an asshole . She changed a few common words to fit the house style (he had been writing for them for 20 years, and refused to learn the house style) and gave it to the copy desk with a shrug and a roll of her eyes.

• [EDITOR G] was on his way to Brooklin, Maine, for a week, and this piece came in very cleanly written, so although [EDITOR G] wasn’t quite sure the structure made sense in the middle, he tweaked three words and sent it along to the copy desk. Six days later, zipping up a sweater against a chilly evening wind from the harbor, with a third Dark and Stormy sitting in a ring-shaped puddle of condensation on the picnic table in front of him, [EDITOR G] suddenly saw how it could have been fixed, but by then it was much too late.