Thursday, March 06, 2008


In Which You Have My Attention...

"Twenty years ago, I was sitting right where you are, demanding that my magazine career begin. I had written a kick-ass story about a small-town post office Yankee Magazine should have bought. Except they didn't. Then I did an internship for a company that was in the middle of a hiring freeze, so they couldn't offer me full-time employment, just more internships. So I left, but not before getting two freelance assignments from two of their properties. About a week after handing my first assignment in, I got word that the magazine folded, JUST before printing the issue that would have contained my first clip. The other magazine simply evaporated. The staff vanished and no one could ever give me a straight answer about what happened to it. Or my story.

"But I kept plugging away, and here's your first lesson: Your great gift, your special writing talent, the thing that makes you sit there and demand that your career begin--it will not do you one lick of good, compared with simply making up your mind and deciding not to give in, ever. Perseverance will serve you in great stead in any career, of course, but especially in this one. You may absolutely rely on the fact that the vast majority of people out there in magazines are not interested in your gift or in nurturing a great new talent. That includes me, sorry to say. They are interested in one thing: getting the magazine out the door. Which is why you will need to spend a good chunk of your career first developing, then sharpening novel ways of getting their attention--"

I blinked. Professor G was trying to get my attention.

"Oh, sorry," I said. "I was going over my opening remarks in my head. What were you saying?"

Professor G smiled apologetically. "I was just saying that you won't be lecturing to a writing class after all. That professor has to give a quiz today, so you'll be teaching editing instead."

I froze. Editing! I had prepared 90 minutes of inspiring remarks mingled with stellar advice about breaking into magazines as a writer. Editing was a whole different animal.

"Uh, well, what are you working on right now in editing?" I asked, still reeling.

Professor G fished through a folder, handed me a syllabus. "Headlines, mostly. They each had a sample story they pulled from a magazine and were assigned to come up with three new headlines for them. Oh, and a deck and..."

Again, I found myself tuning him out. I remembered my editing class, and it was dull as dirt. Editing in a classroom environment was so vastly different from the real thing on staff as to almost be non-applicable. For starters, you worked alone in class whereas on staff, I was always bouncing ideas off other editors, especially when it came to headlines.

Professor G looked at his watch, then said something else that got my attention. "You've got about 10 minutes before class starts. Why don't you think about what you might like to cover? I know this is a curveball, but really, just talk about what you do every day, how you craft heads. They'll be fine with that," he said, gesturing that I should sit at his desk while he excused himself.

Oh yeah, they'll be fine, so long as they don't drown in their own drool, I thought, and I numbly sat myself in the chair. Sure, I could natter on for 90 minutes about what I did, but I was hoping to light these kids up for an hour or so, not put them to sleep. I had had some great material to share with them, about turning my dull trade-magazine career into a freelance gig as an equipment reviewer of cool gear and weird tech. I was going to tell them about the time I peed in a magazine executive's office. I was going to tell them about the magazine that made me write and report a fresh, original story as a writing test and how they didn't give me a job, but they kept the story and were planning to run it--without compensating me for it, or even running it with my byline. I found this out because after they passed on me, I sold my writing test to a competing magazine and they had a spy there who saw the story and there was quite a row about it, but in the end it led to an embarrassing moment for the original magazine--and the editor who tried to steal my article. I had all kinds of stories fresh in my head for them, but none of them worked in an editing context.

As I sat there, mind racing, I absently started rifling through my bag, pulling out various folders. I had brought a couple copies of the magazine with me, as well as a copy of one of the stories I was currently editing for the next issue. As I looked at this piece, wondering if there was some way to turn it into a lecture, I noticed another folder sticking out of my bag. It was a sheaf of layouts from the current issue, the one that was shipping next week. This was old copy, stuff I'd looked at the week before, and I'd meant to throw it out. Now I opened the folder and looked at them--dozens of pages of color printouts of stories that were ready to run. And as I looked at them, a little teensy lightbulb flickered to life over my head. Maybe I was wrong to think there would be a big difference between teaching a writing and an editing class.

All of a sudden, I thought I had something to get their attention.

Ten minutes later, as about 20 students wandered into their editing class, they stopped and looked around, perhaps wondering if they had wandered into the wrong room.

It was a small classroom and unadorned, except for a chalkboard at the front, and a teacher's desk, which had been shoved to one side, creating a sizable open space at the front of the room. And there, more or less filling each of three walls, were a series of story layouta, taped up neatly, looking something like this:




Once they found their seats, they tore their eyes away from the new, four-color decorations long enough to give me an appraising eye, and I jumped in.

"Twenty years ago, I was sitting right where you are...absolutely bored out of my skull. Because, well, let's see a show of hands: How many of you here actually had aspirations to be a magazine editor? Not a freelancer, not a staffer who writes, not a writer at all, but an editor?"

There were some awkward smiles and shared looks, but no one raised their hands.

"Well, it's an honest group," I said. "When my classmates and I were sitting there, we used to say 'Those who can, write. Those who can't, edit.'" At this, a chuckle went up. "And that's honestly how we all felt. I think most of you here came to this major and this school because you want to see your names in print. You want clips like nobody's business. You want to write, and it seems like editing is the opposite of that.

"Except...I've come to learn something I didn't know back when I was sitting there. I've come to realize that the best writers are also good editors. Ruthless editors, really. Of your own work, if nobody else's. And until you can do that, you won't be unlocking your potential as a writer. I mean, I thought I was pretty hot shit when I was a student here, but I can tell you honestly that I became a better writer only after I spent a decent chunk of time editing. Don't get me wrong: I think I still have plenty to learn, but when I write now, if I do it well, I really owe that to the time I've spent editing.

"And one of the ways I use my editing skills and keep myself sharp is by working with a group of people on my staff. Together, every month, we go into the magazine's layout room and we look at all the layouts and we rewrite the headlines and decks, looking for sharper, smarter, better ways to inspire and inform our readers, looking for tighter lids to screw onto these stories, looking for something with which to get folks' attention. We call ourselves The Head Squad."

I stood back and waved my hand at the walls. "For today, this is not your classroom. This is the layout room of a Really Big Magazine. And you are not a class of magazine majors. You each are going to divide into teams of about a half-dozen. You each are going to tackle a wall of layouts, and you each are going to be a Head Squad." I clapped my hands. "Come on, let's get up and get a closer look at these layouts."

And so it went. I rotated through each of the squads, walking them through what we looked for in a good headline--something that wasn't overtly clever, but instead made a sharp, honest, direct promise about the story. But I encouraged them to have fun, too, to write down the goofiest puns and double-entendres--there's little point in trying to write headlines until you get those out of your system. Before we knew it, my 90 minutes was up. The class was over, and it was time for me to be on my way.

"I can't believe it was over that quickly," I muttered to Professor G, as we said goodbye to the students who were packing up their bags and zippering their jackets.

"Sign of a good class, I think," Professor G said. "But you know, I never see your byline in the magazine. So what writing do you do these days, that editing helps you so much with it?"

I was about to give a lame answer--"Oh, this and that"--when I heard a woman's voice call from the door: "He writes about Blaze and the Brownie!"

Then there was a giggle and the voice was gone. I ducked my head out the door, trying to peer into the departing group of students, but they had now merged with a large hallway full of students, and there was no way to pick the student out.

Professor G gave me a look of confused amusement. "What did they yell?"

"Nothing," I said. But inside, I felt all lit up. For the first time, I'd shared a room with an actual reader of this page, but she hadn't said anything til the end.

Whoever you are out there, I wish you had introduced yourself. Because I'll tell you what: I'd gladly put you to work writing headlines for me.

God knows you got my attention.

From Somewhere on the Masthead

HAHA! What a cool story. Now someone else has a secret identity. And you're a skilled enough Magazine Man to come up with an interesting, entirely unprepared for presentation in 10 min. Good for you!
That was a completely wonderful idea you had for the class! Sounded like a lot of fun.
I love what you did with the turn of events. And I think it's incredible that one of your blog readers was there. That must have been a shock to your system!

I liked what you said about editing. I don't consider myself a writer at all. I'm a blogger. But I realized I spend more time editing my posts than writing them. I enjoy editing. I also used to love "proofing" my daughter's writing when she was in school. And I haven't drowned in my drool, yet.
You get a real honest to God LOL on that one MM. Loved it~ :)

Ever considered in your elder years to teach? Kids really do need instruction from those who can inspire :)
Nice thinking on your feet there and coming up with a good lesson plan, MM! I always like when you throw in a writing/editing lesson with your blog.
aw, how fun!

I'd have loved to be in your class. How fun!!!

I've got an online acquaintance who's currently doing grad work at The University—I thought briefly of asking him to infiltrate your lecture to run just such a headfuck on you, but thought better of it. Looks like someone beat me to it anyway.
Oh I wish I were back in college to have attended this lecture! That was one lucky blog reader.

Come on, fess up! Who was there?

Love it. And loved the impromptu editing lesson. That was fantastic. Maybe teaching *is* in your offing. after all, you'd get free college tuition for the three little ones if they came to your school. that's got to be insentive. :)

Welcome back MM. Thanks for the excellent entertainment.
Sounds like fun, for all involved. I wish I had been that student. As cool as it may have been for you to know that a blog reader was there, I'll bet it was at least that exciting for the reader. I love it when the world is that small.
I had a similar thing happen to me once. I made my blog a lot more anonymous than that afterwards! I don't share my blog with those I interact with on a day to day level, so that kind of freaked me out, although it was a cool experience.
I've had someone spot me IRL from an online presence and that kinda threw me but I'm not had that happen with any of my blogs. Thank goodness for me since I don't have a flair for writing. You, MM have a flair that keeps us all coming back. I can't even remember now how I found you all those years ago but I know I'm happy you are still doing it! Not for nothing, MM, but damn I'm happy to be seeing you back at it! Oh and speaking of that basement of CRAP, when are you having another give away?
Awesome! Maybe your mystery student will reveal herself!

It's so awesome how creative and inspiring you can be when thrown a curve's a bit cheesy, but life is one big curve ball and it's got to be comforting knowing you can work your way through it.
Drooll .....

she met my idol.
Sounds like a great class, MM! I can't imagine how awesome it must have felt to know that that person reads your blog. I am a little sad about the first impression of writers vs. editors, though.

Great lesson with the headlines. I wish someone had done that for me in college. I still don't really have much of a grasp on headlines. Maybe you should teach a seminar!
Whoever she is, she's a fool for not 'fessing up!
Yeah, I'm going to agree with everyone here and wish that I'd been in your class. Or that you could have talked in MY editing class in college (it would have been a nice change). You're inspiring to me still!
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