As Hyman Roth says in The Godfather Part II: This is the business we’ve chosen.
This is a theme to which I’ll return often: Magazine editors are among the most unhappy people in the country. This is especially true now, with the industry imploding. But it’s been true for years. They work under relentless deadline pressure. They never know when the company for which they work is about to spring some awful surprise — closing the magazine, shrinking it, changing the format, replacing the top editor. They live in perpetual terror of losing their jobs. They’re underpaid. The work isn’t as glamorous as they thought it would be. It goes on and on.
It’s long seemed to me that these people are desperate for any brief respite from the hideous stress under which they work. One way that Margaret and I have enjoyed our limited success has been to make a conscious effort to be that respite. Briefly put: We try hard to make ourselves effortless to work with. We work as hard ast that, sometimes, as we do on the quality of reporting and writing.
We strive to make a phone call or email from us a moment of blessed relief in an otherwise dreadful week. Ah, we want the editor to think. Dan and Margaret are on the job. I can relax a little.
Certainly we have to do acceptable work. But read our stories: This is not wiggy-brilliant poetic wordsmithing. We do thorough reporting and then write it clearly. (Our work can be expressed in the equation Good Information + Strunk + White.) The work is fine.
We’ve gotten repeat assignments from high-paying magazines, I believe, only in part because our work is good. Another big part is that we make editors’ lives a little easier.
The actor Joe Pantoliano once said in an interview that he realized early on that he wasn’t the most handsome or talented actor in Hollywood; that he had a high, unpleasant voice; and was generally a dime a dozen as a character actor. So he set out to make himself the nicest man in Hollywood. He showed up on time, ready to work. He accepted direction. He didn’t throw tantrums. He simply made himself pleasant and effortless to have around, so people liked hiring him. Then, his natural and remarkable talents were given a chance to shine through.
For the rest of this week, I’ll share some techniques that Margaret and I have used to make ourselves easy to work with. Some of them will seem, at first blush, to be lifted from the Book of Duh. But we’re constantly amazed at how many writers fail to observe the most basic courtesies, and how many seem to founder as a result. Stay tuned.