Friday, February 13, 2009
Spotlight Interview: John Atwood
John Atwood, National Magazine Editor-in-Chief
John Atwood has been one of the top editors in the national magazine business for over two decades. Currently the editor-in-chief of Travel & Leisure Golf Magazine, Atwood has been the editor-in-chief of Sports Afield and, most notably, was one of the founding editors of Men’s Journal.
Here’s my exclusive newsletter interview with Mr. Atwood:
Mike: So what does an editor-in-chief of a major national magazine really do?
Atwood: You’d be amazed how little of it has to do with actual hands-on editing. In addition to my responsibilities on the editorial side, I have to work with the publishing side, the production side, the circulation side, the marketing side, the public relations, the executive level people at the magazine, our advertisers. Overseeing the editorial is only 50 percent of what I do. No more than that. This is something that usually shocks people when I tell them—unless, of course, they are, or have been, editor-in-chiefs.
Mike: Did you ever write?
Atwood: I have, but never for a living. I still write stuff from time to time, and I actually find it a lot of fun. I’ve been edited a lot too. I’ve learned a lot about writing, as well as editing, from good editing experiences.
Mike: How have writers responded to your editing over the years?
Atwood: I have found that good writers actually appreciate the editing process. Occasionally, you run into an egomaniac that has difficulties with it. But, ultimately, those aren’t writers you respect or are ones you can continue working with.
Mike: What relationship do you like to have with your writers?
Atwood: I want it to be close enough where I really know who they are as people, not just writers. When I decide to take on a new writer, the first question I’ll often say is, “So, tell me about your life.” I want to know the writer’s passions, life experiences of where he/she’s been and done, the subjects that turn him/her on. I want to know all those things way before I ever assign that person something. Once I fully understand what makes the writer tick and what he/she cares about, I know what topic or topics would be the perfect fit and what from the person’s experience would be valuable to the readers.
On the flipside, it’s not a bad idea for the writer to have a deeper understanding of the editor they’re working with too. Some editors are real line editors, wanting to go through every story sentence by sentence. Some editors are concept editors, focusing almost entirely on the ideas illustrated in the story. Editors, like all people, are very different and demand different things.
Mike: So, under ordinary circumstances, would you rather assign a story to the writer or take a pitch from the writer?
Atwood: It’s been my experience that the best ideas are the ones that come from writers, not editors. If you’re talking about narrative non-fiction, writers have the time, experience, and interest to fund the really cool stuff. They’re out there in the real world following it. We editors are indoor creatures, though that’s not to say that editors can’t come up with great ideas too.
Mike: What’s your advice on pitching to editors?
Atwood: Write about what you know. If you have a particular passion, no matter what it is, then that’s what you should be writing about. Because then you don’t have to get over the hurdle of not understanding the subject matter. When you’re starting out as a writer, make sure to pick topics that you not only know extremely well, but also look to say something new about it. Make sure you have a special, unique take that no one else can do but YOU.
Don’t just pluck something out of the blue because it’s interesting.
That’s why I’m a strong believer that young writers looking to build a long-lasting, in-demand career should take up niche writing. Having a specialty, especially an area that you might know better than most, if not everybody, has always been a good road—and with the way things are going, it might be better now more than ever, because magazines are getting narrower and narrower in focus.
Mike: What about query letters?
Atwood: I get tons of them, by both snail mail and email. And I must admit that I respond to very few. Being the editor-in-chief, I’m probably the worst person in the world to send a query letter to. My time limitations, as with most people in my position, are simply too great. Your chances are much better if you send it to another editor down on the masthead. Just make sure it’s the right editor for your pitch. That’s very important.
When I get a query letter, though, the first thing I’ll do is look at the name on it, and I only respond to those people whose reputations precede them, whose byline names I recognize. Or occasionally ones that come with a personal reference, someone I know and respect recommending them.
Mike: Okay, then, let’s assume the writer hits the right editor at the right time. At that point, what query letters work best?
Atwood: Ones that move quickly. Introduce yourself in the first graph, tell the editor who you are—but very briefly. Get right past the intro and go straight to your idea. If you want to embellish on your credentials, and why you’re the right person for the story, that’s fine—but do it at the end.
The idea is paramount. Is it something I’ve never heard of before? Or is it the same old same old? For any editor, that’s big when a writer hits you with something very different. That’ll capture an editor’s eye better than anything, trust me. But it still must come from a fairly known entity, with a good track record for delivering quality stuff. To accept even a great pitch from an unknown writer is rare at the high-level magazines. Just because you have a great idea doesn’t mean you’ll be able to successfully write about it to the standards of the publication you want to write it for. I’ll take a chance with someone every now and then, but it’s rare.
And one more last thing: Unless you’re a famous writer, keep your letter to no more than one page.
Mike: What are query letter killers?
Atwood: Number One, by far, is not understanding the publication in the least, or not being familiar with what stories the publication has run recently—a major turnoff.
You have to tailor your pitch precisely to the publication and its readers’ needs. Which means you need to care enough to read it a lot and see what it is that they do and what they have covered. Don’t waste the editor’s time with things they’ve already done to death.
Mike: So, what do you suggest for young, new, or relatively new writers to do?
Atwood: You have to start small, but at the same time dream big. Keep making the steps you know that you can make. Keep your expectations low. And keep plugging away.
So many writers, it seems, want to start out working for big magazines. That’s not the right way to go. The big general-interest titles, with few exceptions, forget about it. You’re not going to get published by them until you’ve proven yourself somewhere else. I don’t know one exception personally.
You should start out by writing for the small local newspapers and magazines. You build up your clips. You learn some skills. You develop your chops. Then, after you’ve paid your dues for awhile, you can try to get published by the bigger publications.
Some believe that beginning writers should try to publish small, front of-the-book items in big magazines to gain profile and use the name of the magazine in their resume and subsequent query letter. I’m not one of those people who think that works. At the end of the day, the item is usually so small it doesn’t really show your talent and other than the high of seeing your name in a big magazine, I’m not sure what you’re really going to get out of it.
My advice: Go in slow, gradual steps. And if you have any talent, you’ll get to the bigger publications in due time.
Rush the process and you risk having one door shut on you after the next, which will only frustrate you to no end and do nothing to nurture your developing talent.
Writing for top publications, while it can sometimes be very rewarding, can be a tough experience, with editors that really know their stuff and who will make you work hard. It’s best for you to know what you’re doing before you get to that place.
Mike: What do you think about simultaneous submissions? Are they okay, or a major no-no?
Atwood: If I were the writer, this is what I would do: send it to the magazine I’d most like to see the story in, give the editor two weeks, and then submit it somewhere else. That’s perfectly reasonable. In fact, I would write that very thing in your query letter—but I’d word it in a way that flatters the editor and the editor’s magazine. In other words, write: “This is a great story for your magazine. You’re my first choice, and I’m truly hoping that you’ll say yes. But if I don’t hear from you within 2-3 weeks, I’ll assume you’re not interested and I’ll take it somewhere else.” There’s nothing wrong with that at all.
Mike: Any final words?
Atwood: Yes, and they’re critical. You have to ask yourself again and again why you do this and whether you have the drive to go it for the long run.
I think the most common misperception is that writing and getting published are easy. They’re not. The freelance market is so impossibly difficult that most freelance writers are doing bartending or waiting or some service industry jobs to make a living. They’re forced to do other things. And the act of writing itself, for most writers, is a hundred times more painful than it is for the rest of us.
That means that if you want to do this for a living, you have to love it and want it with everything you have inside you. Because the reality is, it’s an incredibly tough life and the only thing that can overwhelm this reality is that intense desire to do it. You do it because you have to, because you want nothing else.
Believe it or not, the same is true of us editors. We have to love it—and want it—just as badly.