Saturday, August 15, 2009

Spotlight Interview: John Capouya

John Capouya, Magazine/Newspaper Editor/Author/Writer/Professor

John Capouya comes from publishing royalty—the son of Emile Capouya, a renowned novelist, editor, publisher, poet, and translator. John began his career as a Senior Editor for the now-defunct Sport magazine. He then worked for two top daily newspapers in New York City, as the Features Editor for New York Newsday, and both the Deputy Editor and Lead Editor of the New York Times Sunday Styles section. Moving on to big-time national magazines, he was the Lifestyle Editor of Newsweek and the Deputy Editor of Smart Money.

He has written two books, Real Men Do Yoga and Gorgeous George, and is currently a professor of journalism and writing at the University of Tampa.

Here is my exclusive newsletter interview with Mr. Capouya:

Mike: How did you get your start in journalism?

Capouya: I graduated from the Columbia J-school in 1981 and then became an editorial assistant at Sport magazine. I was there for about four years and I worked my way up to a senior editor position. It was a great experience. There were a lot of talented people there, including David Granger, who is now the editor of Esquire, and David Bauer, who’s a top editor at Sports Illustrated.

After I left Sport as a staffer, I signed on to write a certain number of freelance stories a year for them. I did that for two-and-a-half years, mostly writing about pro basketball. I found freelancing enjoyable but a very tough go financially.

I had a chance to edit again, when a good friend of mine, John Atwood, was starting up a regional magazine called Long Island Monthly (which is defunct as well), and I stayed on the editing track for a long time after that.

Mike: What’s the difference between being a writer and being an editor?

Capouya: Earlier in my career, I found writing to be an agonizing, nerve-wracking process. I would stay up all night and rewrite endlessly and probably fruitlessly. With the editing, I got to use my intellect and it wasn't so much of a neurotic process.

Mike: What are the most common misconceptions that writers have about editors?

Capouya: Well, lately, I've felt that writers filing stories to me expected major intervention. That it wasn’t just inevitable but even a desirable part of the process—not only to me but the magazine for which I’m editing. As a result, I feel like I've been getting intentionally or consciously overlong drafts, or works in progress. The underlying assumption seems to be that I am going to do major work on it anyway, so crafting the story to the agreed-upon length isn’t really necessary. In my worst moments, it feels like the writers are saying: ‘Okay, here is what I gathered. You figure out what you want and how to make it into a story,’ which is emphatically not what I want to do.

To be fair, my experiences as a writer of late have shown me that, even if my editor doesn’t tear into my copy, his or her top editor, the editor in chief sometimes will, so writers expecting this are not necessarily wrong. I still think it’s incumbent on you to shape and finish a story to completion, to deliver a finished product to the extent that you can.

It's a tricky and at times uncomfortable position to be in, as a story editor, to encourage and guide a writer to revise and improve a draft, when it’s never certain that the top editor—or at times, editors—will agree with the guidance I've given. I don’t know what the answer is. I can only do what my experience and sense of what the top editor wants tell me what is needed and hope I am not steering the writer wrong.

Mike: What can you tell us about query letters?

Capouya: I’d say the most common, and maybe most annoying mistakes are writers not reading and/or not understanding the magazine, sending queries that either a) we’ve already done, b) our main competitors just did and which we therefore would not want to pursue, or c) perfectly good stories but that clearly don’t fit into the publication's mission.

E-mailing queries is probably the best approach right now. Although no matter how you send them, it can often take forever to be read.

My only advice about that waiting period: Don’t wait! That is, have other ideas out to other people. After a couple of weeks, go back to the editor you queried and ask if they had a chance to read it yet, can they tell you if there’s any interest, and if not you want to pitch it elsewhere.

Mike: What should the relationship between writer and editor be at best?

Capouya: The writer and editor should discuss the story fully beforehand what’s needed and how to get it, even some sources that might be approached or possible structures for the piece (especially for service pieces).

The writer should then take the ball and run with it, giving the occasional update and especially notifying the editor if the story is not going as planned. Once the writer files (on time and near the agreed-upon word count, of course), the editor’s role is ideally finding ways—such as structure, phrasing, point-making—that make an already good story a little better, and again, ideally, the writer sees and agrees that these suggestions will work.

Unlike some editors, I don’t want to engage in “hand-holding” or to be a source of emotional support for volatile or needy writers. My view is, this is a business, albeit one in which a lot of feelings and emotions come into play, since the creative process is by definition an intensely personal thing, and that this should be conducted in a cordial but essentially business-like fashion.

Mike: What’s the best way for a novice writer to approach an editor, get his/her attention?

Capouya: It helps to come recommended by someone I know, or simply to have an idea that will force me to take a chance on you because it’s such a good story.

Mike: What are editors looking for from writers?

Capouya: Ideas, dependability, agreeable as opposed to diva-ish vibe. And best of all, to surprise with the quality and originality of your work and insights and/or writing skills, surpassing the minimum acceptable level of the completed assignment.

Mike: How do print magazine editors view online clips and/or self-published book authors?

Capouya: Online clips, self-published books are fine, I think. How they’re viewed within the industry shouldn’t depend on the medium in which they were published but the quality of the writing. Good writing, no matter where it’s published, will get noticed.

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