WHO: Dick Snyder, editorial director, Totem;
president, CityBites Media Inc.; editor, CityBites;
FIRST MAGAZINE JOBS:
Summer intern (“Paid, thankfully.”), Saint John Evening Times Globe. “I was a general assignment reporter covering the city and region, everything from City Hall to a performance of The Polka Dot Door
at the local theater. This was a fantastic job, because the prime mandate was to fill pages. There were three of us Toronto-based recent grads, all churning out anywhere from two to five stories a day. Battling for the front page!”
Editor, The Eyeopener.
“Before the final school year was out, I ran for editor of Ryerson’s independent student newspaper. This was to be a cushion in case I wasn’t offered to stay on at the Times Globe. In fact, I was offered a permanent job, which left me the decision: Do I stay in Saint John and work my way up through a small newspaper, or do I go back to Toronto, work at The Eyeopener, and work on obtaining my dream job — a summer internship at The Globe and Mail. I rang Colin McKenzie, who was then deputy editor at the Globe to ask his advice. He said come back to Toronto, work like hell, and apply for the Globe’s summer internship.”
Summer intern, The Globe and Mail.
“A coveted position on the Globe’s summer intern squad! I started as a copy editor on the foreign news desk. Then, I was a copy editor on the ‘universal desk,’ where a pool of copy editors dealt with copy from all departments. Then I was taught layout on the arcane proprietary layout system, and did layout for foreign and local news, and occasionally the front page. At the end of the summer, I was offered the only full-time job available for summer interns. Lesson: make yourself indispensable by learning every skill imaginable, with enthusiasm.”
WHAT ELSE SHOULD WE KNOW ABOUT YOU, DICK?
“Just an observation on editing and media: When I joined Totem (which was called Redwood at the time, back in 1999), branded or custom content were dirty words. But I’m proud to work with a company that pioneered and defined branded content, which we now see all around us, especially in new media platforms. There used to be a great divide between conventional journalists and the term we coined at Totem, “marketing journalists.” I always considered these two disciplines as two sides of the same coin. Marketing journalism isn’t that different from the kind of service journalism we learned in school, and put in practice in the lifestyle sections of conventional magazines and newspapers. Now, service journalism is everywhere, to wildly divergent standards of quality, mind you. The modern editor and journalist needs to be able to function in so many arenas, from print and digital media, to conventional and branded vehicles, to social and sharing tools. The ‘equipment’ of journalism is changing and will keep changing, but the basic skill sets remain. Tell a great story, make it riveting, package it up nice and never forget about your reader. The reader is the most important person, even more important than the editor.”
SO DICK, TELL US...
WHAT MAKES A GOOD EDITOR?
There’s no single thing, but a mash-up of skills, emotions, desires, insecurities, instincts and knowledge. A good editor is a contradictory assemblage of divergent abilities and unpredictable mood patterns. A curious beast, like a Gruffalo.
Scary and imposing, yet sympathetic. Confident and dictatorial, but open to persuasion. Arrogant and impetuous, though with traces of generosity. I do believe, as with anything, that an editor gets better results with sugar than with vinegar. Though there are times when some acid invective is required to call a writer to heal. But often, this is deployed only at the end of the working relationship, when salvage mode is the last resort. After the third, “I really did send it. I’m having trouble with my Rogers account.”
One of the only universal truths that has been proved to me time and again: The best writers are a dream to edit, because it’s not so much editing (or fixing) as it is collaborative production of an outstanding piece of journalism. The best writers respond to coaching, ideas on making their work better. The worst writers will battle every single note, suggestion or attempt at reason — they are that confident in their superior abilities. And yet, their work is never more than merely acceptable, and barely that. (I’ve edited National Magazine Award winners of this ilk, which is why these awards should recognize the editor rather than the writer, or at least come up with some weighted formula.) The worst writers wonder why you never hire them again.
A good editor is not always a good writer, but it helps. In my case, becoming a good writer — through excellent j-school profs, a lot of hands-on, “real” writing during school, and exposure to great editors — was my initial passion. Idolizing Hunter S. Thompson, Hemingway, Mordecai Richler… the usual. I slogged through j-school convinced that I wanted to be a reporter, but it turns out I liked being an editor better. I truly enjoy doing both, though, and likely maintain about a 70:30 edit-to-writing ratio. And this seems about right. When I feel like my writing and/or reporting skills are atrophying, I’ll pitch a few stories to newspapers or magazines (the conventional kind, print) to force myself to revisit the disciplines of tight focus, reader service and tight word count.
A good editor is a good listener. That’s how he or she gets good ideas, or rips them off by listening in on private conversations. That’s how he can take a drip of a notion and, by matching it up to the best writer, get the writer to do all the work and turn it into a really great idea, and hopefully a really great article. A lot of this trickery, I mean alchemy, happens during the first phone call that takes place after the initial email query: “Hey, I’ve got this idea for an article,” the emails begins, “and it might be up your alley.”
Talking is key. A real conversation results in more clarity of mission, better idea generation, deeper insight. It’s the best way to ensure that the writer is set off on the right track from the get go. Depending on the size and scope of the article, a couple of follow-up conversations are usually in order. Email cannot replace the conversation! Pick up the phone.
A good editor does not impose himself or herself on the writer. That is, she doesn’t judge the work, in style or technique, against her own criteria. She leaves the writer free to express his or her voice. Within the confines of the style of the publication, of course. But without whittling the prose down to a consistent and predictable sludge, or “house style.” A good editor has the reader in mind, over and above her own desires. She never stops asking: What does the reader need to know? What is the reader thinking as he reads this? What’s missing? How can this passage be made shorter? Yes, brevity is king. Shorter is always better.
A good editor trusts his instincts, and doesn’t edit by committee. That is, he doesn’t bother his spouse or kids for input, or circulate the work around the office to get a consensus of opinion (which is never possible). A good editor encourages forthright, declarative prose, and eliminates “fiddly” punctuation as much as possible (brackets, semi-colons, long dashes). Damn, I just used two sets of brackets!
A good editor loves reading. And he reads everything he can, whenever he can. Even the worst writing can teach him something. And the best writing can lift his spirits, and then he can rip off the elements that led to the spirit-lifting. A good editor is obsessed with copy editing, rules of grammar, and parallelism. But she’s not beholden to them. She can toss out all the rules on a whim, and still pull together a wicked piece.
A good editor doesn’t worry about the death of print. He embraces the rise of digital. He knows print will never die. And all media are valid, riveting, challenging and ridiculous. Best to master them all than fret about being bowled over. A good editor embraces Twitter as a word challenge: It’s really just an exercise in headline writing. Do it several times a day just to exercise that particular editorial muscle. (Oh, and Twitter is just about the best fountain of ideas ever invented!)
A good editor doesn’t whine about the state of journalism. He strives to make it better. And he recognizes that we’re living in the most exciting times imaginable. Plug in, turn on, freak out. That’s what it’s all about.
FAVOURITE PART OF BEING AN EDITOR?
Reading a good manuscript — do they still call them that? — for the first time, and getting that warm feeling as it becomes clear that this writer, someone you haven’t worked with before, is really good. She has a voice, skill with words, a sense of humour, the ability to deploy the right word to the right effect. And then, instead of marking up the text during this first pass, you just read on and let the narrative happen. There’s always work to be done, of course, but that feeling of recognizing serious potential, and then hunkering down to pull it all to an even higher level — it’s gold.
The other thing I really love — and owning my own magazine, CityBites, allows me to do this — is to give a new writer his or her first gig. And, if she’s good, I can help promote both her work and personal brand, by publicizing her work on our social media platforms, by giving her a place on our contributor page, by giving her more work. I really enjoy mentoring the most enthusiastic ones, and helping them find their voice. And, hopefully, a real job.
WHAT ADVICE WOULD YOU GIVE TO EDITORS JUST STARTING THEIR CAREERS?
This is why I love our digital age. Because the only way to get good as an editor is to edit, not just other people, but yourself. When I started out as a writer and editor, in the nascent Internet years, desktop publishing was the great salvation, as anyone with a Mac could churn out a “magazine” or chap book on whatever subject they loved best. This was, of course, pre-blog. I hooked up with several basement publishers, and offered to do anything that needed doing (unpaid). I wrote, edited, copy edited, trimmed copy, wrote display, chased drunks out of the living room. Whatever it took to see my name in print, to work with the words and the layouts, and then see the printed piece at the end. Because until you see your name in print, it doesn’t matter. Now, with Twitter and Tumblr and Facebook and Wordpress, anyone can see their name in print any time. Which means this: taking responsibility for your work, your voice, your brand. The kids today won’t really see it that way, since they’ve been online since they were in nappies. But they’ve subconsciously absorbed the lessons of permanence: You write it, it’s live, and everyone reads it. So it’d better be good, or you’ll hear about it. Within minutes.
So, the same goes for today’s fledgling editors. Do as much work as you can, for anyone, for no pay, for a little pay. Build your reputation, impress people, surprise people. Never disappoint, never let anyone down. Never think you’ve got it all figured out. There’s always room for great editors, no matter what they say about declining media jobs. I see a continual need for exemplary editors. You just have to be great, not just good.
Also, keep returning to The Elements of Style by Strunk & White. Read The Elements of Editing by Arthur Plotnick. It’s old and outdated, but the fundamentals are solid. And it’s fun reading about lead type! And keep reading for pleasure. Be aware as you read. That is, aware of the author’s voice, his techniques, even how and where the editor stepped in to make it better. Absorb, learn, steal and improve.
MOST MEMORABLE EDITING MOMENT?
I’d assigned a one-page article to a National Magazine Award winning journalist. One of those guys who’s beloved for his folksy downhomeness, his “real Canadian” voice, his gruff ruralness. This was a guy who cultivated this particular “brand.” I sent him a detailed brief on what I was looking for, and flattered him as to why he was the perfect choice. I wanted a little humour, that particular kind of CBC-Radio-Sunday-morning folksiness. But I was leaving it up to him to find his thread, his POV, his central idea. All I required, and I laid this out in the brief, and in the phone discussion we had, was that it be a pan-Canadian article. That is, I needed quotes from sources on the east coast, the west coast, and somewhere in between. I was paying more than market rate, I think $1.25 a word. This was about 10 years ago. He agreed to everything, and filed on time.
And it was the worst piece of dreck I’d ever read. Lazy writing, devoid of research, incoherent, unstructured, boring and flat, with a terrible lead. It was, however, about the assigned subject matter. And he did get quotes from three people — two of them living in Ontario, and one of them an Ontario native living — coincidentally? — in the same town where the writer lived. I made detailed notes in the document — I’m talking about spending an hour or more to gently emphasize the points from the original brief and how they should come to bear within the article itself. This, for an article of about 700 words. I sent him the notes, and got a reply affirming that he understood what he needed to do, and would refile by the appointed date.
On the appointed date, I got a phone call. He said he didn’t think he could do the article and thought it would be best for me to give him a kill fee. “It sounds like what you want in this article and what I sent you the first time are completely different things.” I was astounded. Yes, indeed they were completely different, I thought, but who’s fault was that? I thanked him for his time, and sent him a kill fee of about 30% of the agreed fee, as our contract stated that the editor could determine the appropriate kill fee, and I thought this more than a generous payment. He badgered me for several weeks, arguing that he should receive 50%. The difference might have been $100.
I reassigned the story. And I showed my new writer this guy’s shoddy work. She knew the writer personally. She said: “Oh, you know those three people he quoted are his best friends.” A real pro, that guy!
WHAT MAGAZINE DO YOU THINK IS DOING AN OUTSTANDING JOB RIGHT NOW?
Saveur, the gorgeous and inspirational food magazine. It exudes “smart.” You can see the effort that goes into story development. They don’t follow the trends that all the other food media are doing. They’re more like a National Geographic or a Vanity Fair, but for food and everything that food has to do with your life.
WHERE TO FIND DICK ONLINE:
CityBites website: Citybites.ca
(currently under construction)
Twitter: @citybites and @snyderdick