EDITOR’S NOTE: This is one of five posts from the 2022 Power of Narrative conference at Boston University. Read Ellen Barry on first-person narratives, Lizzie Johnson on deadline narratives, Debbie Cenziper on investigative narratives, and Beth Macy and Martha Bebinger on covering drug addiction.
The relationship between writers and editors is one of the most important in journalism — and can one of the most challenging. Benoit Denizet-Lewis, a longtime magazine journalist and best-selling author, and Illena Silverman, deputy editor for features at The New York Times Magazine, have partnered on stories for 20 years now. “I feel like I was a child when you essentially gave me my career,” told Silverman.
In a virtual conversation at the 2022 Power of Narrative conference, hosted by Boston University, the two discussed what an editor brings to a story, the puzzle of narrative structure and the importance of a good story pitch.
Pre-reporting and pitching
Denizet-Lewis has been most successful with story pitches that have already identified characters and “really have a sense of the narrative.” He asked Silverman what, specifically, she looks for in a pitch.
Silverman: “I just want a lot of depth. When you’re working with great writers, what they can do is bring people to life, the way that novelists can bring people to life. … I like all the details and the emotional nuances of how someone is experiencing something.”
As an example, she referenced a Denizet-Lewis story from 2017 about American teens struggling with anxiety.
“You can’t just send me a pitch that says: ‘I want to write about anxious teens; it’s really important,’” she said. “You had already identified exactly where you wanted to report.”
She acknowledged the challenge that presents for freelancers, who must invest time in substantive pre-reporting without knowing if a pitch will be accepted: “It feels very unfair to me, but the truth is that the best pitches, the pitches that get assigned, are pitches where people have put a tremendous amount of unpaid work into it.”
Structure: conventions and instinct
Silverman and Denizet-Lewis analyzed a 2021 story by Susan Dominus about high school sophomores dealing with pandemic-era schooling. It’s a “show, don’t tell” narrative; the situations described are not expanded upon or explained by outside experts or sources.
“It’s kind of an atypical New York Times Magazine piece in that way,” Silverman said . “We may have six or eight sections, and most of them are narrative, but sometimes depending on a piece, every other section will pull back and give context.”
Dominus attempted to write pullback sections in early drafts, but Silverman cut them: “They just weren’t that interesting. There are a few paragraphs in the piece where it pulls back a little bit. But now they’ve just become part of the narrative as opposed to separate sections.”
Dominus’ story also lacked a clear central character, opting instead to move around from teachers to parents and children. “The metaphor that Sue had at some point was that she imagined it like a relay race where someone was like, handing the baton to the next person,” Silverman said.
Although conventions can help a writer find the right structure for a long piece, they can’t be manufactured. Editing decisions in Dominus’ piece happened organically to serve the purpose and flow of the story. “It was just an instinct,” Silverman said.
Denizet-Lewis doesn’t remember narrative, as a journalistic genre, being talked about much early in his career. “But that’s what attracted me to being a magazine writer, was to write narrative.”
Silverman said she didn’t know if narrative has expanded, but her self-confidence as an editor has: “I think I’ve gotten more comfortable in knowing what I want as a reader, like the kinds of stories that I want, what I’m interested in.”
That confidence and clarity has earned her a reputation among writers as something of a narrative therapist. Denizet-Lewis collected comments from other writers who have worked with Silverman, including one who described her as a “a serial monogamist: She leaps from one intense, singularly focused relationship with a writer during the editing stages to the next singularly focused relationship.”
Silverman did not reject the analogy. “My mother and father are both psychologists. My sister is a psychologist,” she said. “If one has been in therapy, the therapist sort of puts ideas out there and makes interpretations, and if it doesn’t feel right to you, you have to say it doesn’t feel right. I feel like my job as an editor is similar. I want to help you figure out what it is that you want to say.”
Brian Foisy is sophomore journalism student at Boston University. He currently works as co-editor of the Daily Free Press opinion section and as a host for WTBU Sports’ radio show.