A mat or tattoo that says TRUST

EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the first of an occasional series interviewing story editors about how they do their jobs.

By Carly Stern

Any grateful writer can attest to the power of a strong editor — a trusted voice of reason who tactfully guides a draft through the revision process, makes copy sparkle and helps actualize a story to its fullest form. Some specialize as prose doctors, while others serve as de facto cheerleaders throughout the reporting process. In this new series for Storyboard, we’ll peek behind the curtain to reveal: What actually makes an editor great? How do they do what they do?

Our first editor spotlight is with Scott Stossel, a D.C.-based national editor for The Atlantic who has edited a plethora of award-winning magazine stories over the years. He also is the editor of two books — an award-winning biography of late U.S. politician and diplomat Sargent Shriver and The New York Times bestselling semi-memoir “My Age of Anxiety.”

Stossel has spent the majority of his career at the 167-year-old magazine — which recently took home a series of 2024 National Magazine Awards, including the top prize in National Excellence — with a stint editing for The American Prospect.

Scott Stossel, national editor of The Atlantic

Scott Stossel

Stossel takes pride in working with writers of all ranges and abilities, including emerging writers and subject matter experts who aren’t accustomed to writing for a general audience. He also writes his own stories, describing himself as an “editor by trade” and a “writer by avocation.” His work has appeared in publications including The New Yorker, The Guardian and The New York Times.

Storyboard spoke with Stossel about finding his way to this path, how he cultivates that essential alchemy between editor and writer, and ways that he adapts his practices for different writers. Our conversation, featured below, has been edited for length and clarity.

When you decided to pursue journalism, what initially drew you toward editing?
It was a bit of happenstance. When I graduated from college, I wanted to become a book editor. My first job out of college was actually working as a bookseller at a retail bookstore. I got a crash course in contemporary publishing and journalism through the bookstore, and I kept applying for and not getting New York publishing jobs.

I started as an intern at The Atlantic, working primarily for the fiction editor, reading slush pile submissions. From there, I lucked out that a job opened in what was then called the special projects department. I was editing this little section called “The Arts and Entertainment Preview” which gave me experience managing a very small team of freelance contributors, fact-checkers and designers. Then I moved over into the editorial department proper doing fact-checking. This was in the ’90s, so I was also helping to build our digital presence, building out the content on our website.

My initial aspiration was to be a writer. I just sort of fell into editing. I have a short attention span and get bored easily. As an editor, I get to work on a bunch of different pieces at once. I still write, and I find that my experience as an editor has made me a better writer. But it’s much easier for me to edit other people than it is to edit myself. I almost consider much of my writing process to be editing. You get something down and it’s terrible. But having had lots of experience with hopeless-seeming manuscripts, there aren’t many traps and cul-de-sacs that I haven’t helped writers navigate themselves out of.

What engages you in this role?
I’m getting so many different ideas thrown at me from a diverse array of writers on a diverse array of topics. It’s like getting to be a permanent graduate student. That’s true for writing as well, though you have to go deeper for longer. In recent years, journalists of all kinds — editors, writers, producers — have been losing jobs as the industry has contracted. But I’ve found there are far more writers out there who are really, really good than there are editors who can work with longform stuff. Someday I may discover that I’m someone who manufactures buggy whips and people won’t need my services anymore. But we haven’t gotten there yet.

Where did you learn what you know about editing?
One of the best trainings is reading everything — all kinds of publications — to get a sense of what the sensibility of a publication is, how different news organizations approach reporting, how they approach technical things, how they deal with anonymous sourcing, whether they do nut graphs or not. Being a fact-checker at The Atlantic for three years was good training because I could see both the writing and editing process. When working with really talented and experienced writers on complicated pieces, you’re following in their footsteps. You see how they took all this information and assembled it into a coherent narrative or argument. You get a sense of how much gets left on the cutting room floor.

Jeff Goldberg, my boss at The Atlantic, talks about the “iceberg effect.” In some of the best pieces, what you’re seeing is only the very tip of the iceberg in terms of the specific facts and writer’s knowledge. Hopefully, the reader knows, too, that there is a vast edifice of knowledge and perspective that lies beneath that. Writers develop an academic understanding, which is where you get a sense of authority.

When working with really talented and experienced writers on complicated pieces, you’re following in their footsteps.

Fact-checkers have to track the piece very carefully as it goes through copy editing and top editing. So I would see both the early stages of developmental editing — what the senior editor was doing in terms of recasting certain sections or wanting more reporting. In the latter phases, I saw what rigorous copy editing looks like. Beyond copy editing, it’s line editing — seeing how to smooth knots and infelicities, make sure that everything is logically sound, and how smart top editors at the end stage apply polish.

Beyond The Atlantic, where else did you learn what you know?
I learned by doing at The American Prospect. I was working with some journalists, but also with a lot of academics and policy wonks. I got experience at translating people who are smart and knowledgeable, but not practiced at writing for a general audience.

At one point, we were redesigning the magazine and did focus groups where we would watch behind a mirror. A facilitator would ask people what they liked and didn’t like about different features. Then they actually had them read a piece; it was one I had written. So I’m watching 15 people who don’t know I’m behind the screen. You can see where their attention starts to wander and who’s still riveted.

That was a rare and vivid real-time experience of seeing whether you’re holding the reader’s attention. I could see where their attention drifted and what they liked.

Ever since, the way I approach editing is always thinking of whether and how you’re holding the reader’s attention. How do you keep them from clicking something else on their phone or deciding to do their laundry? Sometimes it’s just the quality of the voice and the prose that make you want to keep going. Sometimes it’s humor. Sometimes it’s when I call “chocolate chips.” The shape of a paragraph, or the structure of a whole piece, matters a lot less if you’ve got a ton of chocolate chips, because even if the cookie is misshapen, who doesn’t love chocolate chips? Chocolate chips can be little scoops, or they can be amazing quotes, or they can be fantastic lines of prose, or they can be little revelations, or they can be analytic insights. I have an obsessive concern with holding the reader’s attention.

How would you describe the essential ingredients for strong chemistry between writer and editor?
Psychological and diplomatic flexibility in an editor is so important. I edit writers at different levels of experience and different kinds of temperaments and psychologies, writing so many different kinds of pieces. I find that every writer and every piece demands a different approach. For the first-time writer, I try to assess: How do they like to work? How do they write? Are they good with the idea? Are they good at structure? Are they bad at structure? It’s a feeling-out process. I try to explain everything that I’m doing or asking for.

With writers you work with on a regular basis, it’s crucial to develop mutual trust both ways. They need to trust that I’m not fussing with prose for the sake of fussing, but that I’m trying to do something to strengthen it — even when they disagree. And I need to trust them. With some of my writers now, we don’t even talk that much. It’s all back and forth in the Google Doc. For many writers, I’ll say, ‘Undo anything I’ve done that you don’t like.’ If they don’t understand why I’ve done it, I’ll explain it. A lot of it is diplomacy and psychology and kind of being a counselor, because you’re also managing the larger concerns of the institution, considering what different top editors want and filtering those voices. For the writer who feels like they’re getting pulled in different directions, that can be disconcerting. I try to be transparent so they understand why they’re being asked to do what they’re doing.

Psychological and diplomatic flexibility in an editor is so important.

I work with a range of pieces. For some, I literally rewrite every sentence — say, with an academic writer — and they’re fine with it; they have the idea and the original research and they trust that The Atlantic knows how to render it for the reader. With other writers, who are talented stylists with very strong voices, I feel like if I move a semicolon I’ll foul up their rhythm and voice. So I proceed more carefully. In those cases, it’s less about rewriting and more about making gentle queries and suggestions.

This is grossly oversimplified, but there are bad or beginning writers who know they’re beginning and are very eager to be rewritten. They’re easy to work with because their pieces improve a lot  —you see them learning and getting better. On the other extreme, there are experienced, talented writers who are incredibly difficult. They know what they’re doing and are set in their ways. There, you’re doing a lot more diplomacy. It’s more about working at the margins and trying to nudge them along.

They need to trust that I’m not fussing with prose for the sake of fussing, but that I’m trying to do something to strengthen it — even when they disagree. And I need to trust them.

Then in the middle, you have what can be most rewarding: people who are talented but also incredibly easygoing and eager to hear feedback, and don’t get their backs up if you’re asking for major rewrites.

Of course, there are those who believe their prose is sacrosanct, even when it’s not good. Then you have to convey that what they’re doing is not working — and they’re like, Wait, you dare to change my work?

Why is the writer-editor relationship so important?
I can’t remember where I originally heard this, but I think I stole it from someone. The writer should feel like the editor is their urologist or proctologist or gynecologist. You feel comfortable showing them horrible, unspeakable, embarrassing things and you will not feel judged — only that the person is going to look at it with a dispassionate eye and figure out how to fix whatever the problem is.

When you think about some of your favorite writers to edit, what qualities do they share?
I love writers who have original ideas and understand how to provide a conceptual scoop that helps the reader think about something they thought they knew, or didn’t know, in an entirely new way. Then we work to refine that. I love writers who are conscientious and meticulous; we have a symbiotic relationship where we’re each trying to improve the piece little by little by little, with lots of small changes. Over the course of the piece’s passage through the editorial process, if you’ve made 700 tiny changes, that can add up to a piece being much better. I also work with writers who, when I make changes, see ways to improve it even more. I enjoy watching that kind of workmanship where they’re making things ever more clear, ever more succinct. And I love writers who are great stylists. Jennifer Senior is one example of an extremely gifted writer with voice and pacing and use of metaphorical language. (Editor’s note: See the Storyboard Q&A of her 2022 Pulitzer-winning story about a victim of the 9/11 attacks and her 2023 story about people with intellectual disabilities.)

What kind of stories really call to you and excite you intellectually as an editor?
They’ve got to have the spark of originality. The Atlantic is an ideas-driven publication, but we like to find the author who can do the “definitive” piece that becomes a category killer. After that, any other piece on the same subject feels like a lesser thing because this piece has so fully explained the big issue.

We’re also a news publication so we’re looking to break news and for things we can peg to the news. But there are some pieces that become their own newsmakers, like big cover stories that become their own occasion. It’s like putting a boulder in a river that changes the shape of the stream, ideally in a constructive way that is specifically valuable. One example is years ago, I worked on “The Case for Reparations” by Ta-Nehisi Coates. At that time, reparations wasn’t on the radar and he single-handedly brought that back and changed the discourse.

I also love incredible narratives.

Every editor has a distinctive style. Some are more or less hands-on than others, both with shaping the idea and the copy. How do you balance engaging with writers while also maintaining a light touch? What is your approach to that tension?
It comes down to flexibility — being nimble and adaptable — because it is different for every piece and every writer.

There are some pieces that come in and the idea is pretty fully baked. The reporter has done a bunch of reporting, or they’re an expert on something, or it’s been assigned by my boss. There’s already a plan, so I’m just dealing with the prose as it comes in.

There should be an editor’s version of the Hippocratic Oath. The first thing is do no harm.

There are other pieces where I am talking to the writer throughout the reporting process. A good example of this was Caitlin Dickerson’s piece about family separation that won a Pulitzer. (Editor’s note: See the Storyboard Q&A with Dickerson about that piece.) She’s such an amazing reporter. But she had so much material and there were so many ways of presenting this bureaucratic story. So we talked for hours over months: How are we framing this? What should you be asking? Who should you be talking to? Another is George Packer, who does ideas-driven pieces. He finds it helpful to talk to someone to make sure his ideas are grounded and the spark is really ignited.

My range of approaches runs from doing almost nothing to rewriting every word. There should be — and I try to abide by — an editor’s version of the Hippocratic Oath. The first thing is do no harm. With every piece, I want to do the absolute minimal amount possible. Whenever possible, I want to preserve the writer’s voice and original ideas. I tend to think of every piece of having as having the platonic, ideal realization of itself. So when I’m thinking about a piece, I want to make it the best version of itself and the most “itself-y” version of itself. That’s just drawing out what is already in the writers, whether that means helping them think about what additional reporting they need or helping them refine the prose or getting the structure right.

It doesn’t happen very often, but when a piece comes in that I can send along to the copy desk and fact-checking without touching it, I’m thrilled. But even in a piece where I have to be much more interventionist, I’ll try to be as minimally interventionist as I can.

In our current media climate, where would you direct writers who want to gain editing skills? What kinds of roles or resources would you recommend?
If you’re a freelance writer, pay attention to how the editing gets done at different places and how different editors work. Different publications have different things they want. A good piece is a good piece, and a story well told is a story well told, and an investigative scoop is an investigative scoop. Those can work in many places — The New York Times, The Washington Post, New York Magazine, The Atlantic, Mother Jones, the National Review, etcetera. But each place has a different sensibility and point of emphasis. What a magazine of ideas, like us, looks for is different from what a political magazine looks for or a newspaper looks for. It can help to become attuned to those distinctions in sensibility and approach. Editing, in some ways, is editing wherever you go, but there’s also acclimating to the culture and sensibility of a place.

Editing your own stuff is different psychologically from editing other people’s stuff, but you do learn from the process of revision. So many writing teachers and writing manuals talk about the importance of revision. That’s really what an editor does — you’re just doing it to yourself. You take your idea, you put it aside and then you pick it up. If your attention is flagging, the reader’s attention is going to flag. Is it as succinct as it possibly can be? You want pieces to be as short as they can be and as long as they need to be.

When you’re reading anything, particularly journalism, think about how you would do something differently. The New Yorker is so well written and edited. So when you’re reading it, think about the decisions they made to begin with this or finish with that. How is the thing structured?

Has being an editor affected how you write?
I would like to think it’s helped. Through working with prose and helping writers untangle knots, I’m better at untangling my own and doing the ruthless “boring read.” Is this absolutely as short as it can be? Is every paragraph doing something worthwhile? Are there chocolate chips in every paragraph to carry the reader along?

But in some ways, being an editor has created anxiety when I sit down to write. I work with talented writers who have won National Magazine Awards and National Book Awards and Pulitzer Prizes. I know what really good writing is and what really good journalism is. Sometimes the gap between what I’ve done in the first draft and what my own colleagues are doing makes me think, “Oh, God. I better go back to editing.”

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Carly Stern is an award-winning enterprise journalist based in San Francisco who covers health, housing and economic security.

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