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Why the Best Writing Is "Steeped in Knowledge"

Hall of Fame editor Terry McDonell reveals the inspiration behind his new memoir about writing and the writers he’s worked with—from Hunter S. Thompson to George Plimpton—and why to find your voice, “you just have to let it rip sometimes

Editor Terry McDonell

Whether you are a writer or a journalist or an editor of either one, when you look in the mirror you should think tireless or dogged or maybe even a stronger word to describe what you need to be to become successful, and what you should be as you go after the truth—which is your job.”

So reads the wisdom of Terry McDonell—editor, journalist and media entrepreneur who has topped the masthead of such influential magazines as Esquire, Sports Illustrated, Rolling Stone and Outside. In his new book, The Accidental Life—equal parts memoir and manual—McDonell embeds advice and insight within the absorbing anecdotes that have punctuated his 40-year career.

McDonell’s recollections—broken into succinct, themed essays—provide a window into the lives of the writers he has edited (including Hunter S. Thompson, Jim Harrison, Richard Ford and other greats), through the lens of his devotion and abiding respect for their work. Best of all for us writers reading along, these fascinating looks behind the scenes are sewn together with interstitial reflections on topics as wide-ranging as his formula for a foolproof feature pitch and his experience building the first tablet magazine at SI.

In his 2012 speech upon induction into the American Society of Magazine Editors’ Hall of Fame, McDonell described how every publication at which he worked “had its own narrative.” McDonell took a break from his prolific schedule to discuss some of the beats of his own story arc with WD.

What did you hope to capture in The Accidental Life?
I knew what I didn’t want to do—write about myself. I didn’t want to write a book about “I did this and I did that.” The way around that was to write about the people. I wanted to write about writing. I wanted to write about work. Because that’s what I knew about. There’s nothing lofty in my goals [with this book]. Only to try to get it right about these people I cared so much about. Not just their work, but them. I wanted to see if I could write as well about them as they wrote about other things.

When I started, I thought this would be an interesting thing, this sort of resource. But what do I know about that? (Plus, that’s what the internet is for.) What I didn’t want to do is take credit for anybody’s work. I love these writers. I love their work so much. I did not feel it to be mine in the sense that I’d own it.

The book is [mostly] about writers who are now dead. The book is about death. Aging is difficult for everyone. It’s especially difficult for writers because they’re so sensitive to it: to their talents, and to anything that diminishes them.

At the helm of so many great magazines, how could you tell when a pitch had the potential to be a great story? What elements did you look for?
What I always wanted was to know somehow that the writer was steeped in knowledge with whatever the writing would be about beyond the query. If they’d been saving string on something for their whole lives—their hometown, or a particular kind of flower, or a road, or something about the gangs of East Los Angeles—just for them to demonstrate that they had much to draw from besides what they were going to go out and report.

I used to think that some stories could only be written once by one person after they had lived many years thinking about that story. I still believe that. The best queries were always suggesting that to me. As an editor, I always wanted to match a writer I knew something about with a great subject.

Tyler Moss

This post is part of a series of freelance writing-related posts from Writer’s Digest Managing Editor Tyler Moss. In addition to working with new submissions and a regular stable of freelance contributors to WD, his own freelance credits include Conde Nast Traveler, The Atlantic, Outside and New York magazines.

Follow Tyler on Twitter @tjmoss11.

You edited pieces by writers with trademark styles—Hunter S. Thompson, for example. What role does an editor play in shaping a voice that is already so distinctive?
[With Thompson], I don’t think I had anything to do with shaping his voice at all. The people who encouraged him most were Warren Hinckle and Jann Wenner, because they would, in his words, “let the big dog eat.” They were very encouraging and that just built his confidence.

By the time I had any influence on him at all, he was set in his ways. What he wanted from me was encouragement and money and to be published. If he appreciated anything, we would be talking late at night and I’d call him on repeating himself [in a piece]. He would get cranky, but he appreciated it. You can’t have bats flying out of the bottom of every paragraph.

How has the speed and immediacy of the digital age transformed the role of editor?
Editors are now considered a luxury by writers. I think writers today need a consciousness that it depends on you to get it right, and that you’re not backed up by one or two editors—or our process at SI is three editors and sometimes more—but fact checking and all the other things are left to you, which means you have to be more careful. And that’s probably a good thing. You write a piece numerous times before you turn it in or file it. Some people would file so cleanly my heart would soar. When you’re on deadline and doing things faster—at weeklies or dailies and on the web, 24/7—that’s a whole different thing. A quick editing read on top of whatever you file is always helpful.

What consistencies do you see between what makes for a strong story in print versus digital?
From my point of view, there’s no difference. When I’m editing, or even as a reader, I want the same things: voice, detail, narrative, clarity.

How can a future of media filled with more bite-sized, interactive content lend itself to great storytellers such as those you edited in the past?
I would approach that question from the other direction. Wouldn’t it be great if [Thompson] were here now to cover Donald Trump? What I’d suggest is that distinctive voice is so valuable that when it comes it will rise, I think. You develop it and you stay with it and you have your own tone and style. One would hope that it will stick, eventually. You just have to let it rip sometimes.

Are there any universal truths that you’ve discovered about the writing process itself?
Just that it’s really hard. And everyone who has whatever combination of courage and facility and gift to build a life with that … is usually very satisfied by it. Every day is different, every sentence different.

This article originally appeared in the October 2016 issue of Writer's Digest.

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