A writer's strongest voice
Michelle Weber on editing award-winning journalism
Hi there writer friend,
Today we’re hearing from former editor of Longreads and current Editor in Chief of Pipe Wrench magazine, Michelle Weber. Michelle has guided many captivating and critically-acclaimed pieces of longform, narrative nonfiction into she world, and she’ll soon be launching a new space for even more of that. (Yay!)
I think a lot of us on the freelance writing end of things imagine this chasm of internet space between our screens and the ones our pitches and drafts hopefully land on; it’s a space filled with emails from others writers with better pitches and cleaner copy, and all kinds of noise we’re trying to politely shout over with our best ideas and follow-ups. So it’s always nice to close the gap, to hear from the editors who—in the best of circumstances—we get to collaborate with in the development of work we can be proud of when it finally sees the light of publication.
As a long-time Longreads fan, I can’t wait to see what Michelle and her team produce through Pipe Wrench magazine. And today we get to hear more about Michelle, her path to editing award-winning journalism, and the process of bringing out the best in the writers she works with.
EIC Michelle Weber on her path to editing and what she loves to see in a pitch
Can you start by telling us the short-ish version of how you became an editor and most recently the Editor In Chief of Pipe Wrench magazine?
I can try! After far too much time spent in school and 8 years in nonprofit communications while food writing on the side, I took a job at Automattic (the parent company of WordPress.com, which I’d used for my first blog) as an editor-of-all-trades. While I was there, Automattic acquired Longreads, Longreads joined the editorial team there, and I had the chance to start contributing. Then-EIC Mike Dang asked if I wanted to start editing features for Longreads, and suddenly I was a magazine editor. I spent six years editing columnists and features at Longreads, and learned a lot, fast, from the amazing team there. I pinged poor Mike constantly, asked a million questions, and doubted myself a lot.
As for how I became the Editor in Chief of Pipe Wrench, that’s easy: I started it. Making a thing yourself is a great way to move directly into your dream job. But I would also be remiss if I didn’t say that the main way I became the Editor in Chief of Pipe Wrench is “luck,” aka white privilege: mine and my spouse’s, and the ensuing financial position that allowed me to save up to invest in building Pipe Wrench and to only work part time while getting it off the ground.
So I snooped on your Linkedin and your educational background is so interesting and... er, very intimidating. (NYU, Harvard, Northwestern.) But I noticed you don't have journalism in there! What in your education do you think was most valuable in getting you to where you are today?
You could see it as “interesting and intimidating,” or you could see it as “Michelle didn’t know what to do with her life but was very good at going to school, so she just kept going.” I’d wanted to be a writer since I learned how to read, but one year of college at Medill taught me that “journalist” is a subset of but not the same as “writer;” I fled to the warm, verbose embrace of the philosophy department. I think I’ve been trying to figure out how to “be a writer” ever since.
I honestly don’t think that there’s one part that was more valuable than the rest. The valuable part was the depth and breadth of reading I did. I read a *lot*. Some of it was awful. Some of it was boring. A lot of it was racist, or sexist, or both. And some of it was gorgeous and fascinating and mind-bending. All of it helped me learn what I liked and didn’t like, what I think works and doesn’t work. I don’t know how you become a writer without reading. Same goes for editing.
What is your favorite and your least favorite part about your job right now?
The answer is the same for both: pitches. Thanks to the reputation of the editors working on Pipe Wrench and our freelancer rates and policies, we get lots of good pitches. I learn from them, and I love reading new stories and being introduced to writers and perspectives I’ve never encountered before. I love the conversations with the other editors about what makes something “Pipe Wrench-y.” I love the back and forth with writers helping them sharpen their ideas.
But also, we’re a bimonthly magazine (for now) with one longform feature per issue, which means rejecting the majority of pitches we get. I respond to every single one, and make it a point to be as constructive as possible with feedback, and to suggest other venues for pieces that aren’t a fit for us. But it’s a lot of politely declining good writers with good ideas, when I want to sweep them all up and give them money and bylines.
What is one thing you wish writers understood better about the editing process?
This probably only applies to pitched work, but since that’s what I know: You can push back! My job as your editor is to help you tell the strongest possible story in the strongest possible version of your voice. Any suggestion or feedback I give is with that aim. I don’t want you to take notes that feel off to you because you think it’s what I want; my comments are not a fiat.
The only thing *I* want is to know why a note doesn’t work for you, so I can be better at helping you get where you want to go. You’re the one driving the car; I’m just helping navigate. If you think my directions are shitty, tell me. Your name goes on it, not mine. You have to love it.
What would you say are the key ingredients in a good editor-writer relationship?
The same as in any other close relationship: open communication, shared values and goals, and a mutual love of the Olympia Dukakis character from Steel Magnolias.
It is so exciting to see a new publication launching with a focus on longform stories—especially after this tumultuous past year for the media industry during which we lost so many! Can you tell us what prompted your desire to launch a new publication? And what gives you the confidence that Pipe Wrench will make it, despite the treacherous landscape out there?
We did lose a lot, but there are also some really exciting new publications and models springing up -- collectively owned and run publications/networks like Defector, the Brick House collective, and Publication to Be Named Later. There are great new magazines from younger voices like The Drift. It feels like we’re in a moment with a lot of potential for independent media, especially as more and more people recognize how limited the voices that have been offered to us as readers by legacy publications are and are willing to pay for something different.
Launching Pipe Wrench was, in part, a selfish act: I didn’t want to get another job. Not because I dislike having a boss -- I hate risk, don’t hustle, and love knowing that the same amount of money will show up in my bank account every two weeks -- but because I wanted us to build something without someone else’s limitations. Something that would stand or fail on the merits of the writing and editing and on our ability to create something people think is worth reading and supporting, and not on a C-suite decision to pivot.
It seems to me that when it comes to longform, it's especially hard to convince an editor who you've never worked with to take a chance on you and your idea. Can you tell us what really grabs you in a pitch (particularly from writers you don't know and writers without longform clips) and convinces you to jump into the long haul partnership of producing a big story together?
Please, please, don’t pitch a topic. Pitch a story, and let your voice come through in the pitch. You’re part of the story, whether you think so or not.
We get pitches every day that do a great job explaining details of the topic they want to write about, and then close with some variation of “I’m really excited to tell this story.” Except they haven’t actually told me what the story is, they’ve only told me about the topic. What are you hoping to learn, what questions are you asking, what’s the upshot? A longform piece needs a strong narrative to propel it, or a strong argument to give it a backbone. A pitch that tells me that -- and that does it in your voice, rather than “neutral knowledgeable journalist voice” -- is the one that will stick with me.
It is a great joy to find an editor/publication that refrains from stripping a writer of their voice in the editing process. I've always gotten the sense in reading Longreads' original features that I'm getting the unadulterated voice of the writer—so I think it's safe to assume you're that kind of editor? Can you explain what it's like from your end to try to preserve voice while also improving the piece in the editing process?
I like to think I am, so I’m glad it comes across! I actually wrote all about my approach once, for Longreads. I definitely do think of my job as a support job. I’m there for the writer, not the other way around.
The first draft usually gives me a sense of the writer’s POV, their general tone, and their writing quirks -- the stylistic things they do when they want to highlight a point or make a joke or create drama. (Like, if you were editing me, you’d learn that I use lots of parentheticals and em-dashes and love to make jokes via fake footnotes and maybe lean into run-on-esque sentences a little too hard.) The things they push back on and the suggestions they reject also help me understand what’s important to them. That, combined with instinct developed after reading and writing and editing many thousands of words, gives me a base for suggesting changes in a way that respects the needs of the story and the needs of the writer.
What kind of stories do you want to see more of? (For Pipe Wrench and elsewhere.)
Stories that ask critical questions about the world, and about the writer -- where the writer interrogates themselves, and why *this* story and *this* argument in *this* moment. Stories that expose us to the histories that have been destroyed or papered over. Stories that have hypotheses, and are more than explorations.
But also, I read the tube of toothpaste when I’m in the bathroom. I read all the informational signage at historical sites. I love reading and I love stories, and I firmly believe you can never tell the same story twice because the storyteller is always different so the story will be, too, and I will read as many of them as I can.
I will also read literally any story anyone writes about misadventures while (1) climbing a high mountain or (2) exploring a polar region, and any stories about newly-discovered ancient religious texts or conspiracies at the Vatican.
Can you share one story you've edited that you're especially proud of? And what is it about the piece that makes you proud to have been involved?
This is a hard question; it feels like asking a parent which kid is their favorite. If I have to pick one, I think it’s The Final Five Percent, by Tim Requarth for Longreads. It was a personal story Tim had been working on for years, and that he considered close to completion. I inherited it from a departing editor, read the draft, and suggested some substantial revisions. We had a lot of back and forth, made some changes and not others, and the story ultimately was selected for the Best American Science and Nature Writing anthology and won the National Association of Science Writers award for longform narrative.
I’m not proud of it because it won the awards, I’m proud because it was a story of deep personal importance to Tim, one that he’d been working to tell for a decade, and he was happy with the finished product. It was a hard story for him to write, and to see it find its final form and then collect accolades and an applauding readership was deeply satisfying. It’s an honor to help someone do that.
But I’m proud of every single one, I really am.
What is one piece of advice you can offer someone who has never held an editing position but hopes to edit award-winning journalism as you have some day?
“Know Mike Dang” isn’t really an actionable answer, so I’ll say: read a lot. Write a lot. Get edited! If you’re in a position to work with other editors day to day, ask lots of questions. Ask for second opinions. Ask to review their notes to writers.
Mostly, don’t be a dick. Be responsive. Give notes kindly, and clearly, and constructively; always articulate why you’re suggesting what you are. Cultivate relationships with writers as writers and as people. Understand that you are there to serve them and their story. You can’t edit award-winning journalism if good writers don’t bring you their best ideas.
That’s all for today friends. If you enjoyed this issue, I hope you’ll click that heart up top and help more writers find One More Question.
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