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Rules for Editors

Posted on Monday, November 29, 2010 at 5:19 PM

Looking to the past for editorial wisdom.

The Atlantic magazine recently celebrated its 153rd birthday. In these days of magazines folding due to diminished revenues, it is refreshing to be reminded that long-time survivors are still around.

Commemorating the magazine's birthday, senior editor Alexis Madrigal recently brought out a list of rules for editors. He says it has been tacked up in the hallway at their offices. "Judging from the type and tone, I'd say it's from the middle of the 20th century, but I have no real information on its provenance," he explains.

Here is the list:

1. When in doubt, let a manuscript go back.

2. Always remember that the fastidious element in the Atlantic audience is its permanent and valuable core.

3. Don't over-edit. You will often estrange an author by too elaborate a revision, and furthermore, take away from the magazine the variety of style that keeps it fresh.

4. Avoid mistakes of fact. If a paper is statistical, question the author closely.

5. The Atlantic has always been recognized as belonging to the Liberal wing. Be liberal, but be radical only as a challenge to be answered.

6. Be careful about expenses. Calculate the cost of each number. Remember that our margin is always narrow.

7. A sound editor never has a three-months' full supply in his cupboard. When you over-buy, you narrow your future choice.

8. Follow the news. Remember that timeliness means being on time, not before the time. Interesting papers on conscience, personal religion, theory of living, are always precious. The Atlantic has three dimensions -- breadth of interest, height of interest, depth of interest. Individual personal philosophy always adds to the depth.

9. Keep all suggestions in the Black Book, so that they can be followed up. Humor is precious and correspondingly hard to find. Most humor that reaches us is merely jocularity, and it is well to be jocular only when really funny.

10. Quick decisions -- except in poetry. Collect groups of verse and make a selection after several readings.

What do you think? Does it contain sage advice that is still relevant today? It seems to have served The Atlantic well. However, a lot of things have changed since the mid-1900s. In this day of the multimedia, multichannel magazine, should we be following a different set of rules?

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