Posts

Brilliant editor hacks: how to get a flood of positive feedback

One of the perks of my job as a writer for alumni magazines is the chance to see top editors at work. The very best have come up with ingenious solutions that they implement quietly — and use to get incredible results.

In this occasional series, I’ll highlight the best ideas I’ve seen from the 100+ editors I’ve worked with during the course of my career.

This comes courtesy of Rebecca Lindell, who edits the alumni magazine for the Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences at Northwestern University. Over the years, Rebecca has developed an approach to working with sources that allows her to collect — and share — a great deal of positive feedback for her magazine.

I like to imagine that people do this when they read my stories.

I wrote a feature for the Weinberg alumni magazine about civil discourse called “You Can’t Say Something Nice. Now What?” As part of the process, I sent the edited draft to each of the people quoted in the story for source vetting. They all were happy to see it and each of them made modest tweaks to perfect the final piece.

As soon as the magazine was published, Rebecca sent a few courtesy print copies to each source with a personal note expressing her thanks for their time and help. But that wasn’t her only point of contact. A few days later, she followed up again, with a link to the published piece, like this:

alumni magazines editor hacks erin peterson

Steal this script.

The actual intent of the note is clear: she’s eager to have the story reach as wide an audience as possible, and this helps make it easy to spread the story.

But here’s the side benefit that *I* think is noteworthy: They all wrote back within hours to thank her and express how pleased they were with how the piece had turned out.

Here, you can see for yourself:

alumni magazines editor hacks erin peterson

Not too bad.

It’s all excellent feedback — but more important than that, the extra couple minutes she took to send the emails was all but guaranteed to pay massive dividends.

She already knew the sources liked the story, since they’d signed off on it in the first place. And she got three mini-testimonials within a matter of hours. I’m sure the sources were happy to write them!

Here’s what she told me: “It can be a bit time-consuming to follow up with sources after a story is published, but I feel it’s the least I can do after they’ve spent time speaking with us and reviewing the story. And they won’t necessarily know that the URL is there unless I tell them. But the quick contact does pay dividends in terms of good will — which they are happy to express to me in a return email. And I don’t hesitate to pass those notes along to my higher-ups, so that they can see the return on their investment! It’s good PR for the magazine all around.”

I don’t know how many sources Weinberg’s magazine has in every issue — 50? 100?

Imagine spending an hour or two every issue sending out story links to your sources. If you already have a strong source-vetting system in place, you’re all but guaranteed to hear back from some delighted sources. How great would it be to get 100 little notes attesting to your brilliance every issue? Even if only half — or a quarter! — responded, that’s still more than a dozen notes.

How useful would it be if you could bring a huge stack of enthusiastic testimonials to your boss when you’re trying to increase your magazine’s budget? Or get a raise? Or do that amazing-but-slightly-risky story you’ve been dreaming about?

Even if you just toss those messages into an “I’m awesome” folder in your inbox, it’s a good resource to have at hand after an alum gives you an earful for [insert ridiculous issue here].

In summary: don’t just hope for great feedback from your readers and sources. Whenever you can, engineer it right into your process.

If you’ve got another hack that you use and think others should know about, add it to the comments below.

Your magazine shouldn’t make alumni feel bad

Can we talk about Facebook frenemies for a second?

Let me tell you about mine.

My Facebook frenemy is an old high school friend, and her is life is AMAZING. Her husband is a big-deal doctor. They live on the shores of a beautiful lake in a home that has been featured in local design magazines. She has four perfect kids. And based on the occasional swimsuit shots she posts from her exotic beach vacations, you know what else she has? Abs. ABS! Sheesh.

Oh, and let me show an image of the kind of cakes she makes. For fun. (I am not joking about this.)

erin peterson alumni magazines unicorn cake

I probably should be happy to be friends with someone who is so accomplished! But she makes me feel terrible about myself.

This is not surprising. This is science.

According to one report, “[s]crolling through happy status updates, exciting vacation photos, and beautiful family moments led participants to compare their lives [unfavorably] with those of their Facebook friends.

Ugh. Thanks, Facebook.

This blog post is not about my Facebook hangups

You know what else makes a lot of people feel terrible about themselves?

Alumni magazines.

Alumni magazines often fill their pages with countless profiles of what I like to call “superhero alumni.” These amazing men and women have breakthrough discoveries, build world-changing companies, and improve the lives of vulnerable people around the planet.

They’re stories that are designed to make us feel proud of our alma maters.

Too often, they just make us feel bad about ourselves.

It’s the Facebook principle in action.

You don’t have to take my word for it. One blogger called the misery she felt every time she got her school’s publication Alumni Magazine Syndrome.

I’m sure I don’t have to say it, but I will: Your alumni magazine should not make people feel terrible about themselves.

There’s no one who knows that better than I do. I work on these stories day in and day out. I’m constantly fighting my own worst impulses to turn the people I’m profiling into superheroes. The alumni I write about are amazing, it’s true. But they’re also human.

Why too many superhero alumni stories can do real damage to your institution

The problem with these superhero alumni stories is not that they’re actually kind of boring. It’s not that they’re “not real.” (Though both of these things are often true.)

It’s that if you run too many of them, you run the risk of alienating the very alumni you want to reach. The ones who might volunteer at an alumni event, or serve as a mentor, or give a whole bunch of money to support a new program.

You run the risk of spending tens — even hundreds — of thousands of dollars to put together a publication that alumni send to the recycling bin before they even crack the cover.

This shouldn’t happen! You work hard on your magazine. And your alumni deserve better.

On telling more human stories

I have another friend who is nothing like my perfect high school pal.

When I saw her at a party a last year, we found ourselves talking about the bathtime routines of our children. I told her that I dreaded the routine with my twin five-year-olds — 45 minutes of fighting when I was at my most exhausted, just to get them clean! She smiled sympathetically, then glanced over at her 10-year-old son. “I don’t think he’s let water touch his hair in two weeks,” she told me.

Earlier this year, with her fingers laced around a cup of coffee, she confided to me that she wasn’t so sure about the decision she’d made to pursue a Ph.D. She’d been a rock star in her program, but now that she was wrapping up her dissertation, she realized that great positions in her field were mostly outside of the Twin Cities, where she lives. She didn’t know if her family could survive being uprooted.

The thing I love about this friend is not that she’s not amazing — she is! She’s getting a Ph.D. and she has a super smart and kind son. But she is also funny and vulnerable and deeply honest. She acknowledges that there are trade-offs that come with her very real accomplishments.

And these things — humor, honesty, and vulnerability — are often missing in alumni magazine stories.

Start with a story structure designed for humanity and honesty

It’s not always easy to tell human stories in an alumni magazine.

But one way to start is by structuring stories around inflection points — the hard moments when we have to make decisions, address consequences, or accept something difficult about ourselves.

Here’s what I mean: Some time ago, I did a story for Macalester called The Thing That Changed My Mind. I asked several alumni, faculty, and administrators about a time they went into a situation believing one thing and left believing another.

They shared remarkably frank stories about the changes in their views on challenging topics — religion and race, for example. They shared difficult stories about the realizations they had about their own limitations.

We all have these moments, but they’re really tough to admit to. They force us to acknowledge that we were wrong about something.

Yet people felt safe telling these stories because they knew that it was the *point* of the story. They knew that others would be sharing their own moments of change and growth, even if it didn’t paint their previous selves in an entirely flattering light.

These stories are human. They’re real. And that’s important.

Here’s another example called Moments of Transformation. Members of the Case Western Reserve University community shared the experiences in their own lives that changed them forever.

In each of these stories, the point is not that the people being interviewed are wildly successful. (Though they sometimes are.) It’s that they’re reflecting on the things that have made them who they are, both for good and for bad.

These aren’t stories about superheroes. They’re stories about humans.

Why it’s worth finding ways to tell these stories

I’m still working on finding ways to tell alumni magazine stories with more honesty and heart. But I’m deeply committed to this work, because the benefits are enormous.

Stories like these make your readers trust the magazine.

Stories like these make your readers trust your institution.

But most important, stories like these are what a college experience — the very reason your alumni are getting your magazine — is all about.

College is a place where we learn the skills that will benefit us in our careers, of course. But college is also about helping us develop as human beings. It’s where we took risks. It’s where we failed and succeeded. It’s where we learned difficult truths about the world and ourselves.

College is a place where we learned, in many ways, how to be human.

Not all of us can relate to stories of enormously successful alums making millions and changing the world. But we can all relate to the real stories of fumbling through our lives, trying our best, and learning from our mistakes.

Those are the stories that will keep your alumni reading.

How to write a story that saves your sanity

Over the past few weeks, I’ve talked to several editors of alumni magazines who have had to pull stories from their publications at the very last minute.

Maybe a key source got cold feet, or a profile subject landed in some hot water. Maybe a brand new VP torpedoed a story for reasons that aren’t entirely clear.

Whatever the case, it’s a panic-inducing moment. What will you do to fill those two, four, or even eight empty pages?

Sure, you can fill those pages up with some seasonal campus photos. You might even just decide to pull a folio entirely.

alumni magazines erin peterson fall campus

The fall campus shot: pretty, but should this really be your backup?

But there’s a better option.

Building an unbreakable backup

You can’t be prepared for every reason — legitimate or ridiculous — that a story might fall through. But you can be prepared with a solution.

The fix is something I like to call the “Swiss Army Knife story.”

It’s a versatile story that you always have in your back pocket in case of emergency. A two-page profile went south? No problem. A six-page feature got the axe? That Swiss Army knife story means that you’ve got every potential emergency covered.

Here’s how.

The Swiss Army knife story is a 2,000- to 3,000-word story that’s designed to fit in any hole that you might suddenly find in your magazine.

It’s one that that you can use once, twice, or even three times, in the same way you might deploy a knife, scissors, and that little toothpick in your Swiss Army knife.

It sounds like magic. In a way, it is.

But to my mind, it’s the most important magazine story you can have in your arsenal. Below, I’ll dig into the details, link to some great examples, and show you how you can build your own Swiss Army Knife story.

What are the key components of this type of story?

A Swiss Army knife story needs to be designed to work in many different and unexpected scenarios. You aren’t going to know exactly what you need until you’re actually in the emergency, so you want it to be as versatile as possible.

Here are three primary characteristics this story should have.

1. It should be modular.

These stories aren’t single narrative monoliths of 3,000 words. Instead, they should be a group of shorter pieces that can be snapped together like Legos to fit any space that’s available. For example, here’s a story I did for Macalester called “How to be a Better Scot”. 

The story happened to feature eight people in the Mac community, but it easily could have featured 5 or 12. It could have been trimmed to fill two pages. It could have expanded to fill eight pages if we’d decided to add a couple more alumni.

There was no “ideal” number of modules; that was dictated, in part, by the space that was available.

2. It should be evergreen.

If you’re an editor at an alumni magazine, you know that we don’t live in a hot take world. (Oh, you want to read more on hot takes? Okay, here you go.)

Let’s be honest: that’s probably a good thing.

Evergreen stories are those that are always going to be relevant to readers, in the same way that evergreen trees keep their green leaves or needles all year. You might not use the story in the next three months; it might be a year or more before you have to put it into action.

You need a story that won’t be old news when you dust it off.

This isn’t an easy trick to pull off, but there are a many good choices. Some of them may be linked to your institution’s history.

For example, one surefire hit? Quizzes about alumni history and other university trivia. Other options include campus myths and Things We Love About [Alma Mater U].

3. It should have multi-use options.

As a kid, I often heard that if you cut an earthworm in half, the earthworm wouldn’t die, but would instead become two new worms. It was endlessly regenerating! Amazing.

Guys, this is not true.

However, what IS true is that you can create a single magazine story that lives many different and complete lives, if it’s structured right.

For example, last year I wrote a massive feature called Master Minds for The Ohio State University. In it, I asked 12 faculty members from different colleges to tackle a big idea in their field.

It was all set to run, and then the awful Ohio State shooting happened.

Covering that heartbreaking story in the magazine was essential, so the editor tore apart the issue. Suddenly, there weren’t 10 or 12 pages available for this feature. There were six.

But one tiny piece of good news from all that bad news? The Master Minds story was structured in a way that made it easy to use as a series. My editor didn’t have to scrap the thousands of words I’d written (and that she’d paid for). Instead, she sliced up the piece and ran it as a three-part series. (You can see part 1 here and part 2 here. Part three is forthcoming.)

The great thing about the properly-structured Swiss Army Knife story is that you can run it at many different lengths. If you’ve got leftover pieces because you didn’t need the full 3,000 words the first time around, you can run the leftover copy as its own standalone piece in a future issue. It might be a four-page story or a half-page piece at the front of the book.

Sure, you may have to write a new intro or tack on a paragraph of explanation the second time you run a portion of the story, but you’ll almost never have to toss pages and pages of copy.

alumni magazines erin peterson parts of pig

Modular, evergreen stories are like pigs: you can find a way to use every part.

That’s it! Find a story that fits all three characteristics, and you’re almost guaranteed to have a winner: a story that you can keep on hand for anything unexpected that comes your way and threatens to derail your magazine.

Why it’s never too soon get started on your Swiss Army Knife story.

Your next alumni magazine emergency could be right around the corner — or it might be never!

But having the peace of mind that you’re prepared for whatever internal politics or external circumstances might throw your way is a huge relief.

And if you don’t have an emergency?

You can still run that story *whenever you want.*

You can stash it away for the time you want to take a few days off without checking your email every five minutes.

You can just decide to run it because you like it.

The great thing about a Swiss Army Knife story is that you’ll know that the all the work you do upfront is designed to prevent heartache down the road.

Painless ways to reinvent your roundup stories

Whether you write for alumni magazines or not, it’s safe to say we’ve probably all written our share of ridiculous stories.

For example, I spent my first year after college writing for a trade magazine called Athletic Business. I wrote 2,000-word stories on low-maintenance playing surfaces for hotel basketball courts and in-depth features on field house netting.

 

erin peterson alumni magazines

Not everyone has the chance to write 2,000 words about this basketball court. I did. :(

 

By the time I landed at an alumni magazine, I figured I’d gotten all the crazy stories out of my system.

But with alumni magazines, I was introduced to an entirely new genre of stories that I found completely perplexing: roundup features.

As you know, these are a series of short profiles of people who all share some important characteristic. They all have a certain kind of job, or the same employer, or some specific kind of achievement. If you’ve been working as an alumni magazine editor for awhile, you’ve almost certainly assigned or written a few of these stories.

But they are their own animals, and seemingly unique to alumni magazines. After all, the New Yorker doesn’t run features called “Here are 10 podcasters!” and Sports Illustrated doesn’t do cover stories on “7 people who competed in extreme endurance events!”

What, exactly, are roundups supposed to tell readers—beyond the fact that schools, not surprisingly, produce some alumni who share similar interests?

Rethinking the roundup

I’ve been giving the roundup feature a hard time, but maybe I shouldn’t be.

After all, despite my insistence that they’re unique to alumni magazines, many other magazines definitely do roundup stories. The difference? They often add superlatives to give the stories more heft. For example:

30 most influential teens
100 most powerful people in Hollywood

Like school rankings, these lists aren’t necessarily based on obvious, measurable criteria. In this case, they’re basically just roundup stories on a larger scale.

Of course, you’re probably never going to get away with ranking your alums, which is perhaps why non-ranked roundups gained currency in alumni magazines. But that doesn’t mean you’re stuck telling the same old “Here are five alumni in [slightly unlikely career]!!!”

Three ways to create reader-friendly roundups

Here are three ways to rethink traditional roundups to make them, in my opinion, one million times more delightful for your alumni.

1. Create an “insider’s guide.”

Question: Would your reader like to read six profiles of people in the restaurant industry for your food issue? Maybe, maybe not.

Better question: Would your reader like to read an insider’s guide in which six people from the restaurant industry talked about how they assemble those Instagram-worthy plates, share the secret perks high-rolling diners receive, and tell you the five things you should never say to a bartender? YES YES A THOUSAND TIMES YES.

Why?

Everybody wants a backstage pass—to get a glimpse of the hidden worlds that most others don’t have access to. Insider’s guides do just that, and your alumni sources serve as the experts who give your readers the exclusive peek into their lives and work.

Certainly, that doesn’t mean you need to jettison all the other details you might include in a traditional roundup. You can still include information about the alum’s background and the influence that your school had on their career trajectory. But zero in on some of the details about the work that intersect with the everyday interests of your readers while offering a little bit of VIP information.

Here are two example of roundups as Insider’s Guides:

An Insider’s Guide to Getting In (admissions at Purdue)
An Insider’s Guide to Paris’s Alternative Beauty Scene (T magazine)

2. Reposition a roundup as a service story.

Roundup-stories-as-service-pieces is another reader-friendly way to package a story. While an insider’s guide can have “news you can use” elements, it’s not required.

Service features, by contrast, are focused exclusively on the tips, tricks and advice that alumni can use in their own lives once they finish the story.

For example, maybe you’re writing a piece about five professional artists. They can offer ideas about how people can incorporate creativity into their own lives, two ways to take less-terrible photos on a smartphone, and what people should be thinking about when they buy their first piece of “real” art.

After all, your readers are college graduates, which means that they’re curious and eager to learn. Let your alumni magazine be part of that process.

Here are two examples of roundups that are actually service stories:

Use Your Head (brain research at Kent State)
The Best Advice I Ever Got (leadership and business advice, HBR)

3. Vary the length and format

One of the most common (and in my in my mind, misguided) approaches that editors take to roundups is the “Give me five profiles of 400-500 words each” feature story.

While it’s a good way to ensure that no alum feels slighted, it might be a mistake for the story you’re trying to tell. What if one alum’s story is best told in 800 words, while another is better told in 150? Do you really need to have five profiles told in a straight narrative style?

Nope.

You can absolutely have a 2,500-word story featuring five people. But maybe that means one person gets 1,000 words, another gets a one-question Q&A, a third gets two separate service-y pieces, and so on.

In other words, don’t give yourself unnecessary restrictions.

You don’t even have to provide as much variation as I’ve suggested above.

For example, Fast Company profiles the 100 most creative people in business in one of its summer issues each year. Most of the profiles are about the same length, but the writers find subtly different ways to package each story so it doesn’t feel like you’re reading an endless series of monotonous profiles, all with the exact same rhythm. Some are Q&As, some are as-told-tos, some are lists.

TAKE ACTION: Before you click away from this piece, think of an upcoming roundup story on your list and write down three different ways you could repackage it to make it more interesting to your readers. Could you talk to a slightly different group of sources to make it more service-y or create an insider’s guide? Can you imagine different story elements that you could use beyond traditional narrative storytelling that would make it more engaging?

Roundups offer enormous opportunities to tell creative stories your alumni will love. Take full advantage of them.

Elements of storytelling: Better timelines

I’m going to try something new today.

First, a little backstory. A few months ago, as part of my work at the CASE Editors Forum, I got to do magazine critiques.

Devil Wears Prada Two-time Academy Award¨ winner Meryl Streep stars as Miranda Priestly, the editor of Runway magazine. PHOTOGRAPHS TO BE USED SOLELY FOR ADVERTISING, PROMOTION, PUBLICITY OR REVIEWS OF THIS SPECIFIC MOTION PICTURE AND TO REMAIN THE PROPERTY OF THE STUDIO. NOT FOR SALE OR REDISTRIBUTION.

Like me, she definitely has opinions on magazines.

One thing that struck me, even with all the ambitious and interesting storytelling and design I saw, was the reliance on straight narrative as a storytelling technique. This was true even in the front of the book and packaged features.

I get it.

It’s something we’re all pretty good at doing. We’re all busy. Spending time coming up with a unique concept—an infographic, a chart, a map—is time-consuming not just for you and your writers, but also your designers.

Yet magazines—really, all print publications—offer so many amazing opportunities for unique storytelling. Q&As. Timelines. Annotations. Flowcharts.

For years, I struggled with this problem, trying to dream up great sidebars or charts or matrices that I could add to my feature packages to make them more interesting.

But the best ideas always came to me after I saw the story in print, in the way that most of us think of the perfect retort to a bully’s mean comment a moment too late.

Eventually, I realized I could build my own “reference book” of the best magazine story elements with examples from the hundreds of magazines I read every year.

So I did.

Every time I saw cool story packaging in a magazine, I tore it out, categorized it, and catalogued it. (You guys, in case you are wondering, I am really fun at parties.)

I have an index of every type of story packaging element I can think of, plus a three-ring binder *packed* with examples of these elements. I refer to them often when I’m pitching editors, developing feature ideas, and writing stories, so I always have tons of ideas right when I need them.

Certainly, this is something you can do on your own, but I realized that there’s no reason to keep the work that I’ve already done entirely to myself. I want to begin to share this playbook I’ve developed over the course of more than a decade.

Let’s start with one of my favorite story packaging elements: timelines.

orange and blue timeline with arrowsWhat happened when?

Most of us think of timelines as something we can use for highlighting important events during a president’s tenure or the school’s history.

But there are a million different ways to think about using timelines. They’re not just valuable for events in the past, but also for a more general passing of time and even future events.

Here are a few of my favorite examples:

Finally, here’s a link to some more general timeline design themes.

I hope you’ll keep these at hand when you’re planning your story packages. And when you’re working with both your in-house and freelance writers, ask them to think in advance about the different ways that they can package their pieces in ways that tell your school’s stories in the most compelling ways.

Two things you should never say to your writers (and one that you totally should)

As a writer for alumni magazines, I know as well as any other writer, that writers are notoriously thin-skinned about revisions.

It’s why you’ll find the internet littered with grouchy blog posts from best-selling authors with titles like “Revisions Are Hell” and one million variations of this theme.

Writers, especially those who have never been in an editor’s shoes, often think about the editing and revision process in especially stark terms:

Every writer’s weird nightmare.

But for as much as writers gripe about revision requests, I am probably even more sympathetic to the struggles that editors have when they develop their revision requests. I’ve been in your shoes, and there’s a pretty good reason I’m not now.

You guys are the ones who have to figure out how to get your writers to rework story structures that look like they were developed by Jackson Pollock. You have to find ways to encourage writers to rework alumni profiles that are somehow less engaging than a TI-82 manual.

This is deceptively difficult work. This is I-feel-like-I-need-a-Ph.D.-in-human-psychology-and-persuasion work.

In fact, when I was an editor, I was often so scared to ask writers for revisions that I’d just rewrite portions of their stories myself, in my voice.

If you are wondering why I didn’t last all that long as an editor, that’s one answer.

How to think about revisions

Let’s dispense with the notion that all writers would simply like their editors to lavish praise on the very first draft they submit, and that they would prefer to have their editors run their stories without a single word changed.

Oh, okay, some would.

But most good writers crave great editing. And there are editors who inspire writers not just to do great work, but to make even the most difficult revisions in service of the larger story.

In fact, there is a whole book about the way that creative pairs can work together to do this important but difficult process well. Powers of Two, by Joshua Wolf Shenk, talks about how famous writers and editors, actors and directors, and dancers and choreographers find ways to bring the best out in one another.

And he says this thing that I find incredibly useful in thinking about my own work with editors:

It’s natural to ask how conflict can be avoided. But the better question is: ‘How can it be maximized in the context of a productive, ongoing relationship?’ 

The lesson I try to draw from this quotation is not about conflict, but about the idea that stories don’t get better unless both the writer and editor are committed to that idea. That can be hard work, and it requires both diplomacy and tough love.

There are a lot of places where writers and editors can work together to make an okay story great, but the revision process is one of the most obvious places to start.

I don’t want to pretend that I know all the ways writers and editors should work together on revisions. But I will suggest two techniques that you can start using today that will improve the way your writers think about the revisions they get from you.

What your writers definitely do not want to hear

Here is a strategy that lots of editors like to use when they make their revision requests: the compliment sandwich.

They say something nice, then they get to the heart of what they want with their revision requests, and then they wrap it all up with some platitudes about how great it is to work together.

What idiot named this technique the “compliment sandwich?”

First, can we talk about how ridiculous it is to call this structure a “compliment sandwich?”

COME ON. We name sandwiches not by the bread on the outside, but by the stuff we put in the middle.

Let’s call this what this really is: a criticism sandwich.

Even more important than the dumb name: according to organizational psychologists, this strategy doesn’t even work! Your writers are going to distrust the praise you give because of the very structure of the feedback itself.

And you may be using this ineffective strategy almost subconsciously. Ask yourself if you have ever started an email to—or a conversation with—your writer about a revision request in one of these two ways:

1.“There’s a lot of great stuff in here!”
2.“This is a good start!”

Noooooooooooooooooooooooo. Please no.

Why are these two sentences so horrible?

Because writers know exactly what those two sentences mean.

They mean: “Brutal revisions ahead.” They mean: “This story is so bad that I could not come up with one actual good thing to say about it here.”

So drop the fake, non-specific praise. You can thank the writer for the story and direct them to your comments and requests in the draft.

What your writer does want to hear

I am no stranger to major revision requests.

I know exactly what it’s like to get revision requests that are so extensive that the comments and track changes in the margins extend off the pages of the draft in both directions.

But I can be motivated to tackle everything an editor requests with just one simple thing.

A sincere and concrete compliment.

Just one!

Let me give you an example: one of my editors, Jodi O’Donnell at Iowa State University Foundation’s forward magazine, has high standards for her magazine. I work hard on the stories she assigns, and she still finds at least a dozen different ways to make them better.

Last fall, I worked on a story for her that had tons of revision requests. I had to go back to several sources to clarify and strengthen details in the story.

But as I was going through her edit requests, I noticed she had done something amazing. She had noted a couple places where I had done a few things exceptionally well: a smooth transition. An elegant description of complicated concept. She highlighted them and said something simple, along the lines of “this is a perfect description.” It wasn’t elaborate, but it was specific and genuine.

When I looked at what she’d highlighted, I realized that those were the exact areas I had remembered laboring over as I wrote my draft.

My delight about those compliments wasn’t about the praise, exactly. It was was about what that praise signified. If she recognized the pieces of the story that I knew were good, then I could trust the larger requests that she was making where she saw the story falling short.

The fact that she appreciated those tiny details made me feel confident that we were both trying to push the story in the same direction.

Her edits allowed me to trust her advice.

And the story turned out great.

Editors and writers: allies, not enemies

There’s no question that some writers and editors see the revision process as a primarily antagonistic one.

But of course it doesn’t have to be that way.

When you can show a writer, through thoughtful edits and concrete praise, that you recognize both the failures and the successes (however modest) of a story, you’ll help build trust with your writers. When they see that you’re not blowing smoke with some lame faint praise, and you’re also not letting them off the hook for the sloppy areas of a piece, good writers will rise to the challenge.

In fact, these are often the stories that writers remember. They are the stories where writers will say “I worked so hard on the story. And I am so proud of the way it turned out.”

And you might just be the one saying those sentences, too.

The impossible alumni magazine story—should you run it?

As a culture, we hate failure.

We pull ourselves up by our bootstraps. We search for the window that opens when a door closes. Recently, I even heard someone describe “fail” as an acronym: First Attempt In Learning.

And in a lot of ways, it’s great! Who wants to wake up every morning believing that setbacks from yesterday will influence them today?

But I wonder if alumni magazines have taken that impulse—to focus on success to the exclusion of failure—too far.

A couple years ago, for example, I came across an essay in which the author described the deflating moment that happened every few months when she received her alumni magazine and realized her life might never merit a profile—let alone a more modest class note. Alumni magazine syndrome, she called it.

This year, a different writer posted another brutal takedown of alumni magazines and their focus on super-successful grads. The author reserved a special level loathing for writers like me who wrote for her school’s publications without actually attending the institution. (I was kind of excited to be noticed, TBH, but that’s for another day.)

Anyway, I digress.

It’s no secret that few alumni magazines want to talk about failure. Dale Keiger acknowledged as much in his recent UMagazineology post that highlights HBS Alumni Bulletin’s cleverly named story about failure, ‘The F Word.’ (“Not your usual umag fare,” he notes.)

But should we be talking more about failure? Columbia College recently tackled the issue—sort of—in a brilliant, funny essay.

Recently, I talked with Julia Hanna, a senior content producer at Harvard and editor of the previously mentioned story on failure in the HBS Alumni Bulletin. She shared what fueled the story, how they did it, and how people have responded.

How did you come up with the failure idea? Did you get any pushback from anyone on this idea, or did you have to persuade anyone that it was important to cover?

To be honest, I don’t remember when the idea first came up…it’s a story that I’ve been interested in doing for a long time (years!).

I remember bringing a cover story from Wellesley (“When Life Doesn’t Measure Up,” Winter 2011) to an editorial meeting as an example of how failure had been treated in an alumnae magazine. [Erin’s note: it’s an amazing cover story. Take the time to read it.] I don’t remember getting direct pushback on the idea, but somehow the stars didn’t align for the feature until this year. It could be that the growing climate of acceptance around failure, particularly in the area of entrepreneurship, made it a more natural sell.

When we talked about doing the feature, we already knew about get-togethers like FailCon, where founders of startups gather to learn from one another’s mistakes. You know it’s okay to talk about failure when there are entire conferences devoted to the topic! There were also a couple of professors who were teaching cases that focus on failure, which also gave it an academic seal of approval.

How did you decide on the format you did (people telling stories in their own voices and drawing their own lessons)? Did you consider something else before you settled on that?

I don’t remember considering another format, although I knew that I would write an introduction to the article that referenced the faculty-written cases. The fact that one of the case protagonists (an alumna) would be visiting campus when the case was taught also provided another way into the article, particularly because she had always been the prototypical HBS alum in everything she did—super smart, driven, accomplished, and successful. She was personal and candid with her interview responses, which gave me some great quotes.

How did you get people to participate? If there was something that didn’t make the final story, what was it about the story that didn’t quite work?

We put out a call through our formidable army of class notes secretaries. At HBS, every class is divided into 10 or so sections of about 90 people each. It’s not unusual to have a class notes secretary for every section, with separate class notes for each. We didn’t send the call out to all alumni, just graduates of our Executive Education and MBA degree holders in a certain timespan.

Twenty-five or 30 responses came in—12 made it into the magazine, and 7 more were included in the online magazine, with three additional stories included as short audio files. I did go back to a handful of people via email to get them to fill in some details or provide a stronger sense of what it was they learned from the experience. And of course there was a fair amount of editing of too-long or repetitive submissions. The two or three that we passed on were off-kilter responses that didn’t really address the question we posed: What mistakes have shaped your career? How have your failures led to your success—professional, personal, or otherwise?

Did the story turn out as you hoped? Is there anything, in retrospect, that you wish you would have done differently?

Yes, it did—I was happy with the variety of responses. Some of the contributors are well-known (like Alan Horn, chairman of Disney) but the majority are not. There are plenty of nitty-gritty business failures, of course, but also personal failures, regrets over a road not taken, academic failure, and youthful errors of judgment. In that sense, I think the piece offers something for everyone. And a few of the stories are really funny—we have some good storytellers out there!

Failure is a tough topic to cover in an alumni magazine. So why do it? What was the thing that made you realize this was as important as any other topic you might cover in an issue?

I think many of us read as a way to figure out life. When someone else opens a small window into a time when things didn’t go well, we don’t feel so alone for having been there ourselves. We want to know what did they do wrong, what do I recognize in their experience that relates to my life, and how can I learn from what they went through?

It seems like an important topic to cover for those reasons, but particularly in an alumni magazine where our default mode is often to celebrate an individual at the height of his/her professional achievement. Not everyone can be a smashing success. And often failure is more interesting.