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    John Warner is the author of Why They Can't Write: Killing the Five-Paragraph Essay and Other Necessities and The Writer's Practice: Building Confidence in Your Nonfiction Writing.

Title

Talent Is Abundant

Yes, it's hard to write a 10,000 word magazine piece, but the talent to do it is not rare. 

June 6, 2019
 
 

Jeffrey Goldberg, editor-in-chief of the Atlantic got some raspberries and WTF’s on Twitter yesterday for a comment he made in an interview in which he discussed his efforts to diversify the staff at the magazine. 

The aritcle’s author, Laura Hazard Owen notes a significant change in gender representation at the publication. In 2016, 17 percent of editorial leadership were women. Today, it’s 63 percent. 

Goldberg’s stance toward increasing diversity is admirable, and he acknowledges how such a move requires one to make it a deliberate priority, and being open to questioning assumptions about what a good employee may look like to keep from replicating the system already in place.

But there is an odd response about where they have “fallen behind” that grabbed a lot of attention, including my own. 

GOLDBERG: We continue to have a problem with the print magazine cover stories — with the gender and race issues when it comes to cover story writing. [Of the 15 print issues The Atlantic has published since January 2018, 11 had cover stories written by men. —Ed.]

It’s really, really hard to write a 10,000-word cover story. There are not a lot of journalists in America who can do it. The journalists in America who do it are almost exclusively white males. What I have to do — and I haven’t done this enough yet — is again about experience versus potential. You can look at people and be like, well, your experience is writing 1,200-word pieces for the web and you’re great at it, so good going!

That’s one way to approach it, but the other way to approach it is, huh, you’re really good at this and you have a lot of potential and you’re 33 and you’re burning with ambition, and that’s great, so let us put you on a deliberate pathway toward writing 10,000-word cover stories. It might not work. It often doesn’t. But we have to be very deliberate and efficient about creating the space for more women to develop that particular journalistic muscle.

 

Goldberg finding this a stubborn problem is odd given that directly above this response he talks about how the key to diversifying who is in charge at his magazine is to simply do it. That he doesn’t think this is possible with something like a 10,000 word cover story burnishes some myths that he seems to be clinging to, but are holding him back from his goals.

Granted, writing a 10,000 word anything that hangs together is hard, but Goldberg is wrong about how many journalists and writers in America can do it. There are thousands upon thousands, most of whom you will never hear of because there are editors at the tops of legacy publications who have convinced themselves that talent is rare and that what they do as editors in making sure the properly qualified people are doing this work is inordinately difficult and special.

For seven years, along with site editor Chris Monks, I oversaw the McSweeney’s Internet Tendency column contest. Our goal was to find writers who as of yet had not made a splash in the world, but who we felt deserved more attention. This was our goal because we had extremely limited resources ($500 prize money for 5 people), but also because finding an as yet unheard voice was really fun.

We had no legacy to protect or revenue stream to nurture, which proved freeing, but the process was simple. Throw open the doors to everyone – no gatekeeping allowed at the start – and read everything everyone sends.

As I recall, we would get somewhere around 2000 entries per year. We’d have well over 100 that looked like something we could quite happily publish. One-hundred, when we had room for five.

Lesson one: Talent is abundant, far more abundant than you can possibly imagine.If you cannot find talented people who look different from the existing pool you’re either not looking or cannot recognize talent.

None of our winners had previous experience writing 20 (or so) columns over the course of a year. They submitted one sample column and ideas for three others. If we only chose people who had written columns we would have had no one to choose from. All we cared about was if the writing was good. Good writers will produce good writing.

Lesson two: Talent and drive are all that matters. Experience is often the consequence of opportunities and connections. These folks hadn’t done columns not because they couldn’t but because there was no outlet which had given them the time and space to write a column.

I would like to say that Chris Monks and I have a special gift for finding talent, but it is not the case. Yes, we can recognize talent, but this is because we can read and are human. The talent leaps off the page. 

Vinson Cunningham is a staff writer at the New Yorkerwho, among other things, writes longform profiles like this one of Tracy Morgan. For McSweeney’s, he was a 2014 column contest winner and wrote 1000-word or less vignettes under the theme of “Field Notes from Gentrified Places.” The talent was obvious. It was no special skill to see it.

Taylor Harris was a 2012 contest winner, writing “Big Mom on Campus: Raising Two Kids in a College Dorm”the story of returning to her alma mater, the University of Virginia, as a faculty spouse, and living in the dorm with two young children. She will soon go on to publish a book based on herCatapult series on “What Genes Can’t Tell Us.”

Casey Plett won our 2010 column contest for a column on transitioning, “Balls Out: A Column on Being Transgendered.” She has gone on to write for the New York Times and won a 2015 Lambda Literary Award for her short story collection, A Safe Girl to Love.

To recognize the talent in these different voices was easy. The hardest part was limiting the number of fresh voices we could publish.

Lesson three: If you truly desire diversity, open the door (for real), be curious about perspectives other than your own, and let talented people do something, even if they haven’t done it before.

There is a benefit to the editors of legacy publications in perpetrating the notion that talent is rare and it must be closely nurtured to shine. The mythology that these big, important pieces can only be written by a select few titans of the industry and therefore the only way to diversify is to make more titans is just that, a myth. 

Talent is abundant. Talent can do the work, provided they are appropriately resourced. (The time and resources are the biggest barrier, by far.) Thousands upon thousands of writers have what it takes to write those cover stories. Some of those stories may be different than what was expected or what came before, but this should be a feature, not a bug. 

No offense to the current contributors to the Atlantic, many of whom are outstanding and whose work I love, but you could replace every single one of them and the quality would not be diminished one iota. It would be a different publication, but it would not be worse.[1]

The parallels to the structures of higher ed and its problems with diversity are obvious, and I think related to Goldberg’s view that what he’s looking for people to do is very difficult and only a small group are capable.

In academia, talent is also abundant while time and resources are not. You could replace the entire faculty at even elite institutions and no one would notice a diminishment in quality. Everyone who has sat on a job search committee knows that talent is abundant. How many of the people with those CV’s were hirable and could quite comfortably do the job? Twenty? Dozens? Hundreds?

There is a benefit to those already inside to believe that making it inside the gates is the province of the special and that being on the inside gives one unique insight into who is worthy, but that doesn’t necessarily make it true.

If you truly want other voices in your rooms, it’s simple: Let them in, and let them speak.

 

 

[1]Lest you think I’m picking on the Atlantic, the same is true of the blogroll ad Inside Higher Edor the spaces of any other publication. Don’t get me wrong, you’ll have to use a backhoe to get me out of this spot, but there’s plenty of people who could step in and do the job as well. Differently, but just as well.

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