Friday, June 10, 2011

What we can learn about editing from the Reader's Digest

Last month I discovered a gem of a book in the Commits library: The Condensed World of the Reader's Digest, by Samuel A. Schreiner, Jr.

Not only does this book give us a fascinating insight into the world of the best-selling magazine and its creators DeWitt and Lila Wallace but it also helps us to understand the crucial role the fine art of editing played in the Digest's astonishing success of the last century.

Schreiner is able to give us an insider's viewpoint because he worked as an editor of the magazine for many years. This is not a muck-raking book, though far from it. Instead Schreiner takes as objective a look at the Digest as is possible given his insider status. And he is at pains to explain his motives for writing this book, which was first published in 1977:

The fact that I was an insider does... raise some questions about the ethics of this enterprise. The first, of course, is whether I have a right to make public what I can about an organization which I served willingly, knowing its preference for secrecy.

It isn't an easy question to answer.

Before I undertook this project, the publisher made clear to me his intention of having a book about the Reader's Digest written by somebody. I agreed with him. While, in fact, the Reader's Digest is a private company, there is no company more actively seeking public approval. The magazine reaches into every fourth American home; a hundred million people around the world read it. My own feeling is that they have a right to know as much as possible about how the words they are asked to accept, and pay for, are brought into being.

Beyond that, the Digest has made itself into such a wonder of the world, like the Pyramids or the Great Wall of China, that it cannot forever escape paying the price of curiosity that such wonders provoke. As to my own authorship, I accepted the job on the grounds that being now a writer, I had a right if not a duty to tackle a subject for which I was peculiarly equipped.

In later chapters, all written in an engaging style and packed with interesting anecdotes, Schreiner elaborates on the techniques used by DeWitt Wallace and the Digest staff to ensure that the Reader's Digest was "without peer". Till as recently as the eighties at least, it stood "astride the world of publishing like Gulliver in Lilliput, and the sensation of riding the back of a gentle giant" eventually got to most people who worked there, writes Schreiner.

HOUSEHOLD NAMES: DeWitt and Lila Wallace.

The chapter that journalists and media students will find highly instructive — I know I did is titled "Along Murderer's Row" (from a writer's perspective, perhaps, a very apt title; more on this below). Schreiner begins the chapter with a quote from Norman Cousins, editor of Saturday Review and "an astute observer of the American magazine scene":

The secret of the Reader's Digest is editing. I tell my audiences ... that the Reader's Digest is the best edited magazine in America. Wally [DeWitt Wallace] himself is the best pencil man, and the result of his technique is clarity — the words lift right off the page into your mind.

Then Schreiner gets down to brass tacks. Some excerpts:

[Each] Digest article receives the benefit of a total of twenty to thirty man hours of attention, divided among some five different editors; by contrast, I had cut a whole book for [my previous magazine] Parade on [a] fifty-five-minute train ride. When I took my guilt feelings over being allowed, even pressed, to use so much time on a single job to my straw boss at the Digest, he soothed me with these words: "Here we take time to polish the diamond.


An article scheduled for publication in the Digest, whether it is an original or a reprint from another publication, rises from the hands of a first cutter to a more experienced or skilled check cutter to an issue editor to a managing editor for the issue to the editor-in-chief and/or DeWitt Wallace. Each of these editors is charged with putting the article into what he personally feels is the best length and shape for final publication in the Digest. In the process, anything from whole pages to phrases to single words are taken out or restored, according to the preference of the last — and highest — editor working on the piece.

While, in general, the top two or three editors limit their blue pencilling to fairly subtle refinements, I once saw an article, whittled down by half a dozen editors from eight or ten large-sized magazine pages to four Digest pages, come back from the desk of DeWitt Wallace cut once more in half; he had simply dropped off the first two pages in which the author was indulging in some dazzling "writing" and started with the point the piece was trying to make. Since the offices in which these operations go forward tend to be lined up along one corridor for the sake of convenience, that part ... is understandably referred to, mostly by bleeding authors, as murderer's row.

Rather than a slaughter house the area seems more like a distillery to me, an operation in which the verbal water is boiled off over a series of editorial flames until there's nothing left but stuff of the highest proof.

What a lyrical description that last paragraph is of the editing process! In this age of shorter time-spans and a multitude of distractions, I can think of a few magazines (and many writers) that will benefit from a rigorous application of the Digest's editing and trimming-down techniques. (At the same time, I have to say there's something to be said for dazzling writing, the kind that is referred to as "long-form journalism", which we find in Indian magazines like The Caravan and in American publications like The New Yorker. Read an earlier post: Long-form journalism in The Caravan.)

Coming back to The Condensed World of the Reader's Digest, Schreiner admits it is difficult to describe just how to turn the rough stone of an original article or a reprint into a Digest gem. There are no manuals on the art of digesting, he writes. "Newcomers to the Digest staff are not even given verbal instructions or told, for example, what to take out of an article or how to reorder its sequence to make it move more swiftly and logically or what other things might be done to improve it. You learn by observing what seasoned editors do, by your own trial and error."

So true. Unless you're supremely talented (and very few of us are), you can only become a good journalist by learning on the job and making (but not repeating) your own mistakes, presuming you have first been taught the fundamentals at a good J-School.

Samuel Schreiner's book should be on the bookshelf of every aspiring journalist not simply because it is about a best-selling magazine but because the writing is top-notch and it offers so many insights into the practice of print journalism.


  1. Each article gets twenty to thirty hours of attention? And it is commendable that they go through "distilling" at so many levels, thus making each story crisp and highly readable.

    I used to be a regular reader of Reader's Digest. But of late, RD has become more of a health and fitness magazine with most of its space dedicated to health related stories, lifestyle diseases, and the like. The magazine lost its original charm. I miss the old Reader's Digest.

  2. You're right, Shy, about the Digest being a shadow of its former self -- its best days are behind it and the reason for this, I think, is that it was basically a one-man show; after DeWitt Wallace died, the company gradually lost its bearings and, over time, lost its original charm. But what a great read it used to be! And what a great book this is for those who want to understand what goes into the making of a superlative magazine! You must borrow it from the Commits library.


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.