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Editing Principle 43: Enthusiasm

deliflowers5Tina Brown was in the news recently on the release of her new book The Vanity Fair Diaries: 1983-1992. I’ve met Tina Brown on a couple of occasions and found her perfectly lovely. That’s a Tina-esque descriptor — “perfectly lovely.” A friend of mine was on staff at The Daily Beast in its earliest days, and daily received emails from her that she’d typed hastily from the backseat of a Town Car, often riddled with typos but always peppered with “terrific,” “fantastic,” and such.

Once, at a book party at her and Harry’s home, she was ushering me through a crowded hallway for a reason I cannot recall and accidentally bumped me into Dustin Hoffman, so she stopped for three seconds to introduce me. He could not have been less interested in making my acquaintance, but I genuinely believe she valued writers and editors so highly that in her mind, there was no good reason why Hoffman wouldn’t shake my hand as his equal.

How writers felt was important to her. Here’s how, in an interview with Emma Brockes, she describes, in a roundabout fashion, how psychology factored into her work as a magazine editor:

…at Vanity Fair the best of the writers were women, and they were tough. Marie Brenner, Gail Sheehy, Leslie Bennetts, Maureen Orth — I brought on these women and they did amazing work and they were not blushing violets; they pushed back. Writers can whine or be tough, depending on who they are. I love writers. I do. All of my most enduring relationships are with the writers I worked with because I think what I am able to do, as an editor, is know what I think and swiftly impart it with a suggestion of what is required. But that also means sometimes rejecting, and the slow “no” is the most agonising thing you can do for a writer, not saying what you think, dithering, torturing the writer, then rejecting it. That’s where you make the enemies.

And here’s how writer David Frum, who wrote for her at the Beast, described her method — basically a mixture of calling things “fantastic” a lot coupled with knowing what she wanted (and when):

Tina rewarded effort not only in dollars and cents, but also in enthusiasm. She didn’t just ask for an article before breakfast the next day. She asked for “one of your always brilliant articles.” She didn’t merely extract more work than contracted. She explained, “I never can have enough of you.” Obviously, this was practiced art, but how amazing that she had practiced it so well.

I sometimes see people, and smart people in particular, having a hard time expressing enthusiasm for someone’s work at such a high pitch. Maybe they worry they’ll sound stupid or insincere. They will instead say something’s “great.” You hear a lot of “great.” But I’d suggest, if you’re not in the habit of laying on praise thickly — and, I’ll add, privately, i.e. not on social media, where your praise can come across as a performance being enacted for a larger audience — to try it. It rarely fails to move people.