At a Master’s Tea on Thursday, New Yorker features director Daniel Zalewski gave students in attendance a kind of writing guidance that they do not regularly get from tutors and professors.
At the event, which drew roughly 40 students and faculty, Zalewski talked about his own editing process, the art of communication through long-form journalism and how to write engaging pieces on delicate subjects. Zalewski has written and edited for both large and small publications including The New York Times Magazine, Harpers, Slate and Lingua Franca. In addition to editing the work of many renowned staff writers, he has published many of his own pieces in the magazine.
“The joy of my life is that I get to inhabit and impersonate and work with so many kinds of writers and stylists,” Zalewski said.
An editor at The New Yorker since 2003, Zalewski said he rejected a career in academia for magazine writing. He thought this new path would allow him to communicate to a broader audience while still addressing intricate issues, he said. After a story he edited in Lingua Franca got picked up by The New York Times, he was offered a job as editor the NYT Magazine.
Working for the NYT Magazine was less romantic than most outsiders think, Zalewski said. The editor of the magazine was like a “puppetmaster” over the writers, he added, and pitching articles sometimes felt brittle and inorganic.
Zalewski said this atmosphere contrasted heavily with that at The New Yorker, where he said writers get more respect from their editors.
“I am gloriously subservient to my writers,” said Zalewski.
Still, Zalewski added that editors at The New Yorker also know when to be stern. The writers need to listen to “tender but merciless” criticism of their work, he said.
Zalewski noted that as a features editor he has to work with writers on very sensitive topics. He cited as an example a recent story by Patrick Radden Keefe about the family history of the woman responsible for the 2010 University of Alabama in Huntsville shooting. The story took over a year to complete, but he said the result was a balanced and nuanced portrait that did not point fingers or shame any of the people involved.
However, Zalewski also said more lighthearted features also land on his desk — such as a profile of comedian Chris Rock.
Many people think, mistakenly, that in-depth storytelling in journalism is dead and that the public prefers short, sensational stories, Zalewski said. But the future of journalism is not quite so bleak, he said, adding that the public still is hungry for complicated reading material.
Responding to a student question regarding his choice to turn down a job offer as the editor-in-chief for The New York Times Magazine, Zalewski said that the kind of writing he edits for The New Yorker will have a longer shelf life than those of other magazines, and that taking the job would only have meant satisfying his ego.
Regarding the dearth of female journalists, Zalewski said that it is valid to criticize magazines for not publishing more female writers. This is an issue he and the editorial board at The New Yorker discuss often, he added.
“It matters to me because the magazine would be boring if we didn’t publish women writers,” he said.
English lecturer Fred Strebeigh, who teaches a class titled “Nonfiction Writing: Voice and Structure” and who was responsible for bringing Zalewski to Yale, told the News he invited Zalewski because he had heard high praise about him from other New Yorker editors and writers.
Students interviewed said that although they were not interested in pursuing a career in journalism, they thought Zalewski shared valuable insight.
Mert Dilek ’18 said he found Zalewski’s discussion of how integral editing is in the writing process especially illuminating.
Alexandra Simon ’17 said she occasionally reads The New Yorker’s online articles, which her father sends to her via email.
The New Yorker began as a humor magazine in 1925 and is published in print 47 times a year.