This year I’m starting an occasional series of interviews with editors. I’ve had the privilege of knowing, writing for, and learning from many fantastic editors in my writing career. In my view, good writers are good because they have good editors. Today I interview the literary editor of First Things, Matthew Schmitz.
First Things is a terrific publication. I try to read most of the articles in every issue. It stimulates thinking on culture, faith, and life. I’ve had the honor of writing for them. Today I ask Matthew to answers some questions about his writing and editing approach.
Dan Darling: Let’s talk about your calling. Has writing and editing been a lifetime pursuit or something you picked up late in life? And if so, what first interested in you in words?
Matthew Schmitz: My earliest ambition was to be either an electrician like my father, or an astronaut. Over time, my ambitions dimmed, and I thought the highest thing to which I could reasonably aspire was a life of writing. My interest in words started with my interest in the Word. I hoped to be a pastor and writer, and imagined that the center of my writing life would be the sermon. That plan had to be abandoned when I became a Catholic, though. A desire to be a pastor did not transfer into a calling to be a priest.
DD: We live in an age when anyone can be published instantly via social media, personal blogs, book reviews, etc. Explain, then the value, of a good editor?
MS: An editor has distance from the words, something the writer, no matter how skillful, will never fully possess. Go back and reread something you wrote years ago. Some things will make you cringe. A good editor can catch those things before publication.
DD: Is there a distinctly “Christian” way you do your work? In other words, does your personal theology affect the practice of writing and editing?
MS: I tend to think that Christin work is simply good work, and the rest is commentary.
DD: When you are making decisions about content to publish, how are you evaluating the writer, the piece, and the publication?
MS: My criterion is simple: Would I want to read this and recommend it to others? If not, I reject it. An editor must be ready to say “no.” Too many try to do favors for writers when they should instead be doing favors for readers.
DD: Who are some of the formative writing influences that have shaped the way you go about your work?
MS: I’m not a mature writer and so tend to write in the style of whoever I’ve most recently read. Some recent favorites: John Henry Newman, Bernard of Clairvaux, Robert Louis Stevenson.
DD: What is one piece of advice you would like to give aspiring writers as they seek to get published?
MS: Only write for places that pay for your work and edit it. Places that don’t pay have no incentive to make sure your work is good (they can just throw it online for clicks—especially hate clicks!). Of course, if you’re independently wealthy and the greatest stylist since Gibbon, you should publish things wherever you like.