Find the Takeaway

The Washington Post's Outlook editor discusses what makes a story relatable, why the first-person point of view is important to readers, and what he's learned from working for several different publications.

Last year, Adam Kushner launched PostEverything, a Washington Post digital magazine for personal essays and arguments on a wide range of topics. This year, PostEverything merged with the Post’s Sunday Outlook section, where Adam currently serves as editor. Before joining the Washington Post, Adam was executive editor at the National Journal, and prior to that, he worked as a senior editor at Newsweek, leading foreign coverage and writing on ideas and trends. He has also been a managing editor at The New Republic.

At the upcoming 2015 Creative Nonfiction Writers’ Conference, Adam will participate in the panel discussions, "Fact & Story: A Balancing Act" and "Pitching to Win." Creative Nonfiction’s Chelsea Denard spoke with Adam about what makes a story relatable, why the first-person point of view is important to readers, and what he's learned from working for several different publications.

CNF: What subjects do you get excited about—and what kinds of articles interest you? What kinds of pitches do you dread receiving?

KUSHNER: I like stories that have something to say about the human condition, about the way power is wielded in society, or about how what we think of a certain issue is wrong. I love detecting a massive or surprising trend before others do. And I’m grateful to writers who can boil down some complex issue—ethnic conflict in northern Iraq, say, or American income mobility—in a compelling and relatable way. Online, we’ve also found that stories about race, class, and gender often resonate with readers. At the same time, I dread personal-essay (or really any kind of) pitches from writers who don’t understand that their stories have to reveal some larger idea. You are not, I’m sorry to report, inherently interesting. You are only interesting insofar as your tale helps us see into the mind of a teen or a father or a cop. If you can’t draw that connection between your story and the broader story—a connection that is logically sound—then you don’t yet have a worthwhile idea.

CNF: Do you find that a touch of humor detracts from or humanizes a story?

KUSHNER: Mostly I’ve found that there are no ironclad rules in storytelling. Sometimes a well-turned witticism really relieves the tension in a piece about genocide; sometimes the funniest way to handle a story about bronies is just to play it straight.

CNF: In your opinion, what makes a story personal or relatable?

KUSHNER: Pathos and psychology. Details. Realistic dialogue. Narrative tension: everyone wants to know how the crisis turned out!

CNF: Why do you think readers are interested in first person stories?

KUSHNER: We live in an age of eroding faith in institutions. The omniscient journalist’s voice simply resonates less than it used to among readers who increasingly doubt the veracity of everything. In that environment, there is something profoundly authentic about “I” and “my.” Authors have an unassailable claim to expertise about themselves.

CNF: What role does social media play in your job?

KUSHNER: I read and generate ideas from social media all the time. I post stories produced by my team, though I don’t run our social media accounts personally.

CNF: What is the biggest mistake made by emerging writers who reach out to you? What advice would you give to a writer hoping to work with you?

KUSHNER: See above: Your story is not enough, and you are not interesting. Your story must work in the service of some larger idea. Look for the takeaway, even if you don’t write it into the piece in the form of a pedantic nut graf.

CNF: What’s the most important thing you’ve learned after working for several different publications? Was there anything you had to learn the hard way?

KUSHNER: Hold every piece to a high standard. Have other smart people look at a story before it drops. Focus first on concept, structure, argument, and logic, and only afterward on language, voice, and rhetoric. It’s ok to edit with a heavy hand—even to dilute the author’s voice—when it will make the piece better. Protect writers by saving them from their own worst instincts. On the other hand, some writers are so eager to be published that they’ll let themselves be bullied/convinced to say things they don’t believe or can’t substantiate: Use your power as an editor responsibly.

Also, never read the comments.

CNF: What's the biggest mistake you made when you were starting out as an editor?

KUSHNER: Assuming that if a story contained a line or a word or an idea I didn’t understand, then it must be wrong. Such hubris!

CNF: Are there any questions that keep you up at night?

KUSHNER: Did my writers tell the truth? Have we been intellectually honest? Am I playing too much defense (fielding pitches that arrive over the transom) and not enough offense (thinking about what the world should be reading and then seeking stories to serve those needs)?

About the Author

Chelsea Denard

Chelsea Denard is an editorial assistant at Creative Nonfiction and a Creative Writing major at Arizona State University online. She moved to Pittsburgh from Los Angeles in 2014, and still has not bought proper snow boots.

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