The 12 Timeless Rules for Making a Good Publication

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No one in media can quite believe how much the Internet has changed our profession. Sometimes it seems as if none of the old rules apply. That's one reason it's great to work at a longstanding magazine; it forces you to take a longer view.

In honor of our 153rd birthday, which we celebrated this week, I'm posting this 12-step guide to editing a magazine, which is tacked up in the hallway here at The Watergate. Judging from the type and tone, I'd say it's from the middle of the 20th century, but I have no real information on its provenance.

Not that you need to know its context to appreciate it. Take its datelessness as a kind of timelessness. Every rule on this list still matters in one way or another.

I particularly like number eight, which states, "Follow the news. Remember that timeliness means being on time, not before the time." Number six is a good reminder, too: "Be careful about expenses. Calculate the cost of each number. Remember that our margin is always narrow."

In any case, enjoy. Print it out and pin it above your desk. Remember that the fundamentals of making a good publication endure.

Here's a transcription of the whole list, for search engines' sakes:

  1. When in doubt, let a manuscript go back.
  2. Always remember that the fastidious element in the Atlantic audience is its permanent and valuable core.
  3. Don't over-edit. You will often estrange an author by too elaborate a revision, and furthermore, take away from the magazine the variety of style that keeps it fresh.
  4. Avoid mistakes of fact. If a paper is statistical, question the author closely.
  5. The Atlantic has always been recognized as belonging to the Liberal wing. Be liberal, but be radical only as a challenge to be answered.
  6. Be careful about expenses. Calculate the cost of each number. Remember that our margin is always narrow.
  7. A sound editor never has a three-months' full supply in his cupboard. When you over-buy, you narrow your future choice.
  8. Follow the news. Remember that timeliness means being on time, not before the time.
  9. Interesting papers on conscience, personal religion, theory of living, are always precious. The Atlantic has three dimensions -- breadth of interest, height of interest, depth of interest. Individual personal philosophy always adds to the depth.
  10. Keep all suggestions in the Black Book, so that they can be followed up.
  11. Humor is precious and correspondingly hard to find. Most humor that reaches us is merely jocularity, and it is well to be jocular only when really funny.
  12. Quick decisions -- except in poetry. Collect groups of verse and make a selection after several readings.
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Alexis C. Madrigal

Alexis Madrigal is the deputy editor of TheAtlantic.com. He's the author of Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology. More

The New York Observer has called Madrigal "for all intents and purposes, the perfect modern reporter." He co-founded Longshot magazine, a high-speed media experiment that garnered attention from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the BBC. While at Wired.com, he built Wired Science into one of the most popular blogs in the world. The site was nominated for best magazine blog by the MPA and best science Web site in the 2009 Webby Awards. He also co-founded Haiti ReWired, a groundbreaking community dedicated to the discussion of technology, infrastructure, and the future of Haiti.

He's spoken at Stanford, CalTech, Berkeley, SXSW, E3, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and his writing was anthologized in Best Technology Writing 2010 (Yale University Press).

Madrigal is a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley's Office for the History of Science and Technology. Born in Mexico City, he grew up in the exurbs north of Portland, Oregon, and now lives in Oakland.

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