Dominic Lawson: The secret of being a good editor? 'Energy, courage and troublemaking ability'

Dominic Lawson is a former editor of The Spectator magazine and The Sunday Telegraph, and regular columnist for The Independent since 2006.

What’s the secret of being a good editor?

I don’t think it’s much of a secret: Energy, attention to detail, courage, decisiveness and good judgement (or luck, which may amount to the same thing). Actually these are the same qualities required for a leader in any walk of life, so I should add one desirable attribute peculiar to our trade: to be a natural troublemaker.

How have you found making the switch from editor to columnist?

I found the switch easy to make, but then I wrote regularly during the 15 years or so I was an editor, first at The Spectator and then at The Sunday Telegraph. So my pen wasn’t rusty.

Yes, I think it does help to have been an editor. To be an editor you have to develop a very broad (some would say superficial) grasp of almost every sort of issue that might interest the public.

That’s beneficial for a leader page or op-ed columnist, because it’s essential to be able to express your opinions across the spectrum: politics, social issues, sport, culture, you name it.

Otherwise the columnist ploughs a narrow furrow with the author’s personal hobby-horses and if you don’t bore yourself to death, you certainly risk that happening to your readers.

In this context I’ve noticed how many of the most prolific and successful columnists are ex-editors: Simon Jenkins, Rod Liddle (he edited the Today Programme), Max Hastings and Charles Moore.

Of course, the other reason it helps to have been an editor is that you know what editors want from a regular columnist!

What story are you most proud of?

I don’t really think in that way, but I suppose the most significant must have been my interview with Nicholas Ridley back in the summer of 1990.

Not because he was forced to resign from the Cabinet (which I regretted) but because it was the first time the public got a clear insight into the full extent of the fury of a large section of the Conservative Party with the drive towards European integration –and it hasn’t gone away!

As someone who has reinvented himself as a successful freelance after being an editor, what’s the secret for journalists of staying employed in today’s tough times?

It’s a bit of a cliché, but however big or heavily promoted is your byline you have to remember every day that you are only as good as your last piece or column.

When I was in the business of hiring and firing, the one thing that inclined me to the latter was obvious complacency. Mistakes you should always forgive – we all make those; but because editors

tend to be highly-motivated people, they are driven half-mad by those they think are not also trying their hardest.

Dominic Lawson is a former editor of The Spectator magazine and The Sunday Telegraph, and regular columnist for The Independent since 2006.

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