Cheri Lucas Rowlands is an editor with a wealth of experience in the world of storytelling. With over a decade of experience working as a story wrangler and editor, Cheri has a deep understanding of what makes a compelling narrative.
As an editor at Longreads, she curates and produces longform nonfiction from writers and illustrators around the world. Her work has been instrumental in helping writers and illustrators win notable prizes, such as the Pushcart Prize and the National Magazine Award, and secure book deals.
Hi Cheri, welcome to Famous Writing Routines, great to have you here with us today! Can we take it back to the beginning and talk about how you became interested in the art of editing?
In elementary school, when I became obsessed with the thought of someday making movies, I became interested in the art of cutting away to create a narrative before I even knew what “editing” was. My interest, initially, was on a visual level, sowed in an eighth-grade film photography class where I spent a lot of time developing black-and-white photographs in a darkroom.
Later, in film school at Loyola Marymount University, I loved the surprise of nonlinear narratives and the surreal masterpieces of Luis Buñuel, and imagining stories unfold cinematically in my head. This love for storytelling and experimenting with visual sequences helped set the foundation for my work as an editor.
In terms of writing, it wasn’t until I was doing my MFA in my mid-20s, in the creative nonfiction program at Goucher College, that I really understood what editing entailed, and what it meant to edit my own writing. Many of my classmates, in later phases of their careers and polishing their manuscripts, were quite focused and disciplined.
In contrast, my entire aim during that time was to write it all down. I was writing about my experiences in the underground rave scene, and as much as I’d convinced myself that I was done with all of it so I could then write and make sense of everything, I was very much still in that world. So my mentors, kind and encouraging, advised me to just document everything before that window closed.
Years later, as I’ve cherry-picked bits within that story to revisit and examine from a new perspective as a mother, I’m only now starting to grasp what it means to truly self-edit — not just in terms of tightening up sentences on a page, but also calibrating the focus of a piece I’ve longed to write over time.
As someone who was born and raised on the San Francisco Peninsula, do you find that your location and cultural background have influenced the stories and writers that you are drawn to?
Absolutely. I cast a very wide net each week when I look for nonfiction to read and pick for Longreads, but I’m naturally drawn to stories about California — Northern California and the Bay Area in particular — on anything from the climate crisis and regional history to interesting communities and housing and migration. I’ve read many thought-provoking pieces on why people love California despite it being so hard to live here, because of wildfires and the high cost of living, among many other things.
I like to keep up with what’s new at publications like Alta and High Country News, which focus on California and the West. This is a good spot to also call out Natalie So’s fantastic feature in The Believer on the microchip heists in the ’90s — a largely forgotten chapter of Silicon Valley’s past, and a time in the Bay Area, before the dot-com boom, that was personally transformative for me.
Growing up in and being part of the Bay Area rave scene in the ’90s influences a lot of what I’m drawn to, probably more than I realize. Some of my favorite reads are rooted on the dance floor, but they resonate far beyond that physical space, exploring identity and belonging and community and resistance — all of which I love to read about. There was a sense of freedom, DIY spirit, and genuine kindness within that culture that I have not felt since, so I’m definitely pulled into writing that places these types of transformative experiences and nurturing spaces under a lens.
You’ve worked with some remarkable writers, some of whom have won prestigious awards. How do you approach the editing process to bring out the best in their work and help their stories shine?
I love working on researched and reported essays with strong personal narratives at their core. Most writers who pitch me with a story already know that their own experience can and will drive the piece, but it’s also fun to discuss an idea with a writer early on, or even later, when we’re deep into the weeds of Google Docs, and see them realize how weaving a personal thread can strengthen their piece.
It depends on the state of a first draft, but I generally don’t hold back and sprinkle in a lot of clarifying questions, suggestions, and possibilities. I also flag a section where I may not have concrete feedback, but will do so because maybe the writer also senses it’s not there yet and may already have an idea of what to do.
Oftentimes, suggestions are merely that — and I encourage writers to push back when they feel strongly about something. While we’re pretty selective these days about what we commission at Longreads, I feel we give a lot of space to the pieces we do accept and shepherd through.
“The God Phone” by Leora Smith, “California Burning” by Tessa Love, and “The Death Artist” by Maggie Donahue come to mind as examples of hybrid essays I really enjoyed editing. I also loved working with Will McCarthy on his quirky piece about the weird and wonderful world of Google Reviews, which we published at the start of this year.
In your work at Longreads, you curate and edit longform nonfiction from writers all over the world. What qualities do you look for in a piece that make it a good fit for Longreads?
Each Longreads editor has their own wheelhouse and obsessions, and we joke that we can scan the story titles of our editors’ picks and guess who selected it. But I read a wide variety of nonfiction all week, on any topic. Sure, I’ll read about California or techno or psychedelics or home or disability or shit any day (yes, you read that right), but if you write an entertaining, can’t-put-down piece on something I know nothing about (like selling Christmas trees in NYC or importing Pakistani mangoes or maintaining port-a-potties at sports events), or ruminate on a common topic (war) from an unexpected angle (surrealism, cats), you’re likely to grab me.
For our Friday Top 5 newsletter, we try to recommend smaller, regional*, international, and lesser-known magazines and journals alongside “the usual suspects” or major publications as much as possible. (*A quick hat tip to 5280 writer Robert Sanchez, who shares his recommendations from city magazines through City Reads.) I also love to read and boost writing from emerging writers and authors who have never been promoted by Longreads before.
My team rotates the task of wrangling our newsletter each week, and it’s fun for each of us to take turns putting together the final list. When there’s something big dominating the news, or conversely when a week feels quiet and light, sometimes we’ll discuss the proposed mix: what deserves the top slot, or what’s missing. So curation is both an individual and collective effort.
There are others reading and recommending nonfiction storytelling on the web: The Browser and The Sunday Long Read immediately come to mind. I also appreciate Great Canadian Longform for stories about Canada or published in Canadian publications, Vesna Jaksic Lowe’s recommendations in her Immigrant Strong newsletter (I interviewed Vesna about curating writing on identity, belonging, and multiculturalism a few years ago), and curators like Ann Friedman, Patrick Tanguay, and Jodi Ettenberg. I feel incredibly lucky to be in this space and to help amplify excellent writing.
Many of the writers you work with have gone on to great success, whether by landing agents, book deals, or further recognition for their writing. What advice do you have for writers who are trying to hone their craft and get their work out there?
Pitch smartly and strategically. I love when I get a targeted pitch from someone who knows who I am, what I’ve edited, and what I might be interested in. I don’t see that type of pitch enough.
Work with as many editors as you can, not just to learn craft, but process. You can learn so much from seeing how people approach and tackle the edit of your draft, and become more comfortable with different editing and perhaps communication styles. Pay attention to every single mark and comment from a copy editor and fact-checker — I learn so, so much from them. Be open to edits. Push back on edits. Find the middle and that balance.
In addition to your work as an editor on Longreads, you’ve also crafted copy for products and apps at Automattic, including WordPress.com. What unique challenges and opportunities does writing for a tech audience present, and how does it differ from your work as a literary editor?
I’ve worked at Automattic, the distributed company behind blogging and website services like WordPress.com and Tumblr, for over a decade. Automattic also owns Longreads, as well as our sister site The Atavist Magazine, which is run by my amazing teammate Seyward Darby.
While my team focuses on these two publications, in the past I’ve worked on customer storytelling, education, and marketing projects, like writing product announcements, interviewing writers about their food or travel or parenting blogs, drafting landing pages, crafting app and UI copy for different products, developing and running blogging and photography courses, and managing the social channels for WordPress.com. I’d often work on these tasks alongside the deeper editing at Longreads.
Constant context-shifting during the workday is challenging, but it has ultimately made me a more versatile and agile editor, sharpening the skills needed to quickly identify and target different audiences and write for them. Inspiring, educating, and promoting the WordPress.com community, which assumes a level of WordPress knowledge, has also helped me gain a technical skill set over the years.
Longreads.com runs on Newspack, a WordPress-powered publishing platform for small and medium-sized publishers. As an editor, I love that I’m able to produce my own stories, make prominent design changes to our website, and experiment and execute on my own ideas.
Can you tell us about your editing routine? What does a typical day look like for you?
After reading a blog post on time management by Paolo Belcastro, an Automattic colleague, I started time blocking to add some kind of structure to my workday. Throughout school and at all of my jobs, I’ve always managed to get my work done, but I wouldn’t say I’m efficient in managing my time.
And honestly, I’m wary of ideas and phrases like “time optimization” and tools that are meant to help us become more productive. (It’s been 10 years since I wrote this post on my haphazard methods of internet consumption, which was inspired by a Financial Times piece by Robert Cottrell, the founding editor of The Browser. In many ways, my internet-surfing habits haven’t changed.)
A loose time-blocking practice has helped me make the most of my workday. More importantly, it nudges me to take exercise and lunch breaks and encourages me to move on from a task, even when I’m not finished. For so long, I’ve set aside entire days for stuff I’ve procrastinated on, spending way too many hours at once on a story edit.
Carving out deeper, uninterrupted blocks of time might work well for others, but it keeps me underwater. Instead, assigning one hour or 30 minutes to a single thing at a time — and chipping away at that thing each day — pushes me through a to-do list over the week. I’ll typically block out 10-11 a.m. or 11 a.m.-12 p.m. for an essay or reading list edit, and then an hour-long block in the afternoon to follow up on the morning session or, more often, to work on a different piece.
I’ll assign the other hours to read editors’ picks and submissions, respond to pitches, weigh in on other editors’ pieces, create an illustration for an upcoming story, work on a side project, or tackle other editorial requests that pop up. I’m not that rigid when I plan each day, but the key is that the time spent on any one thing is capped at an hour or half-hour at a time.
You asked what a typical day looks like, not what it sounds like, but I recall a recent @longreads tweet asking what followers listen to when they write, and this response made me laugh — because that’s also totally me when I write and edit.
I’d love to know about the books you’re reading at the moment. What have been some of your favourite recent reads?
Most of the books I read are for four-year-olds. With all the reading online I do each week, I give my eyes a break when I’m not working, and I haven’t finished an entire book in some time — I’m more of a grazer these days.
The books I’ve recently picked up off my shelf include Raver Girl by Samantha Durbin, No One Is Talking About This by Patricia Lockwood, and Minor Feelings by Cathy Park Hong. I also regularly revisit Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg and Bird By Bird by Anne Lamott, even though I’m not actively writing. I love that I can open up any page in both of these books and find a sentence that’s wise and practical.
What does your current workspace look like?
I currently have no dedicated office at home. Our main living space is an open floor plan, and my standing desk is between our living room and the kitchen. I have an adjustable Varier sit-stand stool, which encourages movement; the base “wobbles” and teeters so I’m rarely in the same position for more than five minutes.
This minimal stool is definitely not for everyone, but I’ve grown to love it. My husband and I bought two of these when we lived in a 131-square-foot tiny house, and they’ve stayed with us as we’ve moved around over the years.
I have two dozen houseplants — mostly ferns, palms, calatheas, and peperomias. We have two cats, and these plant sare nontoxic. I love being surrounded by them, and I’ll also usually display recent artwork my daughter has drawn for me on the shelf.
In terms of gadgets, I’m pretty simple. Other than my laptop, I have my iPhone at my desk, and then a notebook, which is where I write down my time blocks and tasks for the day. Oh, and lip balm. Those are everywhere, like a squirrel hiding its acorns.
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