Editors / Interviews

Interview with Leah Flickinger: “They mostly just needed someone to listen and validate their ideas.”

Leah Flickinger is an award-winning editor, storyteller, copywriter, and creative leader with extensive experience in the publishing industry. She has played a pivotal role in the success of “12 Minutes and a Life” by Mitchell S. Jackson, which won both the 2021 Pulitzer Prize and the National Magazine Award for feature writing.

Leah has written and edited a wide range of stories, including celebrity profiles, gear reviews, health features, and long-form narratives. As Executive Editor and later Editor-in-Chief at Bicycling, Leah transformed the publication into a multimedia brand and led it to five National Magazine Award nominations. She also launched the brand’s popular Instagram account. Before Bicycling, Leah was a part of the Women’s Health magazine launch team and later served as Deputy Editor, directing fitness, nutrition, and weight-loss content. She co-authored The Women’s Health Diet and edited Slim, Calm, Sexy Yoga by Tara Stiles.

Photo credit: Brakethrough Media

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Hi Leah! We’re delighted to have you as a guest on Famous Writing Routines. For our readers who may not be familiar with your work, could you please give us a brief introduction to yourself?

I’m currently the Executive Features Director at Hearst Enthusiast Group. I develop and edit features for magazine brands including Bicycling, Runner’s World, and Popular Mechanics. I conceived and edited “12 Minutes and a Life” by Mitchell S. Jackson for Runner’s World that won both the 2021 Pulitzer Prize and the National Magazine Award for feature writing. (I still pinch myself.) 

You began your career as a fact-checker in the book division of Rodale, Inc. and rose through the ranks. Can you talk about your journey in the industry and the lessons you’ve learned along the way?

I was at the Pennsylvania-based publishing company for 21 years and was able to craft a nice career trajectory there while learning on the job. I’d been an English/Art History major in college and didn’t go to journalism school, so each of my experiences at Rodale felt like a new level of bootcamp. 

Fact-checking taught me how stories came together from the ground up. I learned things like how to assess the credibility of sources, that experts often get statistics wrong (check the original study!), and the dangers of cherry-picking facts.  

My first editing experience involved compiling existing material from Men’s Health magazine into what was basically a series of anthologies. Again, bootcamp, but this time I learned the fine art of how to make health and fitness research interesting and actionable for the layperson.

Using that experience, I pivoted to acquiring and editing health and fitness books. My initial foray into traditional book publishing involved taking the bus into NYC during a snowstorm to meet with a prominent agent at the William Morris Agency who I’d somehow convinced to have a drink with me. She either pitied me or was impressed by my determination, and I wound up signing one of her most famous clients, a well-known physician, for a series of three books. Over the next few years, I acquired and edited more than 25 non-fiction books in the areas of health, fitness, and sports. 

I didn’t love the pace of book publishing and when an opportunity arose in 2005 at Rodale’s new launch, Women’s Health magazine, I jumped. Immediately I realized I had found what I was meant to do. The fast pace and intensity kept me engaged, and I loved seeing the work I did transform on the page so quickly. I learned the nuts and bolts of line editing and story development, how to package a service story for maximum impact, and the power (and pitfalls) of a brand voice. 

Later, as executive editor at Bicycling, I began editing longform narrative features and doing some writing as well. This taught me the value of the writer’s voice and how it can make good storytelling great, which is something I try very hard to emphasize now in my role producing features at Hearst.

Can you tell us about your experience as an editor and how it informs your own writing and storytelling?

The most important thing I’ve learned as an editor is that cultivating relationships with writers is key to producing great stories. And I don’t mean taking them to lunch. I mean listening to them. I’m an introvert, and when I was starting out, I would experience crippling anxiety whenever a writer wanted to talk instead of email. I began to realize what stressed me out the most was the possibility that I would be unable to answer their questions. Over time, I realized that they mostly just needed someone to listen and validate their ideas. Writing can feel so solitary. Once I started doing more writing myself, I developed a better understanding of what writers want and need from editors. 

You have a wide range of experience in writing and editing, from celebrity and athlete profiles to gear reviews and nutrition features to photo essays and longform narratives. How do you approach the research and development of a story?

I read/watch/listen to as much as I can, and then often find myself feeling unprepared regardless! I try to articulate some of the big questions the story needs to answer, and then I focus on how I’m going to get those answers. I try really hard not to start thinking about ledes and structure until I’m ready to start writing, so I don’t let it influence my reporting and instead let the reporting decide.

For stories I assign and edit, I will sometimes do an assignment memo that lays out the key points the piece needs to cover, possible sources, and thoughts on a narrative arc. This helps me organize my ideas and gives the writer something to start with. I try to make it clear that the reporting may take the story in a different direction, and that’s ok.

How do you approach working with writers and authors, and what are some of the key elements you look for in a story?

Again, I try to cultivate relationships and be transparent about the editing process. A writer is a person who is going to be in your life in a significant way at least for the duration of the project. You want that aspect of your life to be positive, right? Kindness, patience, and honesty go a long way. In terms of ideas, I tend to gravitate toward stories that are about feelings. My most successful stories feature emotions front and center. 

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Can you talk about any specific techniques or methods you use to help writers improve their storytelling and writing skills?

I’m obsessed with structure and almost always have notes on story architecture as part of my feedback. I think it’s sometimes hard when you’re writing to pull back from the act of getting the words out to focus on telling the story in the most impactful way. 

Also, clichés! Even my most experienced writers succumb to clichés (ie: “Watching my dog run free made me believe in miracles…”) or, related, think they need to tell readers how to feel (“Sadly, this story will begin…”). Trust your own voice. Good evocative writing will elicit emotion without directing readers to feel something. (I am not immune either—see “bootcamp” above.)

Endings are also tricky. I see a lot of endings that basically say: “This is the meaning of what you just read.” Or they end on a quote, which sometimes can be meaningful, but almost always feels lazy.

Some of the most powerful endings leave the reader suspended in a sensory moment rather than tie things up in a neat bow. The ending on this story by Rowan Moore Gerety for Bicycling about the murder of bike racer, Moriah Wilson, is a good example. He originally had this scene in the middle of the story where it got a bit lost. When I tried it at the end, it became an unforgettable statement about grief:

Back in Mo’s childhood room, beyond the door with the macaroni nameplate, Karen picks out cherished flannel shirts to give to Moriah’s cousins, bike outfits and cute jeans with holes in them for Cash. Karen and Moriah wore the same size, and Moriah’s scent is threaded through Karen’s dresser drawers now too. Each day, she chooses something to pick up and breathe in. “Sometimes it makes me cry, and sometimes it makes me smile,” she said, seeming, as we spoke on the phone in October, to do a bit of both. “I do wonder,” she said, “what’s it gonna be like when the scent is gone?” It’s often the most emotional part of her day: the one sensation that conjures not just Moriah’s memory, or her way of being, but her visceral, physical presence. She marvels at how strong and sweet Moriah’s scent still is—even after going through the laundry—sometimes rubbing off on her own clothes, lingering longer than seems possible.

I’d love to know what you’re reading at the moment. What have been some of your favourite books recently? 

I just listened to Margaret Sullivan’s Newsroom Confidential on a long car ride and ate it up—I love an inside journalism story. This past year I read and loved The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett and Cloud Cuckoo Land by Anthony Doerr. I’m about to start Hello Beautiful by Ann Napolitano.

Can you describe what your current writing workspace looks like?

The pandemic changed the way I think about my workspace. I have a desk at home, but it mostly functions as a place to put things. Over the past few years, I’ve worked at my kitchen table, in the living room of a rental house, in a co-working space, at Starbucks, and now a couple times a week at the Hearst office space in Easton, PA. All this means that my workspace is essentially wherever I set up my laptops (one work, one personal). I wish I could describe a cozy desk nook, but that’s just not the reality of my life. I’m writing this from my dining room table.

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