The last word

After achieving 25 other tasks for the magazine, Will Smith becomes an editor

Will Smith | March/April 2013

When I was told that this would be my final column, any sadness I felt was soon replaced by anxiety: what would be my final mission? Would I be expected to go out on a high, base-jumping from the 14th floor of the Economist building? Would I be asked to combine my previous 25 missions in a bizarre piece of performance art, in which I attempt to decorate a wedding cake during a cage-fight dressed as a Christmas elf? The reality turns out to be less daunting, but with a similar sense of closure: I am to help edit the magazine.

How hard can it be? As a scriptwriter, I’ve often been on the receiving end of that charming inquiry. Once I told a friend of my parents that it took me a year to write a film, and he barked back that I should "damn well learn to type quicker". So I know not to fall prey to layman’s arrogance and underestimate the task, which will doubtless require more than finding the word-count tool on a drop-down menu. I am also anxious not to disappoint Isabel, the deputy editor, who has presided Obi-Wan Kenobi-like over my growing confidence as a columnist.

My day begins with an editorial meeting. The in-house staff—section editors, assistants, picture desk, art department—gather to discuss the next issue with the editor, Tim. As these are ongoing concerns, I have nothing to contribute. I sit up when everyone is asked to suggest future cover stars, but sink back down again when I hear the stringent criteria—no one obvious, overexposed, or in town for a slew of interviews. Shorthand brief: the inverse of Jennifer Aniston. As the day goes on, I ponder this conundrum.

The rest of the morning is taken up with copy-editing a food feature by the assistant editor. Isabel tells me to read it for sense and accuracy, to make a note of any bits that don’t quite work—aka "asks", which I am rather too familiar with from when she edits my pieces—and to "cut it down to 600". So I will need that word-count tool after all.

I could also do with a screen to hide behind, or at least a pair of dark glasses, as the author, Sam, is just two desks away. Luckily I only need to cut a couple of repetitions, and it turns out that editors are used to being edited. The piece shrivels from 636 words to 600, Isabel approves, and I am promoted to editing "on the page". This, it turns out, is a promotion above my abilities. If I’d been in charge of this layout, half my final column would have ended up sprawled over an ad.

The lead Style feature is now on screen, looking much like real pages. There’s a pretend headline and "strap"—the trailer at the top—and several quotes in boxes. Around this the text is "flowed"—and it does flow, backwards and forwards as you cut it, in a mad alphabet-tide. An overspill of words sits in a box at the end; my job is to reduce this to zero. On aesthetic grounds, I must also ensure that no column starts or ends with a single line, and that no paragraph ends with a single lonely word, known, chillingly, as a "widow".

My rate of progress would leave my parents’ friend apoplectic. Solving one problem creates another: a cut here leads to a one-line column there. Glance at the photo above and you’ll see that I look like a man who has just been told to complete ten cryptic crosswords in an hour or else a sniper in the building opposite will open fire. As he snaps away at me with his camera, the art director, Graham, is openly laughing.

As if being stuck in this Escher-like loop of revision is not enough, I am tasked with thinking of a headline. If you turn to page 48 of the March/April issue, you will see that the result of my two hours of temple-massaging—the, I thought, elegant but functional "What women want"—has been rightly struck out by someone who knows what they are doing. Also, after I left, the team decided to add extra boxes of quotes to the layout, rendering my afternoon’s wrangling pointless. This teaches me that I need to speed up, detach, and that on a daily paper I would be fired within an hour.

At the end of the day, Tim asks if I have used any of the skills I learnt during my five and a half years of missions. Much as I relished caking myself in make-up to pose as a human statue, there are less elaborate ways of achieving the same state of meditative calm, such as Bach and a bath. And though crushing a car with a Chieftain tank was a blast, my garden’s not big enough to turn it into a full-time hobby. The one skill I do hope to have got better at is writing. I’m not sure that I mastered editing. But if Colin Thubron or Gillian Welch ever make the cover, I’d like a credit.

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