Meet the editor behind Wright Thompson’s stories

Wright Thompson has received plenty of praise for his story about New Orleans, which nearly filled an entire edition of ESPN The Magazine. Titled Beyond the Breach, it’s a landmark piece of journalism because of its intimate reporting of characters and place, and also because of the way the mag played it.

It’s rare that a reporter does interviews after a feature story (usually that happens following breaking news), but Thompson appeared on a gamut of ESPN platforms to discuss the story — SportsCenter, the His & Hers podcast and ESPN Front Row.

In that last link, you’ll notice an editor named Paul Kix, a man with perhaps the most thankless job of all: Cut 15,000 words out of a story by one of the most distinguished sports writers on the planet.

It took “almost every waking moment” of two weeks to execute properly, Kix said last week as we discussed his behind-the-scenes role in making Thompson’s story happen.

Kix helped turn a 40,000-word draft into a more streamlined 25K. He made a third of a beautifully written story go poof for the sake of concision.

Through four edits, he used an axe, a butcher knife, a scalpel and eventually a polisher.

Kix knew Thompson would bring the goods. “I also knew that this thing was going to be a beast to tame,” he said, “because the schedule was so tight and so unrelenting, that I knew once it actually kicked in, it was going to be painful.”

To tell the story behind this story, let’s flash back to early May, when ESPN published Thompson’s feature on Ted Williams’ daughter — a piece also edited by Kix. It took 13 drafts before that story was ready, and when it was done, Kix told Thompson it was the best thing he’s ever written. They toasted themselves, Kix said, and then planned to get some rest.

But by the weekend, Thompson already had another story he wanted to write — about a top-rated football prospect out of New Orleans. After pitching it to magazine editor in chief Chad Millman, the seedling of a story turned into a far greater project on New Orleans, 10 years after the storm.

While Thompson has proven throughout his career that he can handle stories of great magnitude, logistically, this one would require another level of attention.

Enter Kix.

Some people outside the industry assume an editor just edits words and sentences. The term “editor,” truthfully, is quite limiting. Sure, Kix eventually edited the story for content and clarity, but so much more goes into the job, especially for a project like this.

He participated in several meetings with ESPN higher-ups to determine a strategy for producing and unveiling the whole project. And leading up to the time when Kix received a full draft, he was right alongside Thompson, riding shotgun to his thinking.

Kix visited New Orleans in June, and the two mapped out an outline of the story.

An important process for Kix was finding “connective tissue” between the characters Thompson was writing about. Having the characters interact organically, rather than Thompson stretching to make connections, would enrich the story. Thompson’s reporting was so full of connections already that it didn’t need a writer manufacturing them.

Thompson finished his reporting on July 1 and then disappeared to Chicago for four days for a Grateful Dead concert. With an August 1 deadline looming, he began writing in mid-July. In 16 days or so, Thompson wrote 40,000 words.

…Which makes Kix’s job, to edit it in two weeks, sound easy. But reading 40,000 words — let alone reading it as carefully as an editor must — takes time.

Kix said his initial read lasted six or seven hours.

“The only way for me to work is just read the story once,” he said. “Then I sort of think to myself, ‘How does this ‘taste,’ I guess, for lack of a better word. How do I feel when I read it? Am I satisfied with this? Are there things I wish there were more of? This isn’t really even an intellectual exercise at that point; it’s ‘How do I feel emotionally,’ having finished this story?”

After four or five days, Kix sent his first round of edits back to Thompson.

“The second time you read it, you think, ‘Alright, this is 40,000 words.’ The both of us knew that was way too long,” Kix said. “So the second time you read it, it’s like ‘What is not working?’ And it becomes more of an intellectual exercise.”

They cut an entire chapter, including the one Thompson initially pitched about the football prospect.

Kix described the process of editing the self-assured Thompson as playful and argumentative. The two have worked together for four years, and have developed a trust and short-hand language. They can also sift through the B.S. and say what they think without hurting one another’s feelings.

“Every story with Wright is a complete give-and-take,” Kix said. “I will give him an edit and he’ll come right back and say ‘Why did you think that? Why did you do that?’ Or he’ll say ‘You’re stupid here.’ Or he’ll say ‘That’s a dumb suggestion.'”

Kix says this wistfully. Working with Thompson, while not easy, is something Kix savors.

Thompson’s story was worth it. It shows how a battered New Orleans has recovered, and in some ways, how it and its inhabitants will always be different post-Katrina.

Each chapter brought forth compelling new characters that made it read like a novel.

It’s powerful, coming from a writer who clearly feels a kinship with the city. You feel Thompson’s presence in the story. Maybe, if you read it again, you’ll feel Kix’s.

He’s the one who made all those “dumb” suggestions.

One comment on “Meet the editor behind Wright Thompson’s stories

  1. Keyvan Heydari
    April 25, 2016 at 10:04 am #

    nice story

    Like

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