Eric Spitznagel has had the kind of career freelancers dream about. Bylines in Vanity Fair, Rolling Stone, and The New York Times Magazine. Interviews with Paul Rudd, Stephen Colbert, and Tina Fey. And in April 2016, the release of his new book, Old Records Never Die, about his quest to track down the vinyl records from his childhood (think Nick Hornby meets Chuck Klosterman).
For a day job, Spitznagel also works as a deputy editor at Men’s Health. According to his LinkedIn, his responsibilities include “assigning and curating essays that explore every facet of a man’s life, from aging to fatherhood, losing our parents to losing our best friends, brushes with death to sexual anxiety.” These are no small tasks considering Men’s Health is one of the biggest magazine brands in the U.S., with a print circulation of 2 million and monthly web traffic of 11 million unique visitors.
We spoke with Spitznagel about the shock of switching from freelancer to editor, why he doesn’t care about the gender of Men’s Health contributors, and how important it is for good writers to know that they’re not as smart as their readers.
You’ve been a highly successful freelancer for a long time. What’s the transition been like to editor, and what made you decide to make the transition?
First and foremost, I liked the idea of a regular paycheck. As a freelancer, your life is pretty much feast or famine. You’re living from paycheck to paycheck, with absolutely no guarantees about when you might actually get paid. I enjoyed that high-wire act in my twenties and thirties, but in my forties, with a wife and kid, it was starting to get terrifying.
But the transition wasn’t easy. A freelancer who becomes a full-time editor is like a train hobo moving into a condo. At first, it seems like you hit the jackpot. But it’s also discombobulating. You’re used to always being on the move, hitching a ride from town to town, hustling for your next meal, the excitement and adrenaline rush of just staying alive. And now you’re in this condo, and it just sits there, and the view never changes. On paper, it’s everything you ever wanted. But the reality of it makes you itchy and nervous.
Is there one particular album from your youth that you still listen to while you work?
While I work? That’s an interesting question. Because it’s a very different thing than “What’s your favorite album?” My favorite album is The Replacements’ Let It Be. The one that was with me through puberty and too many girlfriends and years of stomach-clenching loneliness and an ego that sometimes felt like it was held together with scotch tape and sloppy punk riffs. But my favorite album to listen to while working? Probably Nick Drake’s Pink Moon. It’s like getting a musical foot massage.
What is a typical day like in the Men’s Health offices?
A typical day at the office isn’t all that interesting. It involves a lot of staring at the computer, responding to emails from writers, reading pitches, and editing the same drafts over and over until I think my eyes are going to bleed. Sometimes it gets bizarre, like when you have to call a source cited in a story, to confirm that he really is getting a divorce because his wife joined Ashley Madison and had numerous affairs.
In a typical workweek, my Internet search history will include things that would get almost anyone else in any other line of work fired on the spot. I just glanced at my current search history, and it includes topics like “best homemade guy thongs” and “how many watts in male orgasm” and “glamour muscles.” I swear, I can explain all of it!
Is there a model for a perfect Men’s Health pitch? Are there any topics or characteristics in freelancers that you are specifically looking for?
I can tell you the worst. I have no interest in a story about the “fitness secrets” of any celebrity. There is nothing more boring than how somebody got pumped up to play a superhero. Unless they got into such fantastic shape by eating only zebra blood and dolphin snot, and their cardio involved hunting the most dangerous game of all—man.
Otherwise, there’s not a perfect pitch. The prototypical Men’s Health web story is short, within the 600-or-less-word range. And it should contain information that readers can actually use. Even if the subject of a story is absolutely fascinating, and I personally would enjoy reading it, that doesn’t mean it’s right for Men’s Health.
Recently, a writer pitched me on a story about male orgasms, and if said orgasm could produce enough watts to act as an alternative energy source. Could you, for example, produce enough electricity with an orgasm to operate a lamp? (See! I told you there was a reason it ended up in my Internet search history.) Turns out it can, but not for very long. It would take an awful lot of orgasms to operate a lamp for more than a few minutes. While that may be hilarious and weirdly fascinating, it’s not exactly information that a guy can use.
Also, make sure your stories are offering something that isn’t painfully obvious. If you’re investigating how relationships start to grow stale, don’t arrive at conclusions like “Communication is important” or “Ask her about her feelings.” No kidding? If your story doesn’t make me say, “Huh, I’d never thought about it that way before,” then I’m not interested.
Readers are smarter than you. And most of them are older than 12. That should be obvious, but I’ve read too many stories by too many writers who refuse to recognize those fundamental truths. Even if your readers aren’t smarter than you, assume that they are. Write for the smart ones, and pretend that they’re already aware of the basic rules of living on this planet.
The best pieces of journalism I’ve ever read are acutely aware that the reader is already five steps ahead of them. Your job is not to spoon-feed the reader; your job is to catch up.
What’s the average turnaround time for drafts and edits, and how many pitches do you typically receive in a week?
Turnaround is fast. We like writers who can deliver a draft in a day or two. Actually, a typical story shouldn’t take more than a day, if you’re doing it right. We’re not talking about 3,000-word features that require extensive research. We’re talking 600 words, in which you’ll need to do a handful of interviews and some basic research. If you need more than 24 hours to turn around a story like that, you’re overthinking it, or being too precious about your words.
In fact, I’ve found that the longer I have to wait for a draft, the more likely that it’s going to require extensive rewrites and revisions, because the writer has crammed it full of painfully overwrought sentences and far more quotes and details than necessary. If I ask for 500 words and I get 1,500, I’m not impressed. You’re only making my life more difficult.
I usually get around 100 pitches in a typical week. I assign about 30 from that. And only 10 of those (on a good week) end up on the website.
What is the site’s pay rate, how is it determined?
Our pay is between $200 and $400 per story.
The difference between a $200 and $400 story depends on a lot of factors. How much legwork was involved, and how clean was the copy? If your draft comes in and it’s a structural mess, with weird leaps of logic and messy grammar, you’re not going to be on the higher end of our pay scale.
Men’s Health has a healthy number of female writers for being a men’s lifestyle magazine. What do you estimate is your gender split for freelancers?
I have no idea. Because gender doesn’t make a damn bit of difference, at least not to me. If you get the right tone in your stories—Men’s Health has a very distinct voice—and you can write fast and your ideas are unique and interesting to our readers, then I couldn’t care less. To me, that’s like asking how many Jews we hire, or if we have an even split of Republicans and Democrats.
Who is the ideal reader for a Men’s Health article?
The ideal reader? Huh. I’ve honestly never thought about that before. The ideal reader is anybody who bothers to read something we’ve published. I guess for me, the ideal reader is somebody who wants to be challenged, and has high standards and holds us to those standards. But c’mon, we’re in the journalism business. We can’t be nitpicky about our readers. We’ll take whatever we can get.
What types of interviews are the editors at Men’s Health looking for? Is there one particular interview from your career that was so great it could stand as a template?
The best Men’s Health interviews are rarely with celebrities or athletes. Our readers, more often than not, just couldn’t care less. They’re more likely to respond to interviews with people who are interesting for reasons other than their fame. If I had to pick one of my Men’s Health interviews as a template, it’d probably be this interview with a guy with a micropenis.
I’m in no way kidding: This story has done monster traffic for us. And I don’t think it’s schadenfreude. Okay, maybe it’s a little schadenfreude. But I also think it’s relatable. It’s about feeling inadequate—and we’ve all felt that way occasionally—and realizing that maybe your inadequacies aren’t such a deal breaker after all.
Which isn’t to say celebrity interviews never work for us. They just need to be a little different from the usual Q&A. We’re not interested in conversations about a celebrity’s latest movie or TV show or their creative process, or blah blah blah. Remember, every story at MH has to come back to the reader. What are they getting out of this story? How does this relate to them and their struggles?
That’s easier said than done, but I feel like I got close with this Ethan Hawke interview. It’s not about him and what a fabulous actor he is, it’s about death and how men deal (or don’t deal) with grieving.
Any final thoughts or advice to aspiring writers?
The best writing advice I ever got was from Kurt Vonnegut. I wrote him a letter in my early twenties, and to my shock, he wrote back. He shared a story (presumably fictional) that continues to resonate with me. It went like this:
Long ago, there was a writer who wrote in solitude. He wrote hundreds of stories but never shared them with anyone. When he died, his wife, who was ashamed of his writing hobby, burned every last manuscript. So in the end, not a single living soul, other than the writer himself, read any of it. He wasn’t going to be one of those literary geniuses who was discovered posthumously. His stories remained, and would always remain, entirely unread and unappreciated.
Vonnegut told me this: If you hear about this sad writer’s tale, and you think to yourself, “Yeah, it was still worth it,” then, and only then, can you truly call yourself a writer.