In Writers' Words
Reviews of Project Word director Laird Townsend, by writers he has edited
"Allowed me as a writer all of the freedom I have needed, while steering me away from pitfalls of my own making"
After working with him for a year and a half to produce an opinion piece that ended up on National Geographic News Watch, I just want to express my satisfaction with Laird Townsend as editor. I first worked with Laird over ten years ago, in his days as an editor for the San Francisco Bay Area-based environmental magazine Terrain. Laird has allowed me as a writer all of the freedom I have needed, while steering me away from pitfalls of my own making. He has been tireless in the pursuit of accuracy, constantly demanding facts to back up my assertions, repeatedly checking those facts and stories, refusing to allow anything that would jeopardize my structure or argument. The result was that I was able to take a subject quite on the margins of conventional opinion writing—Indigenous peoples and their little understood relationship with the natural world—and do it justice. It would have been a different work, less well thought out and less accurate, without Laird’s editing. In the end, the National Geographic essay has turned out to be a piece I am very proud to have written.
"Important to have more projects like Project Word, supporting the kind of time, dedication, on-the-ground reporting, and idealism that good journalism requires"
Last year, I embarked upon a big investigation about carbon markets, indigenous peoples, and tropical rain forests in Panama, despite having a limited environmental reporting background, and no idea whether the piece would find a home or even a funder. I soon realized this would be the greatest test, so far, of my journalism career. Thanks to Laird's patience, his big-picture view of environmental issues, and his knack for pushing my best qualities forward, I wrote a piece that I'm most proud of. Ours was the most collaborative experience I've had with an editor, in any other fellowship or publication. As the support for investigative stories continues to diminish, I believe it will be increasingly important to have more projects like Project Word, supporting the kind of time, dedication, on-the-ground reporting, and idealism that good journalism requires.
"A tireless and even-handed advocate for the story itself, and for all of those with a stake in it"
With his confident and collaborative approach to editing, Laird helped me shape a narrative that started with a lot of moving parts into a more streamlined, compellingly structured and reader-friendly story. Drawing on his long experience as a writer and editor, he offered consistently sensitive and insightful guidance. He has been a tireless and even-handed advocate for the story itself, and for all of those with a stake in it: the reader, whose intelligence and interest demands utmost respect; the author, whose vision and voice drive the story's telling; and the story's main characters, who deserve a clear and accurate representation of their perspective. Laird helped me keep all of these concerns at the fore throughout the revision, and I've learned a great deal from the process. It's been a great pleasure to work with Laird, and I hope to have the opportunity to do so again.
Freelance writer, contributor to The Nation
"Helped me break out of the cycle"
Project Word came at a critical stage in my career in which I was trying to begin focusing on producing magazine-length and magazine-quality work. Project Word took me step-by-step in turning what was just a vague idea into a viable, hard-hitting magazine article. By asking the right questions, requesting key bits of information, and pointing out weakness, Laird guided me in preparing a surefire pitch for an in-depth, investigative article. Without his help, this pitch would have shared the same fate of so many others: lost in the void of some generic e-mail address of a magazine editor. Editors at well-known magazines didn’t look at my proposals because I’ve never been published in a well-known magazine. Project Word [helped] me break out of that cycle. Working with such an experienced editor has been a valuable learning process. Now I know all the steps, from start to finish, and all the important elements in building a solid proposal. This alone greatly improves my chances of getting published in the future.
Author of Last Child in the Woods
"One of the best"
Laird Townsend was the editor of a lengthy article I did in 2006 for Orion magazine. I can't overstate how much Laird challenged me, both technically and conceptually. He is surely one of the best editors I've ever worked with. His dogged thoroughness and gentle guidance went far beyond what I had become accustomed to. The article turned out to be one of Orion's most successful, measuring by reader comment. That wouldn't have happened without Laird.
Computer educator and education author
"Constantly challenged me"
A good editor is someone who knows what you want to say better than you do and won’t let you finish until you have figured out a way to say it. I learned that from working with Laird. He constantly challenged me to refine not only my writing but my thinking. Yet he was so gentle with his critiques of my drafts and so interested in my ideas that I was always eager to get his next set of responses. In the end, not only was my article shorter and a whole lot better, I was a much better writer.
Former fellow of George Washington Williams Fellowship for minority journalists
"Helped me pull the gems"
As reporters and writers, it is essential to have good editors, especially when working on very long stories that can sprawl out in too many directions. I traveled the border for almost a year, documenting immigration and its effect on native communities who live along the border. I had collected a tremendous amount of material on the different nations (tribes) who lived there. With the help of editor Laird Townsend, I was able to bring focus to the material. He gave me useful suggestions and pushed me to my limits to clarify my story. His insistence that I re-interview some of the people helped bring even more detail to a complicated story. He helped me pull the gems from what I had collected, and made it a much stronger piece.