Alaina Leary is an editor at Her Campus Magazine, Germ Magazine, Luna Luna Magazine, Doll Hospital literary magazine, and on the social media team of We Need Diverse Books and Redivider literary magazine. In the interview (via email) below, she gives important insight and advice to aspiring writers and editors.
"What made you decide to be an editor/writer?"
"My dream job is to someday be a Creative Director at a publishing or digital media company. So, right now, I'm trying to gain experience that will help get me there. Creative Directors tend to be in charge of not only the editorial side, but also the art, design, and production as well, all of which I'm interested in. I thought it was important for me to gain experience and skills in all of these fields along the way.
"I decided I wanted to be an editor early on because I thought it was a great fit for me in terms of career experience, and I knew it matched my skill set. A lot of editors also work with social media, production, and brand marketing. It really depends on the company you're working with. That's what I love about my roles as editor. For several of them, such as Luna Luna, Her Campus, and Doll Hospital, I'm doing so much more than just editing and publishing work. I'm an integral part of every aspect of the brand, and that gives me a solid foundation to build a career.
"I never really decided I wanted to be a writer, I started doing it freelance because I thought it would help out my resume and give me perspective and editorial judgment. I wasn't wrong at all; the more I write for places, the more I understand what editors look for and what they want to change. Ultimately, I don't want to end up with a full-time writing job, and that's OK, because the experience has been invaluable."
"What is your favorite part of doing these jobs?"
"I love being an editor because you can help shape what gets published. If you're the one assigning or accepting content, you have a voice in what goes out into this world. If you're not assigning content but you're still editing it, you still get to make sure the content is the best it can be before others read it. And I love working with people, with writers and other editors. I love collaboration. The same can be said for my social media and design work, too, both of which are very collaborative by nature."
"What steps did you take to attain the positions you have reached?"
"I've slowly immersed myself in the publishing world over time. Volunteer work and internship work are often necessary to get to a paid level, so I have continually put that effort in. It's also crucical for me to be developing my judgment when it comes to whatever it is I'm working on. That sounds like a vague concept, but what it means boils down to this: knowing what works editorially, what works in writing, what works design-wise, what works on social media, what works in marketing. Those are all key skills that I needed to develop by practicing them hands on.
"The most important thing, though, was putting myself out there, which is definitely a learned skill. I started several of my current and previous positions just because I reached out and asked if I could--including Germ Magazine, Doll Hospital literary magazine, Luna Luna, and We Need Diverse Books. In each of those cases, I literally just emailed or tweeted at someone asking if I could join the team, and once I was accepted, I did my best to prove I meant to work hard."
"What are some of the basic tasks you do as an editor/writer for the publications you work for?"
"I'll add in some miscellaneous tasks because a lot of my titles as 'editor' could be better described as 'creative manager.'
"Basic tasks include:"
- assigning content to writers
- accepting or rejecting open submissions
- guiding writers and giving them feedback as they develop their pieces
- editing pieces in all ways: since I'm more of a developmental editor or section editor than a copyeditor, I help make sure the pieces are interesting and engaging, that they're written in the most engaging way, that they will connect to readers, and then, at last pass, I check for mechanical issues and I do a light-medium copyedit.
- writing copy for posts
- finding or designing graphics
- taking and editing photographs for posts
- scheduling posts
- interacting with followers
- starting or joining hashtag campaigns
- live-tweeting or live-blogging for the brand
- moderating Twitter chats with industry leaders
- creating a purposeful strategy for the brand based on our current metrics
- designing graphics for publications/brands
- designing websites for publications/brands
- making sure designs follow a style guide across the board
- creating that style guide, in several cases
- electronically scheduling posts
- helping put together a physical printed magazine
- organizing layout for a physical copy
- checking for broken links and basic QA testing before pieces go live online (asking questions like, "Do the images look good on a mobile screen vs. on a desktop computer?" and "Is the headline cut off?")
- compiling email newsletters
Creative Direction and Management:
- making executive decisions and establishing style guides and best practices for the publication, usually as a team. The decisions range from anything like, "How often do we post on Twitter daily?" to "Do our writers need to submit once a month, twice a month or more to be considered for our regular contributor’s page?" to "What should our next special issue theme be?"
"How long do you plan to keep working at these publications?"
"I plan to keep working with them as long as I can manage. I'm currently searching for a full-time job that I can really focus on, so that's the goal. When I do find something full-time, I will let go of a lot of my smaller freelance projects, but I will continue with projects and roles I'm really invested in and passionate about. Intermittently throughout this, I've had contract full-time roles where I went to an office every day for a project-based need in publishing or digital media, and during those times, I had to let go of some of my extra work."
"Do you have an ultimate career goal that you have not reached yet?"
"Definitely. Right now, I'd love to find something full-time that I adore doing every day, something that can be my main focus. I'm open to anything that's related to editing, social media, production, design, writing, or a mix of all."
"What challenges have you had to face as a writer/editor that were surprising?"
"As an editor, it can be challenging when people attack your work practices. At one of the publications, we had pushback from people who were upset that their work wasn't republished from our older online magazine to our newer one. In situations like that, we had to keep our heads above water and ultimately make decisions in line with our brand.
"Another big challenge is a lack of commitment or stability from freelance writers. I can't tell you how many times a writer has not gotten their draft back to me at all, or it was over a week late! And a lot of writers add the title to their LinkedIn profiles and resumes, write a few posts, and then drop off the face of the earth.
"It's hard, because at some magazines I work for, we don't pay our writers, so they are volunteering their time to us. But it's still important that our writers get work to us on time, or if they're going to be late, they need to let us know."
"What important skills have you learned while working at these publications?"
"The most important skills, in my opinion, are being an innovative and creative thinker, being able to pick yourself back up from discouragement, making connections with other people, working hard but knowing when to take a break or let a project go. I think these skills can be learned, although it does help if you're just a naturally creative thinker. But if you're a natural perfectionist, for example, you can learn when to let a project go. You can't go over the same piece for years, just trying to make it better, because then it will never be published; it'll never be done. I'm a bit of a perfectionist, so that was a skill I learned on the job.
"I have learned a lot of practical skills on the job, as well as in classes. I've had several roles where I was working either in-house in marketing/writing/editing, or working at a media agency. My work at a media agency really helped me in that sense. I learned a lot about good writing, editorial judgment, design judgment, production, proofreading and copy editing, and everything--all from mostly a content marketing and advertising side of things. I wasn't working with very many people who were putting out books, websites, magazines, or newspapers; these were lawyers who wanted a website made, or nonprofits who needed me to build a media list. But those skills were transferable to all of the other positions I've held since.
"In other words, if you can't get a job or internship at a newspaper, magazine, literary agency, book publisher, or website, and that's definitely your career goal, that's okay. Just make sure you go somewhere else where you'll learn transferrable skills, and will be treated fairly and given the opportunity to learn.
"I worked full-time paid position between junior and senior year at a blind cord manufacturer. Since I've always wanted to be in digital media or publishing, I didn't see how the experience would be relevant at the time. As it turned out, I learned so much about business and marketing that became directly transferrable to the any other industry. I'm in a graduate business and management course right now and everything we've covered, I can usually tie back to what I was doing while I was at Julius Koch USA. It was absolutely a useful experience, and I learned more there than I would've learned as an intern getting coffee elsewhere."
"Do you have any experience with freelance work and other writing? If so, please describe."
"I have a lot of freelance experience. I learned about freelance work while I interned at a media agency, as described above. It was my second co-op as an undergrad.
"What I learned was that her business was essentially a lot of freelance work, in varying degrees, with both regular clients and one-off projects. And it varied a lot. Some days, I'd be writing press releases for retirement homes and other days I'd be writing web content for a small business.
"After my co-op ended, my supervisor hired me on as a staff member, which meant I became a new addition to the wonderful world of freelancing. The work didn't require I continued to go to her home office, by nature, so it was a flexible way to earn money and gain skills while I was in school. Afterward, I continued on to get freelance work, and it has been an incredible way to bolster my resume, earn extra cash, gain skills I don't have, and make connections.
"I've done so many things freelance, including:
- web content
- press releases
- magazine and newspaper articles
- brand copywriting
- ghost writing
- blog posts
- email newsletters
- graphic design
- social media management and strategy
- building a media list
- making calls on behalf of businesses
- web design
- video editing
"Once, I even edited someone's master's thesis freelance!"
"What advice would you give to an aspiring editor/journalist/freelance?"
"They're all so different!
"To an aspiring editor:
"Develop your editorial judgment as early as you can. Read, read, read, and ask yourself what you would've had the writer do better. Volunteer as an editor. Even just to read your friends' work, which is still useful. Before I was editing professional, I was "that person" that everyone came to for editorial tasks. I edited my friends' term papers, resumes, cover letters, short stories. I'd been doing that since about seventh grade, when people started to discover I was a good storyteller, a patient reader, and a decent copyeditor.
"If you can take classes in editing, do it! Especially in copyediting. I'm not a copyeditor by title, but those skills are still so useful. I've been the person to point out copyediting and proofreading mistakes to other team members and they are always grateful, even though I'm not "the copyeditor." Any practice you can get, get it. I worked for two years in my college's reading and writing center, and our tutoring center, which meant I spent so much time reading others' work.
"To an aspiring journalist:
"Develop your journalistic judgment. Sense a story. Spot a trend. See if you can predict what will be hot news later today, or next week. Write for your high school or college newspaper or magazine, or Her Campus chapter. Stay on top of what's breaking. Read, read, read.
"Be on Twitter, and check out the trending topics every day. Practice live-tweeting--my professor is the former editor-in-chief of The Boston Globe Magazine, and she said my love of live-tweeting shows a journalist's attitude. If you can write or intern anywhere that news and journalism are published, do that! Pitch your own newsworthy stories to publications freelance if that's all you can do. Pick up on trends and pitch them to Her Campus, The Huffington Post, HelloGiggles, Bustle, and anywhere online that you think fits with your story.
"To an aspiring freelance writer:
"Get started! Nothing is stopping you from starting your freelance career. Create a website that shows off your talent, samples, and what you can do. Make a comprehensive LinkedIn profile. Let your friends, family, friends of friends, and even strangers know that you do freelance work--you never know when a connection at a family party will need their website copy edited.
"Apply for freelance gigs online. Try to get an internship or some work at a company that does mainly freelance-type work, like an agency. Agencies are a great place to gain experience and learn what it takes to handle multiple projects concurrently. Offer your services to fellow students, if you're on campus, tell people you'll proofread their cover letters for $10, or that you'll give development edits for their term paper for $50. Make sure to set reasonable prices for yourself, especially if you're planning to make this a career--you also need to eat! And, if you can, take a class. I took a Freelance class in my senior year of undergraduate that helped prepare me. If you can't do that, buy The Writer's Market, which is an extremely useful book, and ask for informational interviews with current freelancers. Get their advice."