The Monday Interview - "So, what's it really like working as a... writer/sub-editor?"

magazine journalism

We’re back with a focus on another very popular career area today - publishing. Renowned for being very tough to break into, today’s contributor gives a fairly typical account of persistence paying off. As well as writing for her university newspaper in her student days, Zoe had to undertake several stints of work experience before her first permanent job offer came along. This is clearly not a career for those who want to sit back and wait for things to happen to them.

Now working as a writer/sub-editor for children’s magazines, Zoe explains how this may never be the career choice for those wishing to make their fortune. But for those of you who have a passion for writing, love the challenge of a deadline, and who wish to work in a creatively rewarding environment, then publishing could prove to be a smart move.

Thank you, Zoe, for your interesting and honest account.


So, briefly, what is your job?

“I’m a writer/sub-editor on pre-school magazines. I work at Immediate Media, previously BBC Magazines, on titles like Charlie and Lola, Something Special, Bob the Builder and In the Night Garden. This means I write and layout pages in Indesign, as well as organise photo shoots, commission illustrators, and field reader queries.”

How did you get into it?

“I always wanted to be a journalist, as I love writing and it seemed like a good way to write for a living (I don’t think I have the discipline to be a novelist!). I studied politics at university, and did a lot of work experience at lots of different titles (CosmoGIRL!, New Woman, The Observer). Then I managed to land a job as an assistant editor at a small comics/children’s publisher. I worked my way up to editor there and then left to work at the BBC.”

Describe a typical day.

“I arrive at work at 9.30am and start up my computer. My work is very computer-intensive! I then have a look at various emails - both from readers and colleagues. Then I look at a flatplan (a diagram to show what is on each page of the magazine and in what order) and look at what I’m writing that day. Then I fire up Indesign (design software) and get writing. I layout pages, which is slightly unusual, but due to the nature of writing preschool magazines it makes it easier to visualise the activities if they’re laid out at the time of writing. Most magazine writers don’t do this.

I will write a whole issue myself, and this tends to take a whole week to a week and a half. I select the images to go on the pages. On some titles this will mean a lot of picture research. I will go through the pages I have written with my editor and tweak them until they’re totally perfect and pitched to our readers (each of our titles is pitched to a different audience).

I might also write an illustrator brief, and then commission one of our illustrators to do the artwork. And fairly often I organise and attend photo shoots. Every couple of days we will have a meeting to brainstorm an issue of a magazine, which it’s best to go to armed with plenty of ideas.”

What do you enjoy most about your job?

“I love going into schools and meeting our readers - we do this fairly often to make sure we always have in mind who we’re writing for. It’s so useful to see what children are doing at various different developmental stages. I love interacting with children, so I find this really fun.

The creativity is great too. And I don’t know a journalist/writer who doesn’t enjoy seeing their title come back from the printers as the finished product!”

And the least?

“Hmm. This is quite a tricky question! I think sitting in front of a computer all day isn’t ideal. I’d prefer to get out from my desk a bit more, but the nature of my job doesn’t really allow for that.

And if you don’t like working to deadlines, journalism definitely is not for you! Luckily I like a deadline!

What are the common misconceptions that people have about the work you do?

“In general I think maybe people think publishing pays more than it does. It’s definitely not a job to go in for if you’re after incredible riches!

As for my particular job, people always say “Oh, writing for 3-year-olds, that must be easy!” But it’s not! Having written for a lot of different audiences in the past, preschool is definitely the hardest. Children develop so quickly, and it’s so important for us to stay ahead of their ever changing interests to produce the best magazines possible. What interests a 3-year-old will be totally passé to a 4-year-old.”

What are the main skills you need to work as a writer/sub-editor?

“Having great writing skills is a bit of a non-brainer I suppose! Also, being creative and be able to come up with lots of ideas. Knowing the magazine market is key. As a sub-editor you’re the one checking everything for grammar and spelling, factual flaws and house style you need to have an excellent eye for detail and be a stickler for grammar and spelling. Lastly, it’s vital in my job to be able to use Indesign but in other writer roles this isn’t so much the case (although it wouldn’t do you any harm!)”

Tell us a little about the benefits that come with the job.

“As I said, publishing isn’t going to bring you a footballer’s lifestyle, but there are other benefits. A lot of larger publishers offer other benefits like pensions, healthcare etc.

It’s a great, creative and collaborative environment. I feel like I’m constantly learning new skills, which is so important to me.

There’s a lot of job satisfaction to be had when interacting with our readers too, and seeing how much they love our titles.”

What advice would you give someone wanting to break into this career?

“Do lots of work experience! Find out who is in charge of work experience placements on the titles you’re interested in, and contact them and ask them if you can come in. Be persistent, but not annoying. Join your student paper too - to not do this looks to potential employers like you’re not serious about journalism.

Be proactive and take the initiative in everything you do. Be helpful and eager to learn.

Consider starting a blog about something that’s interesting to you. It’s a great way to showcase your writing, and is a great way to show employers how serious and passionate you are about writing.”

Where do you see yourself in 10 years’ time?

“I want to still be writing, either for magazines or on a digital platform - who knows what technology will be around in 10 years time!”

AND JUST FOR FUN…

First in the office or last to leave?

“I tend to stay later rather than get up early! Mornings and me are not best of friends.”

Tea or coffee?

“Tea.”

Staff canteen or packed lunch?

“It depends on how organised I have been!”

The lift or the stairs?

“I work on the ground floor…”

Out after work or straight home to bed?

“I can always be tempted by a glass of wine and a good chat!”