Whenever people ask what I do, and I say, “Magazine editor”, the immediate look on some of their faces is that of immense regret for asking.
This might be due to two things. 1) They have no idea what magazine editors do, and hence cannot continue the conversation in a meaningful manner. or 2) They thought I was unemployed and still living off my parents, which would have been a far more interesting subject to indulge in.
Either way, very few people (besides magazine editors) care what magazine editors do. This blog post is not for them.
I’ve been getting very earnest questions from people who follow my tweets on what it takes to be a magazine editor. Most of them are students/fresh grads at the point in their lives where they have to forge a career, and are somehow intrigued by the world of print.
I wrote an email reply to one of them, and I have adapted it for the rest who might be equally curious, especially if they’ve recently watched The Devil Wears Prada or The September Issue.
Let me start by telling you what being a magazine editor is NOT.
It is NOT about fancy parties, glamourous photo shoots, front row seats at fashion shows and rubbing shoulders with famous people. If you’re interested in the business for that, you are naive and more deluded than you have a right to be. Your magazine would be as self-absorbed as Kim Kardashian and people would use it in winter to keep the fire going.
It is NOT about writing like Carrie Bradshaw in Sex And The City. That woman puts both elbows on a window sill and gaze at fluffy clouds while a voiceover narrates the whole episode and pays the rent for her New York City apartment. If you believe what she does is magazine work, you obviously enjoy being lied to.
It is NOT about showing off who you know or what you know. You write to communicate, not send readers to the dictionary every 4 lines with an archaic word no one below 60 uses.
So, What Do I Do To Get Into The Magazine Business?
You TRY. You write stories you care about. Then you try to get the people in the business to notice your writing. And you try your best to convince them how your writing adds value to their magazine. Every editor has the task of curating good content for their title. Decide which title inspires you and what you can bring to enhance its flavour among readers. Don’t worry about doing the right degree in Mass Communications or Media Studies or what not. I did Business Administration.
What Do I Do As A Magazine Editor?
I’m not entirely sure what I do as an editor too! (TWEET? MAYBE???) Nah.. it’s a complex job that actually requires you to wear many hats.
If you want to excel as a magazine editor, you have to be good at many things. These are, in no order of importance:
1) Detecting BULLSHIT. Many, many people will be selling you truckloads of it. They heave buckets of bullshit and dump it on your desk, hoping something they throw sticks and results in free publicity. It’s up to you to find the gold nuggets (the news points, the interesting bits, the stuff readers care about) in the manure.
I started out in The Straits Times as a newspaper journalist, before becoming editor for magazines like 8 Days, Arena, Electronic Gaming Monthly, August Man and now, Lifestyle. I have been up to my eyes in bullshit.
2) Deal with STRESS. Different people are going to want you to say different things in your magazine, even though their names don’t come with ‘managing editor’. They feel they know your job and what you OUGHT to do, even though some of them have no clue.
This is because everyone has an agenda to push, an ideal they believe in, rules they live by or just shitty products they want people to buy.
Your government, you publisher, your advertiser, your reader, your staff, your conscience, all want you to say different things. You have to temper your words with editorial judgement and make as much common sense as you can to your target audience/your readers. They’re the most objective people.
Let me give you an idea of what you need to be… aka the ‘mini roles’ that go into the larger role of being an editor. Deadline week is tantamount to shitting bricks. (Look at the size of a brick, and do the math.) I’m not shitting you.
3) DECIDE what your area of interest is.
There are many kinds of editors. Some take their work waaaay more seriously than others. There are thinkers, conceptualisers, and then there are those who just take pride in telling you where to put the right punctuation.
There are book editors, textbook editors, newspaper editors, magazine editors etc. I’m what you’d call a lifestyle magazine editor. Lifestyle editors tell people what’s happening around them, what’s new, engaging, fun and cool. We experience new stuff, and share it with readers. We show them what people are talking about, and they make the call.
If it helps them discover new passions, interests and journeys in life, all the better.
Whatever you do, make your readers sound smart to their friends. They would be grateful for picking up your magazine, because it helped them see something they wouldn’t have otherwise.
To be a good magazine editor, you have to be:
1) A good story-teller capable of communicating your thoughts well. (Not with flowery language, but with efficient language. There’s a difference) So read lots.
2) A good photo editor, which means you have to know what are GOOD photos, and separate them from the CRAPPY ones. you have to develop an ‘eye’ for engaging images. Not gross, not sensational, but GOOD. Photos that capture the imagination.
3) Someone who works well under pressure. remember deadlines? Remember the bricks? Agendas? Yes. All there.
4) Grammatically sound. As much as you can, you should write good, proper English and not spread bad English. Singlish doesn’t look very good in print. Yes, you have to care about details, unfortunately.
5) In love with beautiful images and imagery. The world is ugly enough. Do your part to make it pretty.
6) Lead and inspire a team of writers with your ideas, so that they’re happy working on stories that you assign them. In other words don’t be a boring piece of shit.
7) CURIOUS about everything. When you’re curious, you want to discover stuff. And great content depends on what you discover and translate into reading material for your readers. Curiosity killed the cat, but it made great magazine products like Monocle and The Face and Wallpaper.
8) Able to talk to anyone. That makes you very connected to newsmakers in society. That’s helpful because when you’re clued-in, you’re able to anticipate what readers want.
I hope this shines some light on the path for you. It’s really simple if you know how.