A Tricky Transition: Can Good Writers Become Competent Editors?

by Steven Threndyle

Veteran freelance writers exhausted by the endless cycles of feast or famine often reach a point in their career where they fantasize, “I want one of those cush editing jobs!”

And why not? The most prestigious editors sit atop the magazine pyramid as creative overseers. Like chief executive officers who hop from one brand to the next, an executive editor (or editor-in-chief) of an A-list magazine is a personality in his or her own right; entrusted to steer the magazine in a profitable direction while ensuring high standards of journalistic integrity.

The best ones also get to bring home the hardware during awards season.

But can writers simply slip into the editor’s chair? Do strong writing skills automatically translate into editorial talent?

Jim Sutherland, former editor of both Western Living and Vancouver magazine, offers some encouragement—and a warning. “There’s a certain kind of free-spirited writer who is probably not going to be offered an editorial job. Otherwise, editors and writers share way more similarities than differences.”

The path from writer to editor

But if you’re planning on making the switch from writer to editor, you’d better make sure you know what you’re getting into. Chances are, it won’t look at all like padding around in your PJs working on three stories at once while checking your social media feed and walking the dog. And there’s no single route to get from the writing to the editorial side of the business.

For newspaper journalists, the transition from reporting to editing is often just a matter of applying for an internal posting and making a trip down the hall to a new office. Sometimes, you have to start from the bottom. Way at the bottom.

Kelsey Scaldaferri persisted in getting her name in print by employing a tactic most writers loathe: she offered to write stories for her community paper for free. When an internship at that paper—the Abbotsford Times—came open, she jumped at the opportunity and essentially has learned entirely on the job. Her media toolkit is varied and comprehensive, working as both print and digital editor at VITA magazine, and now as online editor for the Vancouver Courier’s website.

But her experience is an exception. Internships and assistant editor jobs are often held by recent graduates of either journalism schools or communications programs. There is nothing terribly glamorous about the position—duties include sourcing stock photography, writing photo captions, headlines and sub-headlines, and, perhaps most onerous of all, fact checking feature stories written by the very freelance writer you once were. In addition to starting at the bottom, you might also be paying off a student loan for a post-graduate degree.

Breaking into magazine editing

Magazine writers wishing to become editors often follow a less linear path than newspaper writers. Small circulation trade magazines and specialty publications can offer a way forward for some writers. Coast Mountain Culture editor Mike Berard got his first big break in publishing “because nobody wanted to move to Toronto.”

He says, “I had written a few stories about skiing in western Canada which the editors of Skier magazine really liked, and an opening came up when one of them pursued an editorial job in the United States. I had no editorial experience, but I was game for the chance to develop some new skills and learn from editor/chief storyteller Leslie Anthony, even if it meant moving across the country.”

It turned out to be a good move for Berard. But there was a learning curve.

“Writers, we’re not spreadsheet people, or, [laughing] that efficient with our time. When it comes to stories, you’re managing people, first and foremost. But there’s so much else you have to learn that writers don’t even see: heds and subheds, deks, pull-quotes, captions—all have to be written.”

And, if you’re a magazine with serious aspirations, all that copy must be on-brand. This is especially true in specialty publications, where you are telling stories to a very informed, high-level audience.

Berard continues: “I was very lucky to have Leslie Anthony as a mentor during that period to learn exactly what it takes to make a great magazine.” (Under Berard’s leadership, Coast Mountain Culture would win a Western Magazine Award as Best New Publication in 2013).

Former Western Living editor (and now book author) Bruce Grierson says, “One of the best editors I ever worked with — Diana Symonds at Saturday Night — told me she never wanted to be a writer, just an editor. I’m convinced that’s why she was so good. Instead of trying to turn the story into her story — which is the private, maybe not even conscious modus operandi of editors who are also writers — Diana instead tried to figure out what her writers were doing and help them do it better.”

Grierson did a short stint at Western Living but went back to writing full time, partly because he often felt the need to re-arrange other people’s stories.

Writing and editing roles are increasingly being combined in the digital age. Sarah Bancroft (nee Reeder) started her career as an intern at Vancouver magazine and was the west coast editor for Fashion, published by St. Joseph’s Media.

The best editors have business acumen

“One thing I learned from Western Living editor Jim Sutherland is that the best editors have business acumen. Obviously, you need to be somewhat entrepreneurial as a writer, but [as an editor], more than ever, you need to seek out the best opportunities based on where advertising dollars are flowing.”

Bancroft took advantage of the rising popularity of e-mail newsletters to create Vitamin Daily, where selective story topics were written in a breezy, engaging style designed to deliver readers to a website which essentially re-creates the best elements of magazine in digital format.

In fact, publications with new business models such as Vitamin Daily, Vancouver is Awesome, Miss604 and Daily Hive offer a way forward for writers longing for more secure employment and who might already be successful bloggers familiar with the digital format. Web-only titles require writer/editors who combine the speedy yet factual elements of newspaper reporting with the catchy stylistic elements found in a well-written short magazine article.

Kelsey Scaldaferri offers up a sports analogy to describe the leap from writing to editing.

“Not all star athletes become coaches, and not all successful coaches were elite players.”

Either way, if you’re planning to make the leap, expect an adjustment period. And remember, going from writer to editor doesn’t need to be a one-way journey.

Retired Province scribe Sean McCune says, “I’ve had a foot in either camp for most of the past 47 years. To me, it comes down to whether the satisfaction of improving the finished product outweighs the advantages of getting out of the office and talking to civilians on a regular basis.”

Steven Threndyle is a Vancouver-based freelance writer. You can find him on Twitter at @threndyleski.


Posted on June 14, 2018 at 10:00 pm by editor · · Tagged with: ,

Leave a Reply