Sometimes these days it’s easy to forget there are success stories in journalism. Like say for instance the story of Backpacker Magazine assistant editor Elisabeth Kwak-Hefferan. Elisabeth started out as an intern with the magazine and quickly made a strong impression. When an associate editor decided to move on, Elisabeth applied for the job and eventually landed it. I asked Elisabeth, who I first met while working as an Intern at Backpacker myself, if she wouldn’t mind sharing some of her thoughts with Written Road readers and how as emerging writers we could position ourselves for success.
WR: Staring out after J-School how did you land your Internship so quickly?
Elisabeth: It was a magic combination of preparation and luck: I started pushing for the internship early, did my homework during my interviews, and was available to move out to Colorado when they needed their new intern to start. My first contact with Backpacker was through an interview with a recruiter on campus—it was about six months before I graduated, but I wanted to get my name on their radar. We also had a grad-school assignment to interview someone with our “dream job,” so I called editor-in-chief Jon Dorn. After I finished interviewing him, he sprung a surprise interview on me, but it must have gone well—he offered me the internship in June, and I started in September.
WR: While working as an Intern you played an integral role in designing and producing a new back page for the magazine. I remember senior editors were really impressed with the execution and value you brought to the magazine. How did you go about it and what did you learn about making yourself stand out?
Elisabeth: It was an awesome opportunity to be part of the section’s development from the start—since we hadn’t done it before, everything was on the table. As far as making myself stand out, I just tried to work really hard on it—putting in the time to crunch numbers, draw up spreadsheets, and double-check all the facts paid off.
WR: When you heard there was an assistant editor position opening up how did you go about applying?
Elisabeth: The day my predecessor announced he was moving on, I asked for a quick meeting with Jon. He knew exactly why I was there (he kicked off the conversation by saying, “Don’t be nervous.”)–but I just asked what I could do to be considered for the position. He had me write up a detailed critique of the front of the book, then I completed an editing test before my official interview.
WR: What did you learn from the application process, and what advice would you give writers going into a round of interviews?
Elisabeth: Two main things stand out. One, it’s absolutely essential to know the magazine inside and out. I had a huge advantage because I’d been working at Backpacker for about 8 months before I interviewed—but you’ve got to get the last two years’ worth of issues and study them before you talk to anyone. Two, don’t be afraid to be critical. Any editor worth anything wants to constantly improve the magazine, so come to the table with ideas about what could be better, and back them up.
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WR: Now that you’re an editor, how did the internship help you?
Elisabeth: It was excellent—I’d already learned how the office was run, how edit meetings worked, and I had personal relationships with all of the senior editors here. An internship is like editing with training wheels—you get to be a part of how things work and can still ask lots and lots of questions (I still do that, though!).
WR: What advice could you give folks looking to start out as writers?
Elisabeth: Read everything you can get your hands on—even magazines that wouldn’t ordinarily interest you. Take note of what works, and what doesn’t. Keep a list of story ideas and add to it constantly. And take advantage of informational interviews—pull out the masthead of a magazine you’d like to pitch and contact whoever edits the section you’re eyeing. Ask for a brief interview about the job and how he/she got there—it’s useful, informal, and helps you build valuable relationships with the people who will be deciding whether or not to hire you.
WR: You get paid to write, but I’m sure there was a time when you were asked to write for free, or next to nothing. What do you think about writers looking to start out writing for free to get clips?
Elisabeth: It’s tough, but it’s also part of the game. When you’re just starting out, clips are gold—get as many as you possibly can. They’ll help launch you into paying gigs, and you’ll improve your reporting and writing skills just by doing them.
WR: Finally, lots of Written Road readers are looking to break into the national magazine market. What advice would you give them when approaching editors with story ideas?
Elisabeth: This sounds so obvious, but it’s crazy how many people don’t do this: Read the magazine! First of all, see what kinds of stories we publish. Secondly, make sure we haven’t already done it. Even if a writer’s first idea doesn’t work, I’m a million times more likely to work with him/her to develop something that does if he/she shows a familiarity with the magazine.