The okonomiyaki on the grill is sizzling, the miso soup is about to boil over, and I’m still frantically chopping pickled ginger for the garnish. Oh, and one of my managers just meandered in to see how everything is going since she’s hungry and it’s officially past lunchtime. Fighting the urge to burst into tears, I tell her that everything should be ready in just a few more minutes. Then I go back to running around the kitchen, praying that everything will turn out okay and everyone won’t hate me for ruining their lunch. This is not your typical day as an editorial assistant… or is it?
At one stage in my career, I worked as an Editorial Assistant at a magazine called VegNews, and I was surprised by the range of tasks I was asked to perform. Sure, some of them involved actual editorial work, but others were not quite what I expected. Read on to learn about the ups and downs of being an editorial assistant at a vegan lifestyle magazine.
What are the daily duties of an Editorial Assistant?
The entire editorial team was comprised of two Editorial Assistants, one Senior Editor, and one Editorial Director (plus our Art Director and a team of freelance writers who worked remotely).
The other Editorial Assistant and I would start each day by scanning the news to see if there was anything particularly relevant to the vegan community, which could range from restaurant openings or the latest celeb to proclaim their veganism to new studies that indicated animal sentience or the benefits of a vegan diet.
Once we had a list of a few possibilities, we’d compare notes and then decide which topics we’d write about for our “VegNews Dailies” posts. We’d write the posts, send them to each other to proof, and then upload them into our content management system and publish them to our website.
What is a content management system? It’s basically a platform that allows non-technical people to update websites or blogs. It usually involves copying and pasting text into boxes and then previewing it to make sure that all the formatting looks good (that all the text, line breaks, and spaces are in the right places and all the bold and italic text is showing up properly). It usually takes a little time to get used to using a content management system since they all have their particular personality quirks, so it can be a little tedious until you get the hang of it.
After the VegNews Dailies were out of the way, I’d get on with my other tasks. Here’s an overview:
You want to make sure that anything you publish is as accurate as possible, so the other Editorial Assistant and I would go through drafts of articles and identify all the facts, like the names of people, cities, and restaurants or any type of number or statistic. Sometimes we could just Google something and find the answer (though we had to be careful about the reliability of our sources—Wikipedia did not count!), and sometimes we actually had to call a restaurant or company to get information.
Some of the trickiest tasks involved fact-checking for a column we did called “I Can’t Believe It’s Vegan!” (It’s no surprise that raw kale is vegan, but some unexpected highly processed foods are also “unintentionally” vegan, so it was our job to try to uncover them.) I had to call up large food companies like Kraft Foods or General Mills to find out if things like Double Stuf Oreos were vegan. A lot of companies list “natural flavors” as an ingredient without specifying where those natural flavors are coming from, so I’d call them to try to find out if any of those “natural flavors” were animal-derived. This usually involved a lot of waiting on the phone, explaining exactly what “vegan” meant, and being transferred between departments until finally I got a clear answer.
Proofreading involves checking the text to make sure that it doesn’t contain any typos and the formatting is correct. Depending on where you are in the publication calendar, it may also involve some fact-checking.
Most publications adhere to a general style guide, like the AP style guide or the Chicago Manual of Style, but they also tend to have their own unique style flourishes as well, especially for words and phrases that come up often. For example, at VegNews, “soymilk” was always written as one word. When you proofread a document, you try to ensure that in addition to not containing any blatant errors or mistakes, it also adheres to the house style guide.
How can you host a vegan luau? What are some of the ingredients in hair dye, and is it possible to color your hair without harming animals or the environment? Who are the hottest vegan chefs and what are they up to these days? These are just a few of the types of questions I’d get assigned to write about. Most of the time, I would have very little knowledge of a topic, so I’d have to spend at least a few hours researching it, trying to find experts who I could interview, and conducting those interviews.
We also featured interviews on our website and throughout the magazine, so I might get asked to speak with a musician, animal rights activist, or artist. If I was going to interview someone, I’d learn as much as I could about them ahead of time, so this was another type of research I did on a regular basis.
I wrote VegNews Dailies posts every day (Monday–Friday) and blog posts about once a week. In addition to that, I would get a wide variety of assignments and I could also pitch the editors topics I’d like to write about. For example, I knew a thing or two about Japan and Japanese food, so I asked if I could write about cooking with miso and tofu and a travel piece on vegan dining options in Tokyo.
My writing tasks would range from very small (like coming up with a headline or “hed” as they’re called in the industry) to medium sized (like writing a sidebar for a magazine article) to large, like writing a full article for the magazine or website.
Anything else that isn’t a daily duty?
Yes, quite a few things, actually!
- Making lunch/testing recipes
At the time, the VegNews office was located in the Outer Sunset neighborhood in San Francisco and there weren’t really any lunch options nearby, so every day one staff member would make lunch for everyone else in the office. This was a little nerve-racking because you never knew exactly what you’d find in the VegNews refrigerator and pantry. But it was nice to get a break from sitting in front of the computer and it helped me to be a little more improvisational in the kitchen.
We also would need to test recipes that were going to be published in the magazine to make sure that the ingredients and instructions worked the way they were supposed to. (Hence the freak-out sequence at the beginning of this post, when I was attempting to follow a recipe for Japanese savory pancakes called okonomiyaki, pictured below.)
We had a regular feature in the magazine where we’d choose one product, like hummus or popsicles, and try several different brands and compare them. We’d usually gather all the products and try one after the other, making notes about each one so that we could compare and contrast them. It was a fun little break from the usual!
- Special events
VegNews occasionally hosted events to promote new books or build the Bay Area vegan community. As an Editorial Assistant, I was expected not only to attend those events, but to make sure that everything ran smoothly and VegNews was well represented. This meant doing everything from setting up chairs and books to greeting guests and handing out goodie bags. These events were always in the evening after work, so the days when they took place were always looooong (but fun) days.
- Trade shows
There are a number of trade shows throughout the year that appeal to the type of people who read (or might want to read) VegNews, so we’d sometimes go on the road to help spread the word about our magazine, encourage people to subscribe, and learn about the hottest new vegan products and trends.
Working at a trade show was pretty much the opposite of our regular work days back in the office. While we would normally spend the entire day sitting at our desks working on tasks individually, at a trade show we’d have to stand and talk with strangers all day. Some people would approach us because they’d never heard of the magazine and wanted to learn more about it. Some would have no clue about veganism, so we’d try to tell them (in a non-preachy way) what it involved. And one time I mistakenly thought Adrian Grenier was someone I knew and waved at him enthusiastically and shouted “Heyyyy” at him across the room. (FYI, he totally waved back.)
What’s the best part of the job?
I loved the constant challenge of coming up with catchy and creative phrases for heds, deks, and the copy itself. VegNews had a very irreverent and fun voice, which felt very natural to me to write in.
Before I started working there, I was a little scared about creativity. I had kind of been under the impression that it was like a well, and that you only got a certain amount and once you exhausted it, that was the end. But what I learned on the job was that creativity is more like a muscle, and the more you develop it, the easier it becomes to use.
It was also fascinating to learn more about the world of veganism. I have been vegetarian since I was 11, but I’ve never really closely followed trends like which celebs are vegetarian/vegan, which brands have released a new line of cruelty-free nail polish, or which vegetables have the most nutrient density for the lowest price (that one is purple cabbage, just so you know). I really enjoyed learning about all of these things and then sharing my newfound knowledge with our readers.
What’s the biggest challenge to this job?
As an Editorial Assistant, you’re at the bottom of the totem pole, so you sometimes get assigned tasks that you might not be super thrilled about. For example, at the trade shows, we pretty much had to hold down the booth for the majority of the event while other staff members only had to do that for an hour or two each day.
And just in general, we had to do a lot of the tedious work like fact-checking, answering the phone, setting up and cleaning up after events, etc. This can be especially disheartening when you know that you want to be writing and editing rather than doing event management or anything else. But I think this is pretty common—you start out at the bottom and once you’ve proven that you’re responsible, you’re given more interesting tasks.
What advice do I have for students and recent graduates who are interested in becoming an Editorial Assistant?
Start building—and managing—your portfolio as soon as possible. Not only do you want to have published work that you can share with potential employers, but you want to make sure that you know where it is and it’s easy for you to access it. It doesn’t have to be anything too fancy, just a little spot of real estate on the internet, like a WordPress blog, where the links to all your writing are in one place.
These days it’s pretty easy to get published, especially on a blog. Most blog editors are always looking for pitches and content, so find a few blogs that you like, get a feel for what types of posts they publish (and whether they accept guest posts), and send a pitch email to the editor. Now this part is important—your pitch email should be tailored to the specific blog and editor you want to write for. Explain what you like about their blog, why you think you’re a good fit, and a few suggestions of articles you might like to write for them. If you have any previously published work, send a few links to that as well. And make sure that your pitch email is clear and error-free! Remember, you want to show the editor that you will make their job as easy as possible.
And you absolutely should have your own blog. This gives you plenty of clips that you can send to potential employers/editors, demonstrates your growth and improvement over time, and helps you learn about things like how to write headlines and develop an audience.
Homework time! Try out one of the suggestions above. Schedule an hour where you’ll either start a blog, research potential blogs you could write guest posts for, or work on building your online portfolio. And when you’re done, drop us a line in the comments to let us know where we can find your writing!