One of my favorite things to do is talk to editors who are at the very top of their game to figure out how they do their best work.
That’s why I was thrilled to have a chance to sit down with Carole Engblom a few weeks ago to talk about her work with St. Olaf Magazine.
She’s been at St. Olaf College since 1998, and she regularly takes home stacks of awards for her magazine — features, profiles, art, and general excellence — at the Minnesota Magazine & Publishing Association Awards each fall.
St. Olaf’s Carole Engblom
One of the unique things about her magazine is that her feature is almost always entirely written by freelancers — and it’s an approach that works extremely well.
She shared more about her process and best advice for new editors below. I’ve added a few of my own thoughts as someone coming from the writing side of the table.
Tell me about how you think about working with writers over the long term.
Carole: I like to work with writers who are storytellers. It’s a different creative process. It allows the writer to run with a story, and take it in directions I might not have otherwise expected. That only comes with time — and trust in their talent. And it’s just more fun – for the writer, for me — and, I think, potentially more interesting for the reader.
- Erin adds: Speaking as a writer, it’s a joy to reach a point with an editor where you’ve delivered enough good work to them that they feel comfortable saying, “Here’s the topic. Run with it. You tell me what the story is.” Don’t try that that with a first-time writer — or even a second- or third-time writer. Not there yet? Here are some perfect assignment letters (complete with details that explain makes them fantastic) that you can model as you assign projects to writers.
How do you match a writer with a story?
Carole: Over time you can really learn a writer’s strengths, and you can make sure you’re giving them stories that make the most of their specific talents. I like to work with same group of writers — they’re talented, creative, seasoned, dependable, and, I think, some of the best writers in the Twin Cities. I love brainstorming ideas with them. I also think it’s important to ask them what they’d like to write about and try some new, fresh ideas.
- Erin adds: I love getting suggestions from editors, even if it’s not totally clear what direction the story will take when it’s assigned. Just having something in the back of my mind can lead me to ask different questions in interviews or focus my research in a slightly different area. Need inspiration? Here are 4 ways to think about story structures and 6 ways to think about profiles.
How does a new writer break in?
Carole: St. Olaf Magazine has three big feature articles, an in-depth profile, and one or two student profiles in each issue. The feature assignments always go to my three or four regular writers. Two of them are alumni. Profiles are generally assigned to freelancers with whom I’ve worked over the years and who know St. Olaf College very well. When it comes to new writers, I give any additional writing opportunities to our student writers, who do an excellent job.
- Erin adds: Student writers can be an excellent option. When I was an editor at Carleton, we found a few gems, and we often hired them for projects long after they’d graduated. It can be a hit or miss proposition, but the hits made it worth it. Here are some other thoughts I’ve published about working with new writers.
Is there any advice you would give to an editor who is just starting out — but who also has the budget and the drive to make the most of their magazine through outside writers?
Carole: The CASE Editors Forum, for beginners and for seasoned editors, is a great place to start. It hits all the buttons, from practical advice, creative sessions, and terrific keynote speakers to networking. You come away from the Editors Forum inspired and ready to put some great ideas into action.
- Erin adds: If you didn’t make it this year, check out #caseedforum on Twitter and mark your calendar for 2019.
Carole: Another piece of advice — at least this is what works for me — is to be super organized. Plan ahead, take time to develop your stories, not only for the issue that’s looming but also for future issues, give your writers time to do their job. I know it’s only March, but I’m already thinking about the fall 2018 and winter 2019 issues. Planning just makes life less stressful.
- Erin adds: Organized editors are the best! It’s great to get an assignment several weeks — even two or three months — in advance. That gives me time to do research and interviews well in advance, and explore avenues that might not be possible with tighter deadlines. And speaking of organization: Here’s the exact system and the steps I use to organize all the cool story ideas I find from alumni magazine and consumer publications. These are stories I file away and often rely on for Capstone Pitch Subscription clients. (Hit reply if you want to get early access the next time I open up the pitch subscription. We’re currently fully booked, but hope to open up new spots in the next month or two.)
Let me know what you think! Do you agree? Disagree? What tips or advice have been most useful for you?