Editor uses experience to advise

Katy McColl, senior editor and writer for “JANE” magazine, understands the difficulty in finding a journalism job. She also understands the customs on an Indian reservation in Montana. And all of this she has put to good use throughout her career.

On Dec. 14, at 8:30 p.m., McColl will come to the New Library Auditorium in an event sponsored by Ed on Campus, “ink” and Sigma Tau Delta. She took some time out of her busy editing schedule to answer questions about reporting, writing and dorky cover letters.

Audrey Levine: What drew you to the field of journalism, particularly magazines?

Katy McColl: I gave a speech to a group of alumna when I was an undergrad at Smith (College) and one of them, a magazine editor, came up to me afterward and said, “I loved your speech and I want to help you.” I was so shy I would only call her to follow up on Sunday nights when I knew she wasn’t at the office, but she ended up recommending me for an American Society of Magazine Editors (ASME) internship at “Travel & Leisure.”

AL: What do you enjoy about being an editor versus a reporter?

KM: It takes a lot longer to report and write a story than it does to edit it. And writing, as anyone who’s procrastinated before sitting down to draft a paper knows, starts with a blank page. Whereas editing is all about taking a story and making it better. I actually love editing because it’s very instinctive. I used to edit my friends’ love letters to their boyfriends, and they’d be like, “I asked you to read it, not mark it up with red pen!” But editing’s a kind of mysterious, invisible process to a reader, because editors don’t have bylines. I might edit four stories in the magazine, but if I don’t write any, my grandmother’s like, “What did you do all month?”

AL: Tell me about the book you recently wrote. Do you look at writing books as a side to your journalism career?

KM: I wanted to write a book about creative careers that was useful and fun to read. Not just for writers, but for people who’ve studied liberal arts and want to become fashion designers or presidential speechwriters but who don’t know how to get their foot in the door. And it’s not like passing the bar or going into Teach for America, where there’s a clearly defined path set out for you. It’s intimidating. I know it’s intimidating. And that’s what everyone who emails me wants to know: how to get started at a magazine. I see the book as part and parcel of my career.

AL: How did you go about trying to obtain this position as senior editor at “JANE?”

KM: I was rescued from my cappuccino-fetching assistant job on the recommendation of that same editor who approached me in college. So, “JANE” found me. Kismet in action. But that’s only because it’s a really, really small world here in publishing. That was maybe six years ago and I just remember being so thrilled to have business cards and not have to be a secretary anymore.

AL: What advice do you have for aspiring journalists?

KM: No dorky cover letters! If you want to write, show your voice and your skill from the beginning. And instead of bragging about being “detail-oriented,” demonstrate it in your description and analysis of the publication you’re writing to instead of relying on a template. Does that sound grouchy? Oh, well. Intern, intern, intern. Local newspapers are a great place to start.

AL: What do you enjoy most about working on a magazine?

KM: I love the variety. And I love using my judgment in a variety of situations. I worked on a heartbreaking story following the murder of two young women on an Indian reservation in Montana and completely immersed myself in researching the culture of this particular tribe. One of the reasons why the mother agreed to an interview was because I presented her with a blanket, a gift customarily conferred on someone from whom you’re seeking knowledge. It meant something to her that I knew that. Anyway, lucky for me, every month is different.