Friday, April 14, 2017

Nancy Lee Badger Interviews Redbook Editor Sarah Smith

Please welcome Sarah Smith, who will be the keynote speaker at the 10th Write Now Conference April 29, 2017, in Raleigh, North Carolina. Please tell our readers a little bit about you, such as why did you become an Editor?

Sarah- When I was 8, my older brother and I launched the Gunderson Gazette, a hand-written two-page newspaper we created for the families on our block and photocopied at the local library. We charged 25 cents for a 3-issue subscription, and I’m sure it was both terrible and charming (sadly, no copies exist today). While I enjoyed interviewing my neighbors and writing about back yards and impending births, what I really loved was figuring out what we were going to write about, how much room each article should get, and what on earth we should do about reluctant sources. I definitely didn’t know it at the time, but that was the start of my career packaging and problem-solving. The other reason I’m an editor is also because of my background: My mother is a writer, and I grew up steeped in the tricky, time-consuming, exhilarating process of reporting and writing (how many times did I have to say, “Mom? Mom?” before she heard me when she was on deadline? A million). I always admired her hard work, and wanted to be a part of that process in a way that made sense for what I was best at.

Nancy- Please tell our readers about the magazine you represent. 

Sarah- REDBOOK is a magazine for the kind of woman in her 30’s and 40’s who cares
about her hair and about her health. Smart style advice lives alongside the latest medical research; beauty how-tos are followed by heartfelt personal stories. Our millions of readers live in the real—and sometimes messy—world, so we give them clothes that fit bodies that aren’t model size, home ideas that don’t make them feel guilty, money advice that works whether you’re a CEO or a nurse’s aide, thoughtful essays that make them think, and myriad ways to feel smarter, confident and more in control.

Nancy- What is your weekly routine like?

Sarah- We’re always working on at least two issues at once, but where we are in the cycle determines whether I get home for dinner with my family, in time to read my son his bedtime stories, or miss all of that entirely. On quiet weeks, some of the things I do are attend planning meetings, put together our issue lineups, assign articles, help staff editors with the stories they’re responsible for, write revision letters, write display, and edit copy. Busy weeks mean I’m approving art and final drafts of stories, writing all the things nobody thinks of as needing to be written (look at the spine of a magazine; are there words there? Someone like me wrote those), and solving myriad tiny but crucial problems that get us closer to getting the magazine to the printer on time. It sounds like the quiet weeks are busier, and in some ways there’s more actual work then, but there is nothing quite like the drama and excitement of wrapping everything up.

Nancy- For authors or prospective authors: what influences your decision to read a submission: the query letter, synopsis, the plot, etc.

Sarah- I can never say this enough: Your query letter is a writing sample. And the biggest thing I’m looking for is style. What does that mean? Two things: One, that you have read my magazine and have a sense of the tone we take. REDBOOK is smart but not egg-heady, funny but not goofy, and down-to-earth but not boring. And two: That you have style. There are writers who can “put a sentence together,” as we like to say, and then there are ones that bring a little sparkle to anything they write, no matter what the topic or publication. As a huge magazine working to stay relevant in a vast field of content, REDBOOK relies heavily on the quality of our writing on every page: feature stories, yes, but also captions and short items/blurbs (which should never, ever be referred to as “filler”—it’s a huge pet peeve of mine, since writing short and snappy is absolutely the hardest thing to master). Story ideas matter too, of course, but someone with wit and verve with a close-but-not-quite-right idea is always going to get more encouragement than someone with a solid idea but flat writing. We cover the same things year after year: The difference is in the writing. How do you be the person who writes with style? I have two pieces of advice, both of which I’m sure TAF writers know, because my understanding is that they are a smart and hard-working bunch: Write, and read. You have to practice to get good, but you also have to immerse yourself in all kinds of writing in order for your own to improve. 

Nancy- What is the biggest no no you see in submissions that makes you reject them?

Sarah- Besides writing that doesn’t grab me, the easiest way to get turned down is to suggest you write a regular column. It’s not because you couldn’t do it: There are many people who have 10-12 illuminating, unusual, and different things to say over the course of a year of issues, but this kind of gig is something you really have to build up to. Here’s another minor pet peeve of mine: Telling me the exact word count of the story you have (“I’d like to submit my 1,137 word piece on…”) because there’s very little chance that I (as an editor of a women’s magazine, notorious for requesting changes and shaping things in our vision) will buy it as-is. So implying the piece is complete at this very specific length says to me that you are not open to being edited. And the thing that gets you a second assignment is a willingness to revise.

Nancy- What do you see ahead in your career?

Sarah- I love being an executive editor—it’s what I wanted from the day I met the woman who become my third boss, the then-executive editor at Parenting. She is an enormously talented and sane editor, and I wanted to keep the ship humming along like she did, making the words great and the staff happy. I hope jobs like mine still exist in five or ten years: My title and work might not look just like it does now, but I hope I’ll still be helping writers, editors, and designers find just the right way to tell a story that resonates with readers. 

Nancy- Will you share some encouraging words for authors still struggling for that first submission contract?  Also, how can our readers find your submission guidelines?  

Sarah- Let me tell you a little story. A writer pitched me an essay that I enjoyed reading, but the topic just wasn’t right for us. So she pitched me another, and I said no again—better topic, but in this case, the piece didn’t really go anywhere. She tried me again a couple months later with a pitch for a reported story, and I was pondering that one when I suddenly had a need for an essay on a very specific topic (the boss wants what the boss wants, you know?). Who was going to write it?? I shot her an email to say, “Does this sound like something you could write about?” She said yes, and wrote a beautiful piece and was so incredibly lovely to work with that I now am so delighted whenever I hear from her. You might think, “I’ll never get lucky like that,” but I guarantee you, that kind of “luck” happens a lot. You’ve got to keep trying, because you need to be top of mind when editors need something. If you get feedback, heed it. If you don’t, try to figure out why not on your own, and do better next time. Do not give up: No article is done on the first draft, and no writer gets picked up on the first pitch. On your fiftieth pitch? Change something up: The outlets you’re trying, the topics you’re pitching, the way you’re writing. You will get a hit, and all the effort is absolutely worth your time. You’re getting writing practice, which is essential, but you’re also building your stamina for hard work, which is what editors value at least as highly as top-notch writing. (A great writer who won’t do a revision is not actually so great a writer.)

REDBOOK doesn’t have traditional writer’s guidelines anymore. Why? I’ll be honest: It’s because they were for people who weren’t real writers, people who maybe had one great, personal story to tell and wanted a chance to reach out and share that idea. Professional writers who get assignments have always come to us more directly: They read the magazine carefully, they look at the masthead to find an editor to reach out to, and then they try to build a relationship that way. This is good news, because if you go to all that trouble, it means we will take you seriously in a way that was a real challenge for writers of “slush pile” submissions.

More About Sarah
Sarah Smith is the executive editor of REDBOOK, the 113-year-old magazine named Adweek’s Hottest Women’s Magazine in 2015. Under Sarah’s direction, Redbook has won several MIN Awards as well as a Clarions from the Association for Women in Communications. Prior to her time at REDBOOK, Sarah was the editorial director of Kiwi, and a member of the senior staff at Parenting. She lives in Manhattan with her husband and son.
Insta: @redbookmag
Twitter: @redbookmag

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  1. Great post! Loved reading about her childhood publishing venture with her older brother. You also got her to share good advice and insight into the editorial process - very helpful!

  2. I agree and cannot wait to meet her when she speaks April 29th in Raleigh

  3. Great interview, Nancy! I'm looking forward to meeting Sarah, too, at this month's conference. I found Sarah's advice for writers to continue reading, writing and querying to be very encouraging. So many writers give up because of self-doubt or because they don't want to appear to be bothering editors.

    1. I am up for bothering editors so I will be there at the WRITE NOW 2017 conference ready to learn everything she and the other fabulous presenters care to share!

  4. Great interview and information, Nancy.

  5. Nancy, for those of us who wonder what Editors are thinking, your interview fills in a lot of blanks. Thanks for asking the questions.