My Experience Writing for a Trade Magazine

During my last year of graduate study in physics, I attended the 2015 ComSciCon Triangle workshop and learned that I could make a career out of science writing. So I began writing for the Pipettepen and applied for the AAAS Mass Media Fellowship in 2016 as I finished writing my dissertation. I was accepted and ended up at Voice of America in Washington, D.C. for 10 weeks. I had three really great editors who not only showed me the ropes of being a science journalist, they also worked with me on producing radio and TV pieces. It was fun and I learned a lot, but I still didn’t feel ready to put all my eggs in the science writer basket.

I worked as a part-time adjunct faculty and applied for full time jobs. I applied to a few writing jobs here and there but didn’t have much luck for a year and a half. Then one day a job popped up in one of my many email alerts. It was for an associate editor position at a magazine that had something to do with the healthcare industry. The job description was pretty vague, and they just wanted writing experience so I applied.

The next morning, after I dropped my kids off at daycare, I received a phone call from the Editor in Chief of the magazine. After we spoke for a while he said he was intrigued and wanted me to come in for an interview. When I arrived at the office a few days later it was eerily quiet except for a single pair of hands typing on a keyboard. The office had eight cubicles in the middle of the room with high walls so you couldn’t see over them, but I could tell 7 out of 8 of them weren’t occupied. Around the perimeter were offices that were all occupied. I chatted with the Editor in Chief and he told me about what they did there. They were a trade magazine aimed at administrators of outpatient surgery centers. If you’re not familiar (I wasn’t) these are places where people go to have surgical procedures in under 24 hours. Cataract surgery, total knee and hip replacements, and many ENT (ears, nose and throat) procedures are all done in under 24 hours.

The job entailed interviewing nurses, surgeons and administrators that worked at outpatient facilities each month about topics such as multimodal pain management and how to pass an accreditation survey. Articles with a single source were ghostwritten by the editors, meaning that the editor wrote the piece but the source would be the author when the article went to print. Articles with two or more sources would be authored by the editor. Sounded fun and easy enough. After doing a test write, where I interviewed an administrator and wrote up a short essay about a space-saving idea she implemented at her facility, they hired me. They also gave me the salary I asked for. I totally low-balled myself but I didn’t care. I finally had full-time work writing!

This magazine put out new issues monthly and editors were assigned their topics the first Monday of each month. Usually assignments consisted of 2 to 3 feature articles and 2 departments. Departments are two-page articles that run every month covering current issues affecting anesthesia providers or infection preventionists for example. Feature topics varied month to month and were actually decided well in advance so the publication could solicit advertisers to buy ad space. Some months we were assigned 2 additional features for a supplement issue. It wasn’t unheard of for an editor to have 4 to 5 features and 2 or 3 departments during months when a supplement issue ran.

It sounds like a lot. But it’s not all. Every Tuesday we had to write up short summaries of current news we found that affected outpatient surgery centers to send out to our readers in a weekly email blast. I was also put in charge of our daily emails. Every weekday we sent out the feature articles from the previous month reimagined as a “Tip of the Day”. The headlines and email subjects had to be catchy and clickbaity. This was probably my least favorite thing to do. I did my best to be as truthful as possible and still make them interesting enough to click on.

This brings me to the editing process. The other two associate editors I worked with were seasoned journalists. At both the Pipettepen and Voice of America, my editors usually helped me reword things if they weren’t clear and maybe changed the lede of my article if it wasn’t engaging enough. If things were really unacceptable, they’d ask me to rewrite. For the most part they left my voice and my stories alone though. My co-workers said that had been their experiences too.

This magazine, however, had established a certain voice. The magazine wanted their readers to feel like they were having a candid conversation with another professional. So the more senior editors took a very heavy hand when editing anything we submitted. No matter how early we turned in our pieces, we usually didn’t see the articles again until they were posted to the website or we proofed them before going to print in the magazine. So we didn’t have much of a say in the final published article. It took me a while to get used to the process. Actually, I’m not sure I ever fully accepted it.

Proofing was another interesting experience that differed from other experiences I had. At both the Pipettepen and Voice of America, only one or two additional eyes would look over my pieces before they were published. Since this was a print publication, mistakes can’t be corrected, so every piece had at least four sets of eyes that looked over it. As described above, after an editor submitted their piece, the senior editors made their changes. Then the senior editors copied and pasted the article into the magazine layout and adjusted it to fit between the images and ads. Once it looked right, I had to print out the article and proof it. Then I passed my corrections to the Executive Editor. He updated the piece and proofed it again. Then the other associate editor proofed it and gave it to the Editor in Chief to do one final proofing. Now when I say proofing I mean grammatical corrections or checking the numbering in lists. We rarely pointed out issues that would need significant re-writes due to time constraints.

Since we were only assigned our pieces at the beginning of the month, the last week of the month seemed hectic and stressful for the more senior editors. They not only had to write their own pieces but also edit ours. The tensions and nerves of the more senior editors were usually high that last week of the month and it made for a very unpleasant work environment.

And then, after we went to print, a new month would begin and everything would be calm and pleasant. I started to realize why there was only one set of hands typing on the keyboard that day I interviewed. Most associate editors quit after a few months of the crazy schedule and tense, unpredictable atmosphere. When I started, there was one other associate editor who had been there for three months. She left a month and a half after I started. A new associate editor started right after she left. But he left after two and a half months. After watching two friends quit in 5 months, I decided to leave too.

Despite the end of the month craziness, I absolutely loved the writing. Being assigned topics I knew nothing about was exciting for me. Everyone I interviewed was friendly and more than happy to explain things I didn’t know. I really enjoyed the process up until I had to turn in my work. Would I do it again? For another outlet, absolutely! The only reason I left was because of an unwelcoming environment that made it difficult for me to write. So I’ll leave you with a list of things you should be aware of if you’re going into the magazine business that I’m definitely keeping in mind going forward.

  • Read the room – How many other editors/writers are working there currently? Ask how long people stay. I asked during my interview and got a carefully worded answer. Something along the lines of: “It varies. Some stay for 15 years others stay for a few months.” The truth was that only the more senior staff had been there that long. I heard from other employees that the longest anyone else stayed was 5 years.
  • Editor style – It might be a good idea to ask what the editing process is like before you start. Some editors may heavily rewrite your work and not give chances for rewrites while others may send your pieces back to you with comments and suggestions.
  • Know your worth – Ask for a range in salary, not a single number. Glassdoor will give you an average salary range for any position. Use that as a starting point. If you have an advanced degree, you can use that to justify a higher range.
  • Alerts – Set up Google Alerts for topics. Google alerts are actually a great way to find topics to write about if you don’t have access to the AAAS website for embargoed journal articles — EurekAlert. It also lets you see how authors are approaching a story, so you can come up with a different angle. You can even set the time of day you get the alerts. I always found that mornings allowed me to get the freshest news.
  • Forums – Join the forums of the professional societies where your readers are members. You’ll be able to keep up with current topics of interest and find sources to interview for those topics.
  • Passive voice – Academia often overlooks the use of passive voice. So just be aware of this and know that your editors will call you out on it. I found this article helpful in identifying passive voice in my writing.
  • Start early – Research and reach out to sources as soon as you get your assignments. Potential sources are very busy but most likely want to talk to you. The earlier you contact them the more time and flexibility you have to schedule interviews.
  • Keep track – Have a running to-do list of what your next goal is for each article. I always updated mine at the end of the day so the next morning I knew exactly where I was with each feature. The different stages usually looked like
    • Find sources – If you don’t hear from them after one or two days, follow-up
    • Interview source
    • Outline article – Ask source follow-up questions
    • Write article – Ask source follow-up questions
    • Send draft to source for review

    It always helped me to have the process written out so I could see each task I had to accomplish and how long I had to do it.

As a graduate student who made the leap into science writing, I had a ton of skills that made me a successful trade magazine editor. My ability to research topics thoroughly and quickly allowed me to get up to speed on the topics I had to write about. There are also lots of similarities between earning a Ph.D and earning a certification in healthcare or a medical degree! So it was easy for me to make connections with sources. Writing for the Pipettepen allowed me to hone my writing skills and amass a library of writing samples (a.k.a. clips) to use for any job or fellowship applications. The AAAS Mass Media Fellowship threw me into science journalism and forced me to learn how to find and interview sources on a deadline.

Reflecting on my experience working at a trade magazine, I learned that the time I spent in graduate school and science writing made me a successful editor. But I also learned the signs of a tense, unpredictable work environment and that I’m not comfortable with certain editing styles. Trade magazines, especially in an unfamiliar field, can be a great way for non-journalism students to get their feet wet in the sea of journalism, as long as the editors provide a supportive and respectful space. If you have the clips go for it!

Peer edited by Amanda Tapia.

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About JoEllen McBride

Dr. JoEllen McBride is a mom, science communicator and astrophysicist whose main purpose is to make science inclusive and accessible to anyone that wants to participate. She earned her Ph.D in Physics from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in 2016. Her research focused on galaxies that live close to each other and how that affected their ability to create stars. After that, she was a AAAS Mass Media Fellow at Voice of America in Washington D.C. and an adjunct faculty member in the physics department at West Chester University. She currently works as an astronomy subject matter expert for hire and a board member of the AAS Committee on the Status of Women in Astronomy. In her free time, she pets her kitties Thelma and Louise, raises her daughters, Carina and Alessa, with the help of her partner, Ed, and writes and talks about science.

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