How to be a sub-editor
ELLE UK's deputy chief sub-editor, Olivia McCrea-Hedley, lays bare what it takes to succeed in the job
Sub-editors are indispensable to newspapers and magazines, yet many people don't even know that they exist. At university, Olivia McCrea-Hedley, 29, edited her best friend's essays as a hobby. Now, she edits ELLE for a living. She speaks to Plaster about her day-to-day responsibilities, why people with dyslexia shouldn't be discouraged from editing roles, and her advice to help the future generation of sub-editors get ahead.
When and how did you discover the job of a sub-editor?
After I graduated from the English literature course at Sheffield University, I enrolled on the Press Association's Multimedia Journalism course. It taught me everything I needed to know to work at a magazine, such as writing, editing, and video production. One day, The Daily Telegraph gave us a talk about the sub-editing process, which sounded similar to the way I edited my best friend's essays at university. I always loved taking something that was on its way to being great and making it perfect.
What aspects of the magazine are you responsible for?
I work with the chief sub-editor, Claire Sibbick. Our job is to set deadlines and oversee everything published in the magazine from start to finish. In journalism, you are writing about real people and events, so you have a responsibility to be accurate and impartial. As sub-editors, we fact check copy and make sure that it is written in ELLE's tone of voice. Then, we send it off to our legal team for approval, which is an excellent experience because it teaches you how to soften your tone and recognise unconscious bias. We also write bits and bobs throughout the magazine, like captions, headlines and cover lines. The best part is that you get to be the person that presses the button when the magazine goes to print.
What is a typical day at work like during the pandemic?
Honestly, every day is different, but they follow a similar structure. Claire and I will look at what copy is due that week and make sure that everybody is on track to hit their deadlines. Most days, I edit the headlines and InDesign layouts for a maximum of three articles, write for the website, and manage our platform on Apple News. Working from home has forced everybody to be more organised because you can't pop over to somebody's desk to ask a question. Overall, I think it has made our team and magazine stronger because we've really had to focus on what we want to achieve and what our readers need.
Is there anything you dislike about your job?
Yes, after we send an issue to print, work can become a little tedious. You go from having so much on your plate to not much at all. Also, I don't like chasing people over deadlines and politely telling them off where they're not on track. Like life, a job isn't perfect, and it can't always be enjoyable, especially when you're working your way up.
What are the core skills and personality traits that distinguish a fantastic sub-editor from a good sub-editor?
In terms of the actual job, you always have to be on the ball and have a keen eye for grammar, spelling, and punctuation. When it comes to chasing people over deadlines, I think it's crucial to be personable and friendly. Sub-editing is a very social job; there are many zoom calls, phone calls, messages, and emails. If you're naturally confident and extroverted, that's great, but don't worry if you aren't because you will develop those skills over time. When I first started in magazines, I felt really nervous about approaching editors, but they were always so kind to me. I honestly believe that being hardworking and polite will get you further than being the smartest, most experienced person in the room.
Do you think that a learning difficulty such as dyslexia affects a person's eligibility for a sub-editing role?
If you find reading, writing or editing particularly challenging, that shouldn't put you off at all because you learn and improve on the job. When I was a junior sub-editor, I used to get so many things wrong and would cry in the toilets because I was so stressed. Years later, my manager told me that I never made any big mistakes, but I was so hard on myself at the time.
What practical advice would you give to aspiring sub-editors?
A journalism degree is a great thing to have, but there are alternative routes too. What employers really look for are great ideas, skills, and personality. I would recommend attending virtual fashion weeks to build your references and networking with people you admire on social media platforms. I know it's been over a year since the pandemic began, but try to focus on preparing a diverse portfolio of work for when opportunities open up again.
You have been at ELLE for over three years. What is it about the magazine that makes you want to stay?
It's the empowering, inclusive work environment. My friends in banking often tell me that they are too afraid to talk in boardrooms because they are outnumbered by men. I honestly can't relate because I'm used to being in a room full of women who listen and care about what you have to say, even if they disagree with your opinion. As cheesy as this might sound, ELLE is the magazine I always dreamed of working for – and it is as good as I hoped it would be.
Last July, ELLE launched a mentoring scheme with The Social Mobility Commission. What does it entail?
It is a one year scheme designed to give 10 students – between 16 and 21-years-old and from deprived opportunity areas across the UK – a thorough insight into the magazine industry. Our mentees played a very active role in creating our September 2020 issue; they contributed ideas and interviewed our cover star, Adwoa Aboah. One of our mentees even designed the digital subscriber cover. We recently opened the application for our second year of the scheme; the deadline is May 17!
Are there any other ways that people can get involved with the magazine?
Yes, we have a monthly work experience scheme and offer paid yearly internships with our fashion, beauty and art departments. If you're interested, I encourage you to get in touch to ask questions or get advice on the application process. Our email addresses can be found on our author web page.
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