Young, driven professionals are looking for a magic bullet, a secret sauce or some detailed blueprint that will take them from where they are to where they want to be. And for many in the publishing industry, “where they want to be” is atop their favorite glossy’s masthead as an editor in chief.
But when you’re just beginning as an editorial assistant—or have yet to even secure a position in publishing—even aspiring to such lofty heights can seem downright futile. The truth is that every Miranda Priestly was once an Andy Sachs—full of ambition and blind faith (and, of course, a little awkwardness).
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Just ask Elizabeth Graves, the editor in chief of Martha Stewart Living. She got her start in the business with food clips from a local paper, and kept climbing until she reached the top at her dream publication. The good news for you is that Graves didn’t use any unicorn tears or fairy dust, just a lot of hustle.
Here, Elizabeth shares what it really takes to ascend the editorial ranks. Spoiler alert: It’s the same advice she’s followed throughout her own career.
Name: Elizabeth Graves
Company: Meredith Corporation
Title: Editor in Chief, Martha Stewart Living
Years with Company: 1 year, 1 month
Linkedin: Elizabeth Graves
Hometown: Milwaukee, Wisconsin
Current Location: New York, New York (West Village)
Education: St. Mary’s College of Maryland. Psychology major with a concentration in English
How did you first break into publishing?
When I realized it was what I really wanted to do, I basically begged a new newspaper in North Carolina, where I was living right after college, to let me write about local chefs and restaurants. They either took pity on me or loved that I’d basically do it for free—or both.
When I decided I wanted to get into magazines, I debated going back to school. But a dear family friend, who was successfully working for many magazines in New York, suggested trying to get a job as an editorial assistant—and to be open-minded about where I might land (at the time I had my heart set on Martha Stewart Living or Gourmet). I interviewed at Allure, and those little food clips from that tiny newspaper in North Carolina actually helped me get a job there.
I ended up loving it, and I learned more about good reporting and great writing from Editor in Chief Linda Wells and Executive Editor Tom Prince than I ever hoped for. I was fortunate to have had that experience basically right out of college, and to learn about different beats (in this case, beauty and fashion) is always a good thing, because it helps broaden your skill set. Since then, I’ve been lucky to work for so many strong editors. It’s important to seek out the people whom you can learn from, and who will inspire you to do your best.
What inspired you to go after an editor in chief position? And what was the most difficult aspect of achieving this level of success in your career?
When the opportunity arose to be editor in chief of Martha Stewart Weddings seven years ago, part of me was thrilled to be considered; the other part found the idea of that responsibility daunting. But sometimes you need to do the things that scare you a bit.
Six years later, when the opportunity came at Martha Stewart Living, I felt ready and excited. I’ve read Living since I was in college, and it was the magazine that got me interested in magazines as a career, so it felt full-circle and right. The weight of the responsibility, however, never goes away. You just have to learn not to get overwhelmed by the big picture and move forward every day.
What about your job gets you excited to jump out of bed every morning? And what makes you want to hide under the sheets?
I’m fortunate. I love my job, and I actually look forward to coming to work. I get excited to see what the editors at Living are going to cook up next—both literally and figuratively. However, there are so many more responsibilities on editors now, that are outside of the original job description—which used to just encompass creating great lineups, helping execute great stories and managing a team.
Today, you have to personally be out there more—on social media and doing press. I have learned to embrace that aspect much more than I did ten years ago, and it’s always good for the brand, but I’m a private person at heart. Some editors love the opportunity for press and limelight; I like the work and the opportunity to put others in the limelight.
What’s the biggest misconception about working in the publishing industry held by people on the outside?
Everything is something out of The Devil Wears Prada. Some parts of the job are fun and fancy, sure, but most of it is work. Fortunately, I like the work!
What’s the one piece of advice you would give to someone looking to break into magazine publishing?
The same that was given to me: Be patient and persistent, watch, read, study, learn, and be open-minded about where you get your start as good skills will translate to other brands. Above all, stay out of your own way.
If you are already in the business and hope to grow, figure out how you can help solve your boss’s problems, not just your own. If you read everything that your brand creates (not just your beat), and know its mission statement and what its competition is up to, you will be able to contribute on a different level, and you will be a valuable resource.
Are there certain off-the-job skills that young professionals can develop outside of work to help them in publishing?
As a writer or editor, you’re never really off the job. Ideas and inspiration are all around. Keep your eyes peeled as there are incredible human interest stories all around you—it pays to be curious. When you are out and about, maybe at a party or event, ask questions, and take an active (but not obnoxious!) role in learning about other people—where they are from, what they do and what they care about. You never know what you might find out and be able to write about or later use in a story. This helps develop good reporting skills too. Getting a great quote comes from having a rapport with someone, a good conversation really.
What’s your best advice for readers looking to land a mentor who can help them advance in their publishing careers? And does that mentor need to be in the publishing industry?
It certainly helps to be in the publishing industry if you want to learn the ropes in publishing—and even better if you are learning on the job. To find a mentor, my best advice is to look at whose work inspires you. If there is a magazine or site that you love and it really speaks to you, for example, it’s probably a good job fit for your sensibility. Then look to more senior staffers—take note of who has the best ideas in idea meetings and how he or she pitches them or covers and handles topics.
Also look to your peers. I’ve been lucky to have really talented friends in the trenches with me, and there are many I continue to work with today. Bounce ideas off of each other, get a casual read of your work or theirs before you take it to your boss or pitch it in a meeting. It makes your work better, plus it’s fun to have someone to riff off ideas with.
Publishing has a reputation for being fast-paced and time-consuming; how does Meredith support and encourage work-life balance among employees?
Meredith Corp really cares about the physical and mental health of its employees, and it may sound cliché but it’s true: a healthy and happy worker is also a productive one. There are great benefits and many incentives to stay on top of your health. We have yoga classes twice a week, and we are encouraged to be out of the office by 6—that, however, I’m rarely successful at.
I’ve worked for many publishing houses and they are all unique in their own way. Meredith is no different in the sense that we always strive for high quality content and delivering bottom line results; however, I’ve never felt like I was going to get run over in the process. There is a culture of kindness, support and encouragement to do your best and succeed.