If you’re reading this blog, you probably have already decided that you want to become an editor, and you have your own reasons for this ridiculous life decision. So as a fellow editor who basically stumbled into the profession out of a love of books before truly learning about the profession, here are some things you really shouldn’t say at an interview if you don’t want to look like an amateur (note, most of these statements are things I’ve said myself in the past, so any mocking tone is mainly directed inward):
1. Interviewer: Why did you decide to interview for the position/become an editor?
“I grew up reading books and just loved them so much that—”
Let me stop you there. First off, no one in their right mind would become an editor if they didn’t love books. Out of all publishing jobs out there, the editorial assistant is the most competitive (I don’t have statistics for this, but word of mouth from several publishing professionals I’ve met has made this abundantly clear) and does not pay that well. So saying you love books lets them know you will fit in with the rest socially, but it doesn’t show your qualifications or set you apart from other interviewees. More importantly, a lot of positions don’t actually have you doing much reading. You won’t convince them that you deserve a position involving editing, administrative work, and so forth through your love of reading.
If you are interviewing for a genre imprint of a house or a specialized publisher, it does make sense to praise their backlist titles or author list—describe how much you rely on cookbooks every day before interviewing with Harvard Common Press, or describe your love of N.K. Jemisen and Mira Grant before going after a job with Orbit. But that only explains why you want to work for them, not why you want to be an editor in general. The distinction is important, and you’ll want to cover both topics if you can.
2. Why do you want to intern at this YA romance/poetry/cookbook imprint?
“Well, I don’t really know anything about YA romance, but I want to work here because HarperCollins is such a great publisher…”
Even if an internship doesn’t have you working with actual content, editors will prefer someone who will bring enthusiasm for the subject matter. To get through the most tedious chores like compiling Excel spreadsheets and updating Filemaker databases, you need patience and enthusiasm for your work—the idea that this work will help generate books you would enjoy reading yourself. While you definitely shouldn’t outright lie about loving literary nonfiction or romance, you might consider not applying in the first place if an editor will sense your apathy or lack of respect for the genre.
3. What’s your goal for this internship?
Internships are a great opportunity to make contacts, gather editorial experience, build your resume, and potentially explore other departments besides editorial. And some publishers like Pearson do sometimes have their interns directly transition into editorial assistant positions. But most publishing houses see an internship as a quid pro quo rather than recruitment: interns get academic credit and experience, the house gets free labor from a smart college student. Being a good intern for three months does not entitle you to an automatic position, and this response may convince them that you aren’t willing to put in time on menial tasks, or that you might even be overqualified for the position.
4. What is your greatest accomplishment to date?
“I had a story published in X literary magazine”
I gave this response while interviewing for a literary magazine internship, and while I ended up getting the position I knew even then this was the wrong answer. Marketing and social media interns do more actual writing than editorial interns, who often focus on administrative/clerical/customer service duties. Your accomplishment doesn’t have to be editorial, but it should show qualities that the job listing specifies, such as leadership, organization, time management, etc. Plus, not all publications are created equal. Unless your story was published in a mag like Ploughshares or Tin House, editors at a literary magazine will look down on your accomplishment more than most.
5. Describe a moment when you were a leader/overcame an obstacle/etc.
“Is it all right if it has nothing to do with editorial work?”
Don’t be self-conscious about describing your work as an English tutor, B&N bookseller, or McDonalds cashier when it comes to describing your best qualities. Jump straight into the best example that shows you in a good light regardless of the circumstances, and have a few anecdotes, preferably funny or memorable ones, that show you to be a strong, professional person. I spent too much time being self-conscious about my lack of editorial experience when I applied for my first one, and asking this question merely called attention to that fact.
Hopefully this will help awkward people like me to avoid the common pitfalls in this type of interview. I can do another post about typical interview questions or how to prepare before an interview if anyone finds this to be helpful.
Thanks for reading!