| Don’t Write Alone
Shop Talk How Do You Edit a Literary Magazine?
A roundtable discussion with the editors of ‘Catapult’ and ‘Don’t Write Alone.’
Have you always wanted a career in publishing? Do you already have a career in publishing but are curious about how other companies function? Over the next few months, we’ll be sharing roundtable discussions with full-time Catapult staff members from various departments. This first conversation is a discussion had and organized by Catapult magazine’s full-time digital editorial staff: editor in chief Tajja Isen (TI), executive editor Matt Ortile (MO), associate editor Stella Cabot Wilson (SCW), assistant editor Allisen Hae Ji Lichtenstein (AHL), and editorial assistant Eliza Harris (EH).
We hope you enjoy learning more about how the digital editorial team functions at Catapult and Don’t Write Alone , how we all became editors and our recommendations for finding a role in publishing, and how we think about accessibility in the industry.
What has your professional journey been like and how did you arrive at editing? What would you recommend for folks interested in breaking into the industry and pursuing editing as a career?
MO: My path to editing has been relatively linear. I got my start by being edited by great editors like Arianna Rebolini, Isaac Fitzgerald, and Saeed Jones while I worked at BuzzFeed. Seeing how they framed the writer-editor relationship as a collaboration was huge in making me feel like I could do a decent job on the other side of the table. When I was looking for a new gig, I saw Nicole Chung tweeting about the managing editor spot at Catapult. In my interviews, I honed in on that collaborative aspect of editing—and it’s something I strive to apply always in the work we do here at the magazine.
TI: Like Matt, I also came to editing by way of writing. What initially drew me to the work was watching my pieces transform under the hands of talented editors. I’d spent all this time thinking about what my work was doing; the editors I had the luck of working with were peering into the future and articulating what my work could do. It was terrifying and empowering and humbling and I thought, Damn, I want to be able to do that.
One of those early editors was Nicole Chung, who was seeking new freelance contributing editors for Catapult and asked if I was interested in the position. I’m especially grateful to her for that because there are relatively few opportunities to break into editing, which is a question I’m frequently thinking about and want to help address. But in terms of what I’d recommend: Look for inroads to work at a publication in a different capacity (a submissions reader, a fact-checker—the latter is what I did) and be very vocal about your interest in gaining editing experience. Ask editors if you can shadow-edit pieces they’re working on. Some publications have editing-focused fellowships. Other institutions, both academic (like journalism departments) and independent (like Catapult!) offer courses geared toward specific types of editing, and on an à la carte basis too, so it’s not like you have to shell out for a whole degree. Also: Research people whose career trajectories you admire and ask them for an informational interview.
EH: I’m new to publishing and editing. My way into the industry reflects what Tajja said about finding positions at publications outside of editing. I got my foot in the door a few years back by doing social media and reading poetry submissions for DIAGRAM , an awesome digital journal of text and schematics. Through that position, I learned to articulate what I thought worked and needed work in a piece. Then last year, I got a fellowship at Catapult, where I was able to coedit my first story through reading submissions. I’ve been lucky enough to continue to edit pieces with my coworkers (including Stella and Allisen!) and learn from each of their editing styles. So I’d definitely second Tajja’s point and suggest reaching out to your favorite literary magazines to see if they’re looking for readers or people to help with social media/promotion.
If you’re looking for a literary job, Twitter can also be a great resource. I found both the DIAGRAM position and Catapult fellowship on Twitter. You can also bookmark Don’t Write Alone ’s Writing Job Roundup , where we post current media and publishing job openings.
If you’re in the process of applying to jobs, consider including additional skills on your application, even if a job doesn’t ask for them outright. Illustration wasn’t part of the Catapult fellowship when I applied, but I included a drawing in my application anyway. Right after I was hired, Nicole and Stella gave me the opportunity to create the Don’t Write Alone logo with art direction from Catapult’s creative director, Nicole Caputo! Since then, making editorial illustrations and designing graphics has become a significant part of my position.
AHL: I got my foot in the door into the lit mag world through a fellowship at Guernica . There I mainly did fact-checking, reading through the slush, formatting pieces, and writing their newsletter on occasion. While I was still doing my fellowship with them, I saw the fellowship at Catapult and applied. I was lucky enough to then be hired full-time. I started coediting pieces with Nicole Chung and Matt Ortile—learning from them both was really foundational. Their sensitives, keen eyes, and kindness in editing shaped the way I approach it as well. I would highly recommend—as Tajja and Eliza have shared—to look for jobs that might not be fully editorial: social media jobs, newsletter building, reading positions, and more. Check to see if your favorite literary magazines are hiring for interns, fellowships, jobs. And reach out to writers, editors, and anyone else who you’d be interested in learning more about!
SCW: I had several internships in the industry while I was in college, my first at a literary agency helping the agents read through their “slush” submissions. I realized pretty quickly that wasn’t the right corner of publishing for me, and the next position I took was actually with Guernica , though before Allisen worked there! I started as the publishing intern when Lisa Lucas was the publisher and worked as Lisa’s publishing assistant after my internship ended. Before Guernica and the literary agency, I had worked as an administrative assistant for work-study at NYU, and that administrative background really set me up well for my time at Guernica ; I found I was actually pretty good at organizational stuff, and those were definitely the skills that made Lisa want to keep me around.
I never got the chance to edit while I was at Guernica , though I did sit in on monthly editorial meetings and I found them to be really exciting. When I started working for Catapult (first as an intern and then as the assistant for the classes program, again making good use of my administrative background), Nicole Chung also welcomed me graciously to attend magazine meetings and try out editing, as she did for so many of my colleagues. I edited pieces for the magazine occasionally, until our previous publisher, Andy Hunter, had the idea to start Don’t Write Alone , at which time I began splitting my time between the classes program and editorial until joining the magazine team full-time in the fall of 2021.
A quick note I’d like to add is that I was introduced to Lisa Lucas by a mentor that I had made after applying to The Scholastic Art & Writing Awards in high school—and I went to NYU with Colin Drohan (now our writing programs director!), who was the writing programs assistant when I was hired as an intern at Catapult. I wouldn’t say that I was offered these positions because of my connections, but they definitely helped my application stand out! If you’re trying to break into the industry for the first time and feel like you have no connections, I always think that reaching out to people for informational interviews can be a good way to begin networking, as Tajja mentioned above.
Are you trying to break into the publishing industry for the first time?
What’s your specific position at Catapult? Can you give us a general overview of your position and/or describe what a standard workday and/or workweek look(s) like?
TI: As editor in chief, I’m responsible for overseeing the digital editorial content on the site, steering the magazine’s direction, and growing our digital audience. Day-to-day, that looks like green-lighting pitches from writers and other editors, collaborating on edits with writers, making sure the calendar is well-populated and that pieces are moving through production, running editorial meetings and attending other interdepartmental check-ins, and being available to support my team of editors. Taking a slightly longer view, I’m focused on the direction of the magazine—the types of writing we acquire and the ways we may want to expand those parameters, brainstorming special projects and initiatives, making sure the site is running smoothly, tracking and improving story performance, and ensuring that both our writers and editors always feel personally and professionally supported while putting out the strongest magazine possible.
MO: As executive editor, I do all I can to support Tajja do everything she just said! Also, I originally held the managing editor position and I still do a lot of that work now. That includes maintaining editorial calendars, budgets, contracts—all those logistical things that ensure our trains all run on time, so to speak. Additionally, I’m in charge of the art on the magazine side, sourcing photographs and overseeing illustrations produced by our fantastic in-house illustrator, Sirin Thada. At most other magazines, I think, a managing editor or an executive editor would not be as deeply involved in working with writers to publish essays in the magazine, so I’m glad that I get to do high-level work for Catapult while continuing to collaborate with writers old and new—to be in the weeds with everyone.
AHL: As the assistant editor at Catapult , I handle the social media for the magazine and also edit pieces for the magazine as well. I help collaborate with writers to help grow their craft and have spearheaded new initiatives at the magazine like the poetry series at Catapult ! I also help write the newsletter for the magazine and help read through submissions and manage our readers as well.
SCW: I’m an associate editor for both Catapult and Don’t Write Alone . Outside of many of the job responsibilities that my colleagues have expanded upon (editing, working with writers, social media, etc.), I also handle the budget for Don’t Write Alone , manage our calendar, run the Don’t Write Alone meetings, and consider our long-term goals, how to reach them, and our team’s vision for the page.
EH: I am an editorial assistant for Don’t Write Alone . With Stella, I handle social media as well as finding and designing images to accompany the pieces we publish. Depending on the day, I’ll also be editing, writing a resource roundup, reading submissions, working on an interview, or drawing an editorial illustration.
What’s something about the industry (or your position) that you wish were more transparent and/or better understood by those outside of it?
MO: I’ve had writers forget that editors are humans too. We have our own workloads and personal lives and deadlines and job responsibilities and anxieties about art-making, just like other writers and creative people. I think this comes from the expectation that the relationship between writer and editor is purely transactional. There’s that aspect to it, certainly, but I’ve found that the best collaborations have been between writers and editors who see each other as more than just a byline or a check or a quota.
TI: I feel like, as an industry, we’re still slouching toward clarity around pitching and submissions guidelines. I try to be as clear as possible—I put together a guide to pitching me specifically that outlines what I’m looking for and when I’m acquiring, and I’m putting together a site-wide pitch guide for the magazine to communicate the same. (I’m lucky to work with a group of people to whom transparency and access are also important.) This lack of across-the-board clarity throughout the publishing industry probably gives off the impression that outlets are not interested in new writers and don’t welcome work—and some publications, to be fair, probably do want to give off this impression. But please know that editors, in general, want (and in fact sometimes need ) to publish your work—and, as a trade-off, we will endeavor to be clear about our expectations, availability, and interest.
What part of your role do you find most rewarding? What about most challenging?
MO: I love it when a writer completely bowls me over with exceptional writing—writing with confidence, specificity of vision and audience, and style. Style! It’s hard to find writers with style. Style isn’t just about using ten-dollar SAT words; it’s about having a personal command of language without sacrificing clarity. I love learning from writers when I get work like that; “oh you can do that with words? Amazing!”
TI: The most rewarding part of my job is split between the inherent rewards of editing—watching a writer articulate an idea or feeling that hasn’t been expressed in quite that way before—and, at the next stage, helping a piece find its readers. I’m always thrilled when people connect with the material and it starts a conversation. In terms of the challenging aspects, I don’t just want the magazine to be a reflection of my preferences and interests—that won’t be an interesting magazine to anyone but me. At the same time, I do have a particular vision for the kind of publication I’d like us to be. So it’s really about finding that balance.
We love learning from writers.
AHL: There is something really special about getting to work with writers shaping their work and also just getting to admire all their work! It’s always so lovely to hear when writers have people reach out to them about a piece we’ve worked on together—knowing that the story exists in the world because we could give it a home here at Catapult.
When you edit writers, do you have a one-size fits all approach, or do you tailor your editing style to collaborate with different writers (or genres)?
MO: For the first pass, I tend to edit aggressively across the board, giving direction for structural changes, language refinement, mechanical line edits, etc., all at once. (I also explain all my rationale, if that’s any consolation.) It can be pretty overwhelming if there are lots of notes, and how a writer responds to that tells me how to conduct the second and third passes, whether I should ease up or if I have to apply more—let’s say—loving rigor to the copy. That’s with nonfiction, at least. With fiction, I’m not sure if I’ve codified any one editing approach yet.
TI: That’s really interesting, Matt, and definitely the way I find myself editing drafts that come in with really good bones—if I feel like I can get them most of the way there with one pass, then yeah, I’ll collapse structure and line into one set of notes. (This is not to say that I only do this when essays are “good”!) Generally, though, I try to hold myself back from working on the line in a first draft. I’ll focus on structure, argumentation. As a thinker, I’m very big-picture; especially with essays, I’m often less interested in what happened than what it means, the specific and esoteric analysis a writer brings to it. Sometimes, on a first read, I’ll try not to touch things on the line at all and just give the writer a series of comments or questions and summarize it all in a brief letter. I usually end up going three passes: one that’s primarily developmental, one more focused on line edits and any lingering suggestions for tightening the thesis/analysis, and one final one to clean up mechanical things. Which is a roundabout way of saying I tailor my edits based on what I feel the draft needs.
SCW: My process for every draft is different, though I do think I have some consistency in my methods and the way that I approach each piece. Like Tajja, I think the first thing that I look for in a draft is whether or not something needs to change structurally. Should these paragraphs get swapped? Are we missing anything at the heart of the essay and does the conclusion feel strong? I try to suggest these changes first because they are the biggest—the ones that feel essential for moving forward with the piece and might also be the most work for the writer, especially if I’m asking them to add anything new.
As Matt noted, I can learn a lot from how the writer responds to those first edits, especially if they are structural changes. I always make sure to let my authors know that my changes are suggestions: If they don’t like my ideas, we can work together to figure out a different solution. Most of the time we are on the same page and can move easily into the next round, but if, after that first pass, they are disagreeing with many or most of my changes, I have to sit down and approach the draft from a new angle. What have I learned about the author’s vision of the piece from how they disagreed with me? What kind of possibilities can I explore that feel true to that vision while still addressing the moments that need to be strengthened?
What’s the number one thing you want writers to consider when they are submitting to Catapult (or submitting more generally)? Is there a rhyme or reason to the pieces that you select for publication, whether they arrive via pitch or via Submittable?
MO: Consider reading the magazine before pitching and submitting! We often get pitched by writers who make it very obvious in their email that they haven’t read a single essay on the site or read any of our pitch guides. The most successful Catapult writers are the ones who, when they pitch, have already considered how their work stands in conversation with other pieces already in the magazine and what makes their essay or story different.
TI: Yes, please do read the magazine, and if you have an opportunity to read examples cited by a specific editor, you should absolutely take it. Tailor your pitch to one person. As to what I’m drawn to, if personal essay is an equation, I’m much more drawn to the second half. I want to see you working through questions, drawing connections, analyzing the significance of an experience, contextualizing it in culture and the world.
What are you doing as an organization/company to create equity in publishing spaces? What could you be doing better and/or what are your plans for the future?
TI: I believe that part of an editor’s job is to find and cultivate new voices. It’s not just about finding the content but nurturing the people. I wouldn’t be here if others hadn’t done that for me, and I very much try to make it a part of my practice—through making our submissions process more accessible, by making sure our writers have a positive editorial experience, by championing work from people the publishing ecosystem has largely marginalized. Working at Catapult, I’ve also tried to deepen the work I do in helping demystify other parts of publishing. I want to give my writers the tools to have the kind of creative career they want; sometimes, that means making sure their journey doesn’t end with the one essay we happen to work on together (unless they want it to). This industry is a weird, twisting tunnel. If I can help illuminate even the next two or three steps forward, then I will make sure to. In the future, as I mentioned above, I’m interested in actively creating more opportunities for more people to get experience in editorial-side work, especially people from groups who’ve traditionally been shut out of the publishing industry.
SCW: Although I still feel like we have a long way to go—a lot more resources to add, many more writers to learn from—I do think of Don’t Write Alone as a project whose main purpose is to demystify the publishing industry, which I believe is an essential component to making the publishing process more equitable. We’re giving free access to writing prompts and craft that people might not know where to find outside of academic institutions, as well as sharing resources on filing taxes, becoming a freelancer, breaking down contractual language—the list goes on. I also think it’s really important (and exciting!) that we’re sharing work from “literary” writers, from “genre” writers. We’re talking about the writing life of an MFA student and what a writing life looks like for someone who never went to school for writing. We’re sharing information from those inside the publishing industry like agents, editors, and business owners for those who are just beginning their writing career. By collecting this mass of knowledge and understanding in one space, we can make the industry more accessible for every kind of writer. If you’ve been searching for a resource or a discussion on a particular topic that you haven’t been able to find anywhere else, make sure to fill out this Google form to let us know!