Q&A with Ashley Leath, copy editor at Southern Living

Ashley Leath is a copy editor at Southern Living magazine. She has also worked as a freelance editor on the topics of food and travel. In this interview, conducted by email, Leath talks about her job at Southern Living, including editing recipes, and the magazine’s outlook in the digital era.

Q. Describe your job. What do you do on a typical day?

A. A typical day involves a combination of Travel and Food stories. I began my career in Southern Living’s Food department as a recipe editor, so a lot of my experience involves recipe-related copy editing. When I moved to the Copy Desk in 2011, I took over the Travel department’s copy editing as well. This means that my day is spent balancing the needs of both departments’ copy.

For my Travel stories, I’ll begin the day by making fact-checking calls, which means that I reach out to contacts as varied as park rangers, interior designers and PR reps. We make a concerted effort to maintain the factual accuracy of our stories, so this is an important step in the editorial process, and the bulk of this responsibility falls on the Copy Desk.

In addition to fact-checking stories, I’ll edit the text and input any changes into the copy on the network (we use InCopy to manage our stories). It’s a simple process — but multiply it by 15 stories per issue with anywhere from 1 to 50 sources to check per story, and you’ve got a lot to balance while maintaining accuracy.

Food stories are an entirely different animal. Our recipes are developed in-house by our Test Kitchen, and each one goes through a complicated testing phase before it reaches my desk. When a story is ready for copy editing, a manila folder will find its way to me, and that means that the recipes inside it have passed the Food department’s review and are ready for my read.

We have a strict food style that is outlined in a 200-page stylebook, and I use this as my guide when I edit the recipes. I begin by doing a top read of all the recipes in a story (on average, four to six of various lengths). Then I examine the testing notes for each recipe. This means I read handwritten notes from each stage of testing (a minimum of two to three). I’m looking for discrepancies: Did the amount of flour stay the same from one test to the next? The lemon zest was increased in test two but not updated on the latest version of the recipe. Should it have been?

These are easy questions in and of themselves, but recipes are complicated endeavors with important things at stake. One wrong word, and you’ve ruined Christmas dinner (or worse, burned down a kitchen). If I find a discrepancy, I work with the Test Kitchen to get it resolved. At the end of this process, I once again enter my edits into the story copy on the network.

In between all of this reading and editing, I have the luck of attending a taste testing each day with the Food department. A lunchtime break for my eyes is very welcomed, and the food isn’t too shabby either.

Q. What are some challenges of editing for the magazine? Rewards?

A. Time is a copy editor’s worst enemy (perhaps right next to a spell-checker). We are not a weekly publication, but when we head into production, stories can move through the pipeline swiftly.

You may need a full day to get a story into perfect shape, but because of that looming deadline, you’ll only have a few hours. You have to learn to be smart with your time, balance multiple deadlines, and still produce the top-notch work that is expected of you.

As for rewards, there are many. First, my co-workers. You spend more time with the people you work with than you do with your family (especially during production), so you need to really like your co-workers. Southern Living has a great staff, if I do say so myself.

Also, for someone who loves to eat, you can’t beat a slice of fresh-from-the-oven apple-carrot cake (destined to grace the magazine’s cover) on a random Tuesday afternoon. I leave work every day with a very happy stomach (and sometimes snag leftovers for my husband too).

Q. Southern Living has an internship program for copy editors. What does the magazine look for when selecting interns?

A. First, an error-free resume and cover letter. This is your first chance to introduce yourself to us, so make sure each of these items is without error.

Next, enthusiasm! We want you to be excited about working with us and helping with our work. Copy editing is meticulous, but rewarding. It will be much more fun for all involved if you enjoy it as much as we do.

Lastly, experience. This doesn’t have to be another internship necessarily, but we do look for what you’ve been involved in that has exposed you to the type of work you’d do for us: fact-checking, copy editing, researching.

Be involved on campus with organizations that will give you exposure to this (The Daily Tar Heel, Blue & White, etc.), and you’ll be able to tout these skills on your resume. It will also help you find and nurture references, which we check with before hiring anyone.

Q. Much of the news media, including magazines, are going digital. What do you see as Southern Living’s place in the changing landscape of news?

A. This is a complicated time for magazines. We’re trying to find our niche in this new digital landscape, and it’s a quickly moving beast.

Southern Living has made huge strides in this arena in the past few years. We’ve carved out market share on our website and in social media. Did you know you can follow us on Instagram and get behind-the-scenes pictures of our taste testings?

We’ve done this by harnessing our relationship with our readers. They feel an ownership of the magazine that is unique to SL.

We have to carry that bond to all platforms that the brand explores — web, video, tablet and more — and be able to maintain our core message successfully. We have to keep our readers’ trust and give them what they expect from us where they expect it, and that means providing content on more than just paper.

We’re striving to continue what we’ve done best all these years — represent Southern culture and tout the wonderful people of our region — on digital platforms that can reach a wider audience than ever before.