Q&A with Marisa DiNovis, editorial assistant at Alfred A. Knopf Books for Young Readers

Marisa DiNovis is an editorial assistant at Alfred A. Knopf Books for Young Readers. She is a 2015 graduate of UNC-Chapel Hill and a winner of a scholarship from the American Copy Editors Society. In this interview, conducted by email, DiNovis discusses her job, her path to book publishing and her reading recommendations.

Q. Describe your job. What is your typical day like?

A. Every day in publishing is different — it doesn’t have the same daily or weekly rhythm as a newsroom or magazine office environment. My job title is Editorial Assistant at Alfred A. Knopf Books for Young Readers, a division of Penguin Random House. Most editorial assistants in book publishing report to either the publisher of an imprint or an editor or two, and work on a range of tasks from developmental editing a manuscript to writing jacket copy and from drafting profit and loss statements to submitting copyright notices.

I report to our publisher/editorial director, and I also provide editorial support to executive and mid-level editors. Our group consists of 12 wonderful editors (who have worked on books like “The Phantom Tollbooth” and “The Golden Compass”), and I interact with our design team, managing editor, copy editor and marketing and publicity teams on a daily basis.

At Knopf BFYR, we publish books for all ages, including board books, picture books, chapter books and middle grade and young adult novels. One of the best parts of starting my career at Random House is that even entry-level editors are allowed to acquire. So in addition to backing up other editors on their books, I also interact with agents and authors as I look to build my own list at Knopf.

On a given day, I might be working on any number of projects. I always spend time reading. Sometimes it’s a manuscript on submission from a literary agent. Occasionally, it’s an interesting story I find in the slush pile (hard-copy submissions from unagented writers), and often it’s a sophomore manuscript from an existing Knopf author for which I’m supporting the editor.

I write a fair amount each day as well, which might take the form of a decline note, an editorial letter for an author whose manuscript we’ve bought or suggestions for a submission that isn’t quite ready but I’d be willing to evaluate again after revision.

As an assistant, I spend part of my work day on a few administrative tasks, like taking my boss’s messages, scheduling conference rooms and ordering in books from our warehouse — but unless you work as an administrative assistant, these tasks do not monopolize your time. You might also find me structure-tagging a manuscript with notes for design and production, attending a meeting to brainstorm potential illustrators for a picture book manuscript or aggregating Web copy for fall 2016 books to send to our copy editor.

And every so often my day might include an author visit with R.J. Palacio or Markus Zusak!

Q. You were a journalism major at UNC-Chapel Hill. How did that area of study help you move into your career, and what did you have to learn on your own?

A. That’s correct. I was an editing and graphic design student within the journalism major, and I also majored in English. The marriage of those two areas of study provided me with an excellent framework for my field.

In journalism, the departmental focus on practical skills and professional development was invaluable. It’s difficult to teach networking, but the journalism school helped me navigate where to begin.

On the editing and design track, and specifically in my editing classes, I learned how editing and design teams interact and work together—an insight that has been very helpful every day I’ve interned and worked in publishing. I also use my copy-editing skills on a daily basis. Whether I’m querying an author, doing a cold proofread with a manuscript or preparing a document for the production team, I’m thinking about the principles of copy editing.

The English major taught me how to speak eloquently about literature. Without that, I couldn’t perform successfully in my job. I usually read anywhere from five to a dozen manuscripts and books in a given week. I would argue that studying English is just about the best training there is for the reading marathon that is a publishing career.

On my own, I needed to learn what hiring managers in publishing look for in an entry-level applicant. Fortunately, there are a lot of resources out there — trade publications like Publishers Weekly and Poets & Writers magazine as well as the Young to Publishing Group, and, of course, industry professionals. Book publishing is relatively small, so it was important to learn who’s who. LinkedIn and Twitter helped with that, as most publisher websites don’t list personnel.

Given the size of the industry, I learned networking is vital to getting a job. In my first informational interview, I was told that editorial jobs receive more applications than jobs for any other department in publishing, thus making them the most competitive. It was essential to develop a sense of the different houses, their respective mission statements and their successful books, in order to align myself with the divisions that matched my goals.

But perhaps the most important thing that school didn’t teach me was my personal literary tastes. As an aspiring editor, one aspect hiring managers look for in a candidate is someone who knows what he or she likes — they want an assistant equipped to make informed observations and confident decisions when weighing the strengths and weaknesses of a submission.

Q. Book editing sounds like a good gig. What advice do you have for students pursuing internships and jobs in this field?

A. I am so obviously biased, but every day working in books — especially books for young readers —is incredible. I can’t think of a single person I work with who wouldn’t tell you they are in their dream job.

My best piece of advice is this: intern, intern, intern. I say it three times for a reason. Try to do at least a few internships during college. Full disclosure: I can’t count on my hands the number of in-office and remote internships, freelance jobs and related on-campus publications I worked at in order to land my job.

At UNC, students are very lucky in that the Triangle area is a book publishing microcosm—you have Oxford University Press, UNC Press, Duke University Press, Algonquin Books, Light Messages Publishing, Technical Information Publishing Services, Lulu and others. Take advantage of the proximity during the school year. I know I did, and the connections I made there are a part of what helped me get my job.

I mentioned this earlier, but learn the industry. Publishing is almost entirely based in New York, which can present financial obstacles for summer internships. Remember that university career services often offer grants for students doing unpaid summer internships. Many of the larger houses pay a modest rate for summer interns, which is helpful, but these internships are highly competitive. Don’t forget about the smaller companies that can help you get your foot in the door—oftentimes it’s at the smaller houses or agencies (or even a book-related start-up company) where you get more hands-on experience.

Informational interviews are also key. Find the editors, publicists or marketing assistants who do jobs you one day hope to have. If it’s a high-level employee, try to find his or her assistant. Then reach out to that person. Ask for a short phone interview, question-and-answer by email or an in-person meeting if you’re visiting New York. One of the best pieces of advice I was given was to find people who had been in the industry for five years or less, and ask them how they got their job and what prepared them for it.

If you’re excited about books, show it. On social media, in person. It’s easy to be cynical about the economic climate in the publishing and news industries. It’s less easy to show that you’re invested and eager to learn regardless. When I interviewed for this job, my now-coworker told me he thought I was more passionate about children’s books than he is, and I really do believe that was taken into consideration when the hiring decision was made.

Strive to be overqualified — there’s really no such thing.

Q. Editing is fun. So is reading. What book(s) are you reading now, and what recommendations do you have?

A. I bet you thought this would be a short concluding answer! Well, I’m reading a number of books and manuscripts across a many different formats.

I’m just finishing up a submission that is a circus-freakshow retelling of “Hamlet.” I am also digging into a modern counterpart to “The Little Prince,” which I found in the slush pile. I’m also re-reading “His Dark Materials” by Philip Pullman for a large-scale project to brainstorm new cover designs for future editions.

For my book club, I’m reading an advanced reader’s copy of “Julia Vanishes,” the first installment of a debut fantasy trilogy by Catherine Egan. But the reading project I’m most excited about is a first draft manuscript by a bestselling Knopf author — unfortunately, I can’t say more about this as it isn’t released for public knowledge yet. And last, I always try to be reading one non-work-related book for fun, and right now that’s “Full Cicada Moon” by Marilyn Hilton, a middle grade novel in verse.

For sheer thrill and excitement, the book I can’t stop recommending this season, for readers of any age, is “Illuminae” by Amie Kaufman and Jay Kristoff. Think “The Hunger Games” meets “Star Wars,” told through a dossier of uncovered files with a healthy dose of a self-destructing artificial intelligence. I haven’t had as much fun reading a book as I did with this in years.

In a lot of ways, I’m as much interested in design as I am in literature, so I love reading picture books and graphic novels. Neil Gaiman recently published an illustrated version of his YA short story “The Sleeper and the Spindle” — it’s an enchanting read made even more interesting by format. “Honor Girl” by Maggie Thrash and “Nimona” by Noelle Stevenson were my two favorite graphic novels of the year, an LGBTQ-inclusive YA memoir and a middle grade fantasy respectively.

And then there’s my self-proclaimed soapbox book, “Anna and the Swallow Man” by Gavriel Savit, a debut that comes out at the end of January. This is a World War II novel with magical realism perfect for readers who loved “The Book Thief” — and the most captivating and merit-worthy piece of literature I’ve read in 2015.

A revised course on alternative story forms

In 2008, I worked with Poynter’s NewsU to create a free course on alternative story forms. Now, we’ve worked together again, this time on a new version of that course. Thanks to Vicki Krueger and Vanessa Goodrum at NewsU for making that possible.

A lot has changed since 2008:

  • Digital news organizations have increased their use of alt story forms such as lists, games and FAQs. Even The New York Times is getting in on the act.
  • People are using tablets such as the iPad to read online, and the old course’s Flash-based presentation didn’t work in that setting.
  • Some of the examples of alternative story forms in the course became stale in design and content.

The revised course has new examples and updated exercises. It has a “digital first” focus.

The course’s goal is the same — to select and create the story form that best matches the news and information you want to convey to your readers. As before, the course is free and self-directed. I hope that you find it useful.

Why I still teach editing

“If newspapers are laying off so many copy editors, why do you still teach editing?”

It’s a fair question that I hear on occasion. It is true that many newspapers have downsized or even dismantled their copy desks. In North Carolina, half of the state’s biggest newspapers do not have copy editors and page designers in their newsrooms. Those jobs have gone to “editing hubs” in other cities and states.

Yet I still teach editing because those skills are still a part of journalism — even if the job title “copy editor” is endangered. Story text still needs to be edited and links added. Headlines and captions still need to be written. Facts need checking.

The journalism jobs that are out there require people to have those skills and more. The era of specialization is over.

Here’s an example: Michael Lananna is an editor and writer at Baseball America. His primary task is reporting on college baseball. But Lananna is also using editing skills that he learned and practiced as a student journalist:

Our in-office editorial staff is a relatively small group, so everyone gets their hands dirty when it comes to editing. For the pages you’re assigned, you’re responsible for copy-fitting and writing headlines, subheads, captions and any other required maintenance. And when you’re done with the page, you print it out and hand it off to someone else in the office to proof.

We have our own style guide, so we edit for style as well as content and grammar. Headlines, for the most part, are written in a newspaper style — present tense with a subject and a verb. Our online headlines often differ at least somewhat from those in print for SEO purposes.

As an instructor, I want to serve students on similar career paths. I am aware that few of my students will become full-time copy editors at news organizations. But as long as editing skills are part of their jobs, I’ll keep teaching them.

Q&A with Nick Niedzwiadek, Dow Jones News Fund editing intern

Nick Niedzwiadek is a student at UNC-Chapel Hill who is a double major in journalism and political science. He has been a reporter and editor at The Daily Tar Heel. In the summer of 2015, Niedzwiadek was a Dow Jones News Fund editing intern, working at The Houston Chronicle. In this interview, conducted by email, he discusses his internship.

Q. Describe your internship experience. What was your typical workday like?

A. Typically I worked Tuesday-Saturday from 3-11 in the afternoon. The first hour was usually the slowest and was mostly spent waiting for the news director to decide what should get pulled off the wire and start planning out the pages for tomorrow’s newspaper. The first things that I would work on was usually the opinion page, and then wire stories about the Middle East and Asia because those were usually in well before the local stories would trickle in.

My internship covered most of the typical copy-editing basics: trim for length, write headlines, ensure AP style. I did some page design work, but the Houston Chronicle was in the process of revamping a lot of its workflow so the design team ended up taking over much of the design work that had typically been done by the copy desk.

The biggest change I saw was the push for the copy desk to add more online components to its responsibilities. There were training sessions to get the copy desk and editors how to work with HTML code and the WCM, which most people who have used WordPress would pick up very easily but was challenging for some of the longtime copy editors.

I also often moderated the comments section on stories on the free site, Chron.com (Houstonchronicle.com was reserved for subscribers), which I enjoyed but most of the regular people found very depressing, especially since it was a busy summer in Houston because of Sandra Bland’s death, the Supreme Court decisions, Jade Helm and the 2016 presidential race.

I would bounce between basically every section except features, which are done earlier in the day, but I would mostly only work on the sports section during weekends when the regular sports copy ranks were thin.

Q. What was the biggest challenge of the internship, and what was the greatest reward?

A. This was my first real experience being a copy editor and maintaining that attention to detail. I’ve been a reporter or an assistant desk editor in the past, and you touch on many of the same responsibilities, but there is always a backstop.

Being that last line line, especially at a major newspaper like the Chronicle where no one is there to hold your hand, was a constant challenge. You can get so caught up in writing a good headline in a tight space that you forget to properly format the photo caption and you have to go back into the story to fix it when you need to be moving on to another story in the rim.

A second challenge was that unlike The Daily Tar Heel where we CQ names and facts as much as possible, the Chronicle largely entrusted its reporters to be accurate and the copy editor mostly relied on past stories and Google to catch any inconsistencies. For the most part it works fine, but when a question does pop up, it can take a while to work its way back to a reporter to clarify, particularly later in the workday when reporters may have already gone home for the night.

Having said that, catching a significant error and saving both the reporter and the newspaper from an embarrassing correction is one of the moments that I always felt pride in. That and writing a strong headline package that made its way past the page-proofing stage and makes it out to print.

Q. What advice would you give to students considering applying for a Dow Jones News Fund internship?

A. Anyone considering considering the DJNF should make sure they have the previous internship experience that it requires because they are very strict about their application criteria.

Second, they should not take the application test lightly. Studying usage situations is very important, not just simple ones like its/it’s or there/they’re/their but the more obscure ones like canvas/canvass or Canada goose/Canadian goose. The test I took was the first one to start integrating online questions, so be sure to be comfortable with basic terms like SEO, WCM, entry-level HTML tags and some of the differences between editing for print and online.

Besides the great newspapers like the Chronicle, L.A. Times, Sacramento Bee and any number of great newspapers people from my workshop session at the University of Texas at Austin went to, the workshops offer a great opportunity to meet people from across the country who are interested in many of the same things you are and are facing the same challenges. In my workshop, we formed a pretty close sub-group on the first day and had a lot of fun around Austin. Once we went off to our various internships, we had a group chat and kept in touch throughout the summer and now the fall. Hearing about other people’s internship mishaps or successful job interviews can make the internship a lot less isolating, especially if you are like me and go to a city so far away from where you grew up or know people.

Q. Congratulations on completing the internship. What’s next for you?

A. I’m graduating in December, so I’m mostly focused on putting together my writing portfolio and resumé, and lining up applications for jobs (I’m from upstate New York, and I plan on moving to New York City after graduation so I’m focusing on the tri-state region).

In the meantime, I am finishing up the final few classes I need to graduate and then continuing to work at the DTH as a senior writer on the Investigations team as well as writing for the State & National desk. I’m mostly working on long-term projects for the I-team as well as blog posts and my personal reporting whims for the State & National desk.

I’m open to any number of jobs in journalism — except being a PR flak. Just the thought of writing a press release or saying the words “no comment” chips away at my soul, one piece at a time.

Skimming the news

Two years ago, I wrote about how journalism students at UNC-Chapel Hill got their news. It’s a question that I always ask on the first day of class. In 2013, most mentioned newspapers — in digital form, not in print.

This week, I asked the same question to my three classes. There were still many responses that mentioned newspapers: The New York Times, The News & Observer and The Daily Tar Heel. Again, the focus is on digital, but the DTH remains popular in print, perhaps because it is free and readily available across campus, and has a crossword puzzle.

A few students say they turn to magazines, including Garden & Gun. Others like ESPN.com and National Public Radio. Local TV news and Reddit each got one mention.

But one new name stuck out from two years ago: The Skimm. Out of about 45 students total, two dozen receive this daily newsletter, delivered each morning by email. These Skimm readers said they like its breezy tone and straightforward approach to current events as well as its smart use of links. It’s easy to skim.

The Skimm started three years ago, and its editors say it now has 1.5 million subscribers, a number most newspapers and magazines would envy. Seeing that success, news organizations from BuzzFeed to The Daily Tar Heel have launched email newsletters. So I’ve added newsletter curation as an assignment (PDF) in my Advanced Editing course.

It will be interesting to see how college students get their news two years from now. Will conversational newsletters that make jokes about Vladimir Putin and embed GIFs still be popular, or will something else take their place? I’ll let you know.

Q&A with Paige Ladisic, editor-in-chief of The Daily Tar Heel

The Daily Tar Heel staff works in this building in Chapel Hill. The DTH is an independent, student-run publication.
The Daily Tar Heel staff works in this building on Rosemary Street in Chapel Hill. The DTH is an independent, student-run publication. (Photo by Sarah Brown)

Paige Ladisic is editor-in-chief of The Daily Tar Heel, the student newspaper at UNC-Chapel Hill. She previously served as online managing editor, summer editor and staff writer at the DTH. In this interview, conducted by email, Ladisic outlines her plans for the paper for the 2015-16 academic year.

Q. Describe your job. What does the editor-in-chief do on a typical day?

A. The great thing about being the editor-in-chief, from what I’ve witnessed, is that the job changes a little bit every day. You’re following the same process maybe, but every day, it’s a new problem to solve or a new success to celebrate. I haven’t had a full day as editor-in-chief yet during daily production, so I don’t know exactly what my days will look like, but I envision something like this:

I have 9:30 a.m. classes every day, Monday-Thursday, so I’m up early, checking my phone and figuring out what the day is going to look like. You don’t know when or how news is going to break, so all DTH editors have to stay plugged in throughout the day just in case. I have class in the early afternoon, and I leave some short break periods between class for working on homework, answering emails or messages and looking at what we’ve got planned for the paper the next day.

At 3:30 p.m., all of my editors and most of my management team collect in our conference room for budget. We’ll plan both the print product and the digital product for the day after looking at the day’s analytics on Chartbeat, and we’ll get a sense of what visuals and digital extras we have to work on that night as well. We’ll also highlight what stories we think should be included in DTH At A Glance, our new daily newsletter.

Then from there, we hit the ground running, producing the paper and putting the website together. I read almost every story that comes through each night, and whatever I don’t read is read by Managing Editor Mary Tyler March. Our deadline is 12:30 a.m. each night, so that’s what we do — read, write headlines, check photos and graphics and watch the clock until the print product is sent off.

Q. You have suggested that the DTH take a “digital first” approach to news. How do you see that unfolding?

A. The DTH has to be digital first to survive. The first step to that was hire a staff that is passionate about thinking digitally. I have a great online managing editor, Kelsey Weekman, to head the team, and I found a creative social media manager, Danny Nett, and a bright digital production assistant, Brielle Kronstedt, to work with her. Without people who care about digital first, there is no digital first.

The second step is to start early. Returning staffers got an email from me early in the summer about changes to their workflow. At least one online-only component, be it a graphic, timeline or a few embedded elements, will be required when a story is pitched by a writer. We’ll add more components as we brainstorm. Stories that aren’t always successful digitally will be enhanced with links, explainer videos and graphics to improve reader engagement.

Our new staffers will learn about digital thinking in our orientation session in September, before they even have their first assignment. We want to start as fresh as we can this year, so there’s no time to think about anything but digital first.

Q.You’re a student at UNC-Chapel Hill but also a watchdog on its actions. How do you balance those roles?

A. I see myself as The Daily Tar Heel editor-in-chief first and a UNC student second. That means a lot of things — my grades and my deep love for UNC basketball, for example — come after my responsibility to The Daily Tar Heel and the community we serve.

In our editors retreat this past weekend, an editor eloquently said our goal should be to always “to hold power accountable and account for those without power.” We will always ask the bigger questions and hold our university and our student leaders accountable. We will always push for the access we should have at a public university, and we will identify when our university is not living up to the expectations students have for it. We will identify those in our community who go unheard, and we will give them a voice.

There are times when being a student at UNC is far less important to me than being the editor of The Daily Tar Heel. I think many of my editors feel the same way.

Q. Some college newspapers have reduced how often they publish in print. Do you see a day when the DTH isn’t “daily” with ink on paper?

A. No, I don’t. We’re fighting hard every day to fill the print paper with the best content we can, and I know we won’t give it up easily. In 2016, we’ll be ensuring the DTH is picked up by students and that we are read every day. Our numbers are going down, just like any print publication, but we are fighting for what we love.

I met a lot of news editors from papers from all over the country in Athens, Georgia, this year for an editor conference, and I was sad to see how many papers have had to go from daily to weekly or less than that — The Diamondback at the University of Maryland, for example, just switched to weekly after 105 years.

We see it happen. We know it could happen to us. But I think all of us, from the print staff to the advertorial staff, are working hard to ensure that our tradition of 123 of daily print production continues.

We know that our readers are online. So we’ll be there. We’ll be there in more ways than ever this year — in newsletters, podcasts, videos and regular blog posts, just to name a few. But as long as hundreds line up for a copy of the Dean Smith commemorative issue and as long as we see people grabbing a paper on their walk to class, we’ll be in print too.

If you’re going to San Francisco

Journalism educators from around the world will meet in San Francisco from Aug. 6-9, 2015. (Creative Commons photo)
Journalism educators from around the world will meet in San Francisco from Aug. 6-9, 2015. (Creative Commons photo)

I’ll be on the road next week for the annual AEJMC conference, which takes place in San Francisco this year. Here are the main items on my agenda:

  • On Wednesday, I’ll be one of four presenters at an “editing bootcamp” sponsored by the American Copy Editors. It’s the fourth time I’ve participated in this workshop, and it’s always fun.
  • On Friday, I’ll play host to the Breakfast of Editing Champions, a gathering of instructors who teach editing and writing. We’ll talk about trends in journalism education and exchange teaching ideas.

I’ll also attend various panels and presentations, and perhaps do some sightseeing. But I probably won’t wear any flowers in my hair.

UPDATE: Both events went well. About 35 editors, mostly from public relations, attended the ACES bootcamp. And my final Breakfast of Editing Champions was fun and informative. Kirstie Hettinga, who teaches at Cal Lutheran, will take over as the event’s organizer and host in 2016.