Q&A with Katie Quine, reporter and digital assistant at Our State magazine

Katie Quine is a writer and digital assistant at Our State magazine, which covers North Carolina’s culture and history. In this interview, Quine discusses how she generates story ideas and researches them, and how the magazine balances its print and digital presence. 

Q. Describe your job at Our State. What is your typical day like?

A. What I love about working as a digital assistant and writer at Our State is that no two days are alike. I travel around the state several times a month to report on various assignments.

In May alone, I interviewed North Carolina’s longest married couple, wrote a piece about urban beekeeping in Durham and started working on a story about a community mailbox at Sunset Beach. It’s been such a privilege to learn about all of the incredible people and places in our state.

When I am in the office, I spend some of my morning planning and monitoring our social media content. I also dedicate a sizable portion of my day to editing articles from our contributing bloggers and working on stories of my own. Another big part of what I do is restructuring content that appears in the pages of our magazine so that it is Web- and SEO-friendly.

Since our digital department is relatively new and has just four staff members, my job’s range of duties requires a pretty diverse skill set. It’s great because I feel like I’m learning something new every day, and I love the challenge that comes along with writing content that ranges from 140 characters to 1,200 words.

Q. You’ve written a series of posts under the label of The Curious Carolinian, looking at the quirks of North Carolina’s culture, history and geography. How do you come up with ideas for these posts, and how do you research, write and edit them?

A. The Curious Carolinian has been such a fun pet project. Every post starts with a question about our state that isn’t easily answered, such as “Why is North Carolina called The Tar Heel State?” or “Why are there two styles of NC barbecue?

When we come up with ideas for these posts, we’re thinking of content from a search-volume standpoint. For some ideas, I’ve simply typed “Why is North Carolina…” into Google to look at what the suggested searches are.

Once I’ve thought of the question I’d like to answer, I research the topic as thoroughly as I can, reading reference books, digging up old newspaper articles and reaching out to experts on the subject matter. At Our State, it’s our goal to be the definitive experts on anything pertaining to North Carolina culture, so I try to differentiate our content from that of other websites by writing the most comprehensive article I can.

There’s research out there to suggest that humans’ attention spans are getting shorter, but the feedback we’ve received about The Curious Carolinian series has taught me that people still love a good, long backstory if you make a point to have fun while telling it. Readers are only as engaged as the content is engaging.

Q. How is Our State different online than in print? How much collaboration is there between the two aspects of the magazine?

A. The editorial and digital departments are constantly collaborating with each other. As the editorial department plans its story calendar for the coming months, the digital department works to create content that complements what appears in the magazine.

What might work well in one medium might not perform the same way in another, so we make a point to think about how content can be repackaged in different ways. For instance, if the magazine features a personal narrative in which an author explores his or her love for a particular North Carolina town, the digital department might come up with a supplemental day-trip itinerary for those who wish to visit the area. When it comes to collaboration between online and print, making use of alternative story formats is crucial.

Q. It sounds like you have a good gig. What advice do you have for journalism students who are looking for jobs like yours?

A. I think I have a pretty good gig, too! Thanks.

I suggest that students should always look to tell stories in unexpected ways. What resonates deepest with your audience can surprise you, especially on the Web.

For instance, as a journalist, I consider myself to be a writer first and foremost, but what actually helped land me an interview with Our State was a video I produced, which featured one-second clips from every day of my senior year at UNC. The video started out as a little project that I hoped my friends would enjoy at the conclusion of our senior year. But not long after I posted it on YouTube, I got comments from alumni I’ve never met who told me it made them tear up 30 years after they graduated.

All that is to say, every skill you learn in the j-school is important, no matter how insignificant it seems at the time it’s taught to you. You never know when you’ll need it down the road.

Follow Katie Quine on Twitter, and read her articles on the Our State website.

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Q&A with Kevin Davis, editor of Bull City Rising

Kevin Davis is editor of Bull City Rising, a news blog that covers Durham, N.C., which is also known as the Bull City. Davis, a former writer and editor and technology columnist for The Harvard Crimson, works as a university administrator and lives in the Trinity Park neighborhood of Durham. In this interview, conducted by e-mail, Davis talks about writing and editing at the blog, and about the media landscape in the Triangle region of North Carolina.

Q. What is the job of editor like at Bull City Rising?

A. As with many “hyperlocal” sites and publications, I’m the owner (via Bull City New Media LLC), main writer and editor of other readers’ submission — plus interlocutor between two outsourced ad placement companies and sponsors, plus the first-line of troubleshooting if the site doesn’t work. And I have to remember to renew the PO Box once a year, too, and to get those LLC annual reports filed.

Tongue out of cheek, this is nothing new for folks at many community news  sites — or for any startup small business. In my case, BCR’s a quasi-hobby, quasi-commercial enterprise I pursue in my spare time outside of a full-time job as a university administrator. BCR takes up the mornings, evenings and many weekends.

Of late, I’ve been doing more editing of others, with three correspondents/freelancers on board or getting started; one covers general news, politics, neighborhood issues and other items of interest; a second is focused on entrepreneurship and startups, a big area of interest in Durham right now; and a third is just now starting and will focus on K-12 education.

On a typical morning, I’ll wake up and peruse the local papers and a Durham-centric RSS feed I’ve built over the years to look for stories worth aggregating into the “fishwrap,” a list of links to key news stories of the day. I’ll typically then write or finish editing one or two other stories that get set for scheduled/timed posting during the day. Evenings are for writing or, in some cases, attending public meetings to get the news for  the next day.

Apart from writing, much of my time is spent playing traffic-cop for local stories coming in from readers, PR professionals, municipal PIOs and the like. I would love to see a study comparing the number of former News & Observer and other pro-jo’s in full-time PR to the number of actual professional  journalists left in newsrooms; based on the well-crafted, attractive prose arriving in my inbox each day that isn’t in my newspaper, I’m afraid we’ve gotten the balance wrong, though few of our newly minted PR pros chose those careers voluntarily.

My biggest weakness is time, especially when demands in the real work or,  of late, with an aging parent have squeezed out what time usually goes to the site.

Q. How does story editing, caption writing and headline writing work at the blog?

A. Bloggers have the freedom to ignore the column inch; a post can run 300 words or 3,000 words depending on the inclination of the writer and the subject matter. I’ve found my readership will stick with longer, more analytical posts with significant original research, but that the temptation to be sloppy and over-wordy for stories that don’t deserve that treatment is too easy.

Certainly the quality of my site suffers from the lack of an independent, separate editor — particularly for my own stories, which unlike those of my freelancers and correspondents don’t get an independent set of reviewer eyes. And frankly, as with anyone else in the business of reporting events, news and views,  timetables and deadlines can lead to mistakes. If I’m pressed on time and run with a story without taking the time to double-check core assumptions, data and links, I’ll almost invariably screw something up.

There’s not an easy answer to that, though. Some of the latest research I’ve read on hyperlocal media throws shadows on the concept of the  university- or NFP-trained community newsroom, with dozens of volunteers providing reportage and a few professionals editing and culling in the middle. The challenge being reported in those startups is that all the journalism training in the world is great, but “citizen journalists” (a term I have issues with) in that model aren’t highly committed and tend to wander away or quit or burn out quickly. It takes a mix of passion, love for the subject matter and OCD to stick with a hyperlocal site, and that comes when you’re invested as the publisher too often.

Hyperlocal/citizen media or what have you shouldn’t replace professional, paid journalism. In communities where it does so only accidentally, and hopefully temporarily, we need to find a way to make those ventures sustainable, with enough extra eyes to provide that independent editing hand, for instance, or a true editorial-advertising firewall.

Headline writing is much more fun in blogs than in my collegiate newspaper days. The temptation for overwrought headlines is always there, though for  sites like mine that send headlines to Twitter, that service’s 140-character limit — less room for bit.ly links to the story, less room for “RT @bullcity” messages you  hope others will prepend — make for tighter text. On the other hand, the ability to write excerpts from posts that appear in RSS feeds and via Facebook gives the opportunity for a little  more flexibility and creativity, especially in trying to encourage deeper reading.

Q. You’re on Twitter and Facebook. How important is social media to what you do?

A. Ironically, I use Twitter and Facebook intensively more because readers seem to expect it and because different readers come in through different channels — regular visitors, RSS subscribers, Twitter, Facebook, search and links. Personally, despite being on the cusp between GenX and the millennials, I don’t feel like a digital-native when it comes to social media, but I am astounded at the power of those platforms to magnify and augment a story’s reach.

Not that I consider them to be a replacement for longer-form work, of course. And I do think we sometimes conflate their use as a source for vox-populi reactions to stories and raw information with the informed lens that journalistic writing should bring to a story. For me, I find them to be very important as a broadcast tool, but less useful as a sourcing tool.

In  fact, as a hyperlocalist, one challenge is that social media tends to connect people in lots of different organizing mechanisms, but place isn’t always one of them. Neighborhood e-mail listservs and message boards are still much better story sources than Facebook.

Q. The Triangle has a lot of media options — print, online and  broadcast. Where do Bull City Rising and similar blogs fit into that? And what changes do you anticipate?

At present, I see BCR as an outlet for stories that print outlets don’t cover or don’t see first. Print journalists are fewer in number, and I tend to suspect that spreading the same corpus of work over fewer reporters is deepening the bias toward press-release and public meeting-driven stories over enterprise journalism. There are exceptions, like the N&O’s fine investigative  work, but I tend to find that newspapers don’t seem to be able to sell more analytical, entrepreneurial work to their readers or  their publishers.

Not  that my site’s work always, or even often, reaches that mark, though I think there’s been times it has. But it’s a similar dynamic to that in place at the Indy: By being able to target certain key stories or areas of coverage for deeper work while  taking an aggregator strategy to commodity news, my ultimate goal over time is to help deepen the discourse on issues that really matter for Durham’s future.

Take crime news. I don’t publish stories on who’s been shot or horrible, yet easily sensationalized, events like a father’s murder of his child in rural northern Durham County a couple of weeks ago. Those stories are well-covered by print and broadcast, sometimes to the exclusion of other stories.

But I do want to look at issues of root-cause of crime, such as some of the papers coming out of Duke’s Urban Economics course each year, or at the lens of multi-year crime trends. At the end of the day, the latter kinds of stories help citizens be more informed about what we as a community need to be doing to improve public safety or to understand the reality of Durham crime versus regional stereotypes.

I think new media entrants like BCR will play a larger role in community newsgathering as traditional media channels face deeper economic pressures. That’s not to say BCR in its current, blog-esque, editorial voice-forward design would necessarily absorb a larger role per se — or, heaven forbid, that we see part-time citizen writers trying to supplant professional, paid journalism. Instead, I think websites can provide a much more sustainable model and channel for supporting full-time, paid newsgathering “without fear or favor,” as the saying goes, than can modes that have high fixed overhead costs.

Among hyperlocals, the entry of Patch into markets is quite interesting, especially since most sites like mine are immature in their advertising take currently. Patch is focused on the sub-75k population cities and is reported to bring in at least as many ad sales staff in a market as they do journalists. It’s a smart strategy: become a local hero to small communities by providing a dedicated journalist to your town, while building a regional sales staff that can (in my guess) eventually let you swoop into the major metro cores with a prebuilt metro market engine that can sell ads and hire local journalists.

But as the question has gone with university and non-profit citizen journalist efforts: Is the passion there for this to work?

Q&A with Joy Victory, editorial czar at WordPress

Joy Victory is “editorial czar” at WordPress. She previously worked as an editor at About.com, and prior to that she worked at ABCNEWS.com, and several newspapers, including the Corpus Christi Caller-Times and The Journal-News in White Plains, N.Y. In this interview, conducted by e-mail, Victory talks about her job, social media and journalism education.

Q. Describe your job. What does an “editorial czar” do on a typical day?

A. My job is half editorial and half project management — but it’s a weird, evolving style of editorial work that has to keep pace with the rapidly changing Internet environment. (Although I have a journalism degree and the word “editor” appears in my job title, I long ago stopped thinking of myself as a journalist.) Each morning I update the WordPress homepage with the best “Freshly Pressed” selections. I then start working with my team, which focuses on the new user experience, as well as some other big projects for WordPress.

For example, we recently launched http://learn.wordpress.com. If you look at that site, you’ll see it’s not at all journalism, but a how-to tutorial that we’ve tried to spiff up and make more exciting than your average tutorial. Good writing and good editing are still required, of course, but it’s its own genre of publishing.

I think it’s important to note that Automattic (yes, with two “t’s”), the company that owns WordPress.com, is entirely distributed — everyone works at home. I haven’t worked in an office since 2007. So we do all this creation entirely over the Internet, which I still find amazing. Even “phone” discussions take place over iChat or Skype.

Q. You mentioned on Twitter recently that you work closely with developers. What is that like?

A. It means that I have input from the beginning, which is so important. I see the process unfold and can give input at any time. But it’s definitely a learning process for me: Developers are really smart cookies and speak their own unique jargon that can be mystifying. They’re almost always men, too, so long gone are the days when I worked at About.com with approximately 15 female editors and a few male editors.

But I’m often in awe of what they do. The developers involved with WordPress have helped enable millions of people to publish. Journalists are largely ignorant of the complicated work that it requires to create a site and then to keep it running smoothly. You need to know who is behind the curtain and at least be vaguely aware of what they do. Better yet, work with them directly to create new products.

If it’s not already obvious, part of the reason I left traditional media is that I was really frustrated at how my fellow journalists almost seemed to despise the Internet, while I’m basically in love with it. Now, at Automattic, I finally feel like I’m working for a nimble, smart, fun company that also loves the Internet.

Q. WordPress recently added a Twitter button that lets readers easily Tweet blog posts that they like. What do you see as the relationship between blogging and social media?

A. We’ve discussed this a lot internally and even brainstormed a few analogies. People predicted blogging services would die with the rise of Facebook. But that hasn’t happened because they’re not similar services. WordPress.com is Web publishing, not social networking. What is created on WordPress is shared via social networking.

There’s definitely a movement afoot to make it more of a blended process or at least a more seamless process. But at the end of the day, WordPress is about full-on publishing and content management. As an example, check out what runs on WordPress: http://wordpress.org/showcase/wsj-magazine/. You can’t do that sort of production via social networking.

Q. You have a degree in journalism from New Mexico State University. What in your education helped you in your job, and what should journalism schools being doing to help students prepare for jobs like yours?

A. My degree helped me in that it was very internship-oriented. My internships really taught me so much and made me a good copy editor, which is a skill that comes in handy in many ways.

I also worked at the student newspaper, where I learned to paginate, which is basically an irrelevant skill to me now, but helped me understand some fairly complicated software programs and become comfortable computing all day. Reporting always came easy for me, but definitely taking classes about reporting and writing help sharpen your skills. I endorse taking creative writing/fiction classes to stretch your brain as well.

I have a sense that many professors are struggling to teach the current job skills. NMSU was always good about bringing in talented adjunct professors who maybe didn’t have a master’s degree but were actually out there working on a day-to-day basis. So, in this day and age, j-schools need to make sure they’re bringing in people like me to teach students.

Of course, you still need to know the basics of good writing, reporting, editing and production, but go after internships that are Internet-based. And keep a very professional Web presence — everything you say or do online can be tracked down. Maintain a blog, if not a full website.

Read technology news to see where the trends are going. I don’t really think a j-student needs to know programing language, but it doesn’t hurt to take a few computing classes to get a sense of how things work. Get to know computer engineering students, especially those interested in online publishing.

UPDATE: In late 2010, Victory took a job as a senior editor at About.com.

Q&A with Julie Wildhaber, Yahoo! editor

Julie Wildhaber is one of the creators of The Yahoo! Style Guide. She trains writers and editors for Yahoo! and manages the Central Editorial copy desk. She has been editing online since 1996. In this interview, conducted by email, Wildhaber talks about the style guide and the differences between editing for print and online. Note: This post attempts to conform to Yahoo! style.

Q. Why is Yahoo! releasing a stylebook?

A. Because the Web needed a style guide. (That, or we wanted to bang our heads on our desks for two years while we developed the book.)

Excellent reference works abound, and we on the “Yahoo! Style Guide” team have used everything from AP to “Wired Style” to blogs. Generally, though, we found that guidance about Web issues like user interfaces and search-engine optimization targets an audience of Web developers, marketers, or designers rather than writers, while style guides and writing books often ignore online concerns.

We had a 200-page internal style guide, which also didn’t include everything we had learned in the past 15 years about writing for the Web, so we thought, why not create a guide that everyone can use?

Q. How is the Yahoo! guide different from the AP Stylebook and the Chicago Manual of Style?

A. We’re all about the Web, and our book is both style guide and writing manual. Chicago and AP are terrific, and we still consult them, but they’re built for print publishing. They don’t tell you how to write a Web-friendly headline, why you might want to use a double hyphen (–) rather than an em dash, how to bold or italicize text in HTML, or why the Digital Millennium Copyright Act changes copyright liability for certain sites.

When you write for the Web, you have to think about the complete experience: how people find your page, how they read and navigate the site, how text will look in a Web browser or on a cell phone or in email, and so on. You wouldn’t think that reading is all that different online, but it is: Electronic displays are harder on the eyes than paper, so people read more slowly on screens and skim the page before they commit to clicking a link or delving more deeply into the copy. Also, some of your site visitors may be blind and scanning a page through a screen reader, and some may speak English as a second language and have trouble with slang or jargon.

Speaking of word choice, those punning and clever headlines that we copy editors love to write for newspapers just don’t fly online. Think about how you use search engines: You probably don’t dig through 10 pages’ worth of results; more likely you click the first link that looks relevant, spend a few seconds scanning the page, and go back to search if you don’t see what you’re looking for.

Your time is precious, and the Web offers so many options that you can be fickle. So, headlines need to grab readers immediately by including keywords, by being clear and literal, and by explaining the story. They should also make sense if they stand alone, because a headline may appear in search results, mobile browsers, news feeds, blocks of related links, and other places where readers won’t see the rest of the story.

Q. How did the Yahoo! editors decide on the preferred spellings in the guide’s word list? For example, you like email, not e-mail.

A. Yes, and people have been sending questions about why we treat “email” and other words the way we do. The copy editor’s first line of defense is the house style sheet and preferred dictionary. But of course no dictionary or guide can keep up with all the new words, not to mention all the proper names, and references disagree about treatment. “Email” is a good example, so let’s look at some of the things you might consider in making a style decision:

  • Dictionaries. Look up both “email” and “e-mail” on a site like OneLook that searches multiple dictionaries at once. Most dictionaries hyphenate.
  • Other style guides and publications. AP hyphenates, which means that most news outlets use “e-mail,” and so does the “Microsoft Manual of Style for Technical Publications” (2004). I believe “Wired Style” was the first style guide to close up “email,” and many technology publications and companies have followed, including Apple, InfoWorld, All Things Digital, and, more curiously, The Wall Street Journal.
  • Trademarks and company treatment. If the word is a proprietary name, check how the owner spells it. Companies are often inconsistent, however, so look for a copyright line at the bottom of the page, information about trademarks, an “about us” section, or a press release. Email isn’t a proper name, so we can move on.
  • Industry standards. Are you writing for or about a specialized field? If so, is there an organization that sets standards or terminology? For example, if you’re writing for psychologists, you would consult the APA (American Psychological Association) manual; and if you were debating whether to hyphenate “Wi-Fi,” you might consider how the IEEE (Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers), which sets networking standards, treats the word. “Email,” however, is not a specialized term.
  • Search-engine optimization. Plug your terms into a search engine to see (1) which is more popular–look for the total number of results under the search box (Google, Bing) or in the left column (Yahoo!)–and (2) which sites are more relevant to your site or topic. The results for “email” and “e-mail” are pretty similar in quantity and type, though I notice that in the top 10 results, the sites that hyphenate are Wikipedia, Hotmail, and news stories. The top two sites, sans hyphen, are Gmail and Yahoo! Mail.
  • Language trends. Is the word evolving, or are there trends in the way people are using or treating it? In the case of “email,” we see that search results are evenly split between hyphenated and closed, but a few years ago, you would have seen more results for “e-mail.” Also, common compound words in English tend to evolve from open (“electronic mail,” “on line”) to hyphenates (“e-mail,” “on-line”) to closed (“email,” “online”). Recently, AP decided to close up “website,” for instance.
  • Audience and voice. Are you writing for a specific or general audience? Will your readers think the term is difficult and unnecessary jargon, or will they think you’re out of touch if you don’t use the term or if you go against the way specialists treat it? As the search results showed, people use both “email” and “e-mail.” The trend among many Web and technology publications is to lose the hyphen, and we think dictionaries and other style guides will eventually adopt “email,” too. Readers may find that treatment a little fashion-forward, but we’re Yahoo!, Web pioneers, and “email” is appropriate to our voice.

So that’s why we decided, at least a decade ago, to close up “email.” On a personal note, I would say that “e-mail” looks old-fashioned to me, like “on-line.” Yes, we all know that the word derives from “electronic mail,” and the hyphen stands in for deleted letters, but who says “electronic mail” anymore? Is there any danger someone would misread “email”? I think not.

By the way, you can download the Yahoo! word list if you want to use it as a basis for your own. We have more guidelines about creating an in-house guide in Chapter 19 of the book.

Q. The Web has such a tremendous range of content, even in the area of news. What do you see as the future of style guides as the news media continue to fragment and specialize? In other words, can one style fit all?

A. In a word, no. I don’t know any copy editors who have just one book on their desk; we have a full shelf and triangulate multiple points of reference to zero in on the style that will work for our publication and our audience. And that, in my opinion, is how it should be: Language changes constantly, and the style decision that worked yesterday may not work next week. You have to keep doing your homework and updating your word list.

As for fragmentation and specialization, that’s why we focus on principles rather than platforms in our book. We don’t talk about how to tweet or how to write blurbs for YouTube; we talk about how to write good, concise, Web-friendly headlines that will work everywhere, and how to use captions and tags to make your content more findable and accessible, no matter which service you’re using. The platforms will change, but the principles are universally valid.

If you’ve flipped through the book or the website, you may have noticed that ours is not the most prescriptivist style guide. We have three rough categories of guidance: rules, best practices, and options.

Rules include things like subject-verb agreement, which most if not all grammarians would agree on. Best practices include using double hyphens instead of em dashes and straight quotes instead of curly quotes. Hyphens and straight quotes can be rendered by any software, whereas some browsers or text-based email may choke on special characters and display a weird symbol or a snippet of code instead. But we also show you how to code special characters in HTML, if you want to use them.

Finally, we have options for issues like capitalization, where title style and sentence style are equally fine for the Web–both are readable and searchable. We explain the rules for each and say to be consistent. We left flexibility in certain areas because we want to tell editors what generally works best online, but also let them decide what’s best for their site and their audience specifically.

Q. Some editors grumble about the exclamation mark in your name. Care to comment?

A. Sure! (Stet that exclamation point, Andy.) We editors are trained to be skeptical of exclamation marks and rightly so: They’re overused and tend to be a lazy writer’s crutch, propping up wispy sentences that should stand on strong verbs and intriguing adjectives. For Yahoo!, though, the mark’s not just a bit of punctuation; it’s part of our identity, our brand, and our voice.

Fun is one of our company values, and it’s one of the reasons readers like our sites and, I hope, will like the book, too–what other style guide helps you invent a stupid band name while teaching you a little HTML? (That’s Chapter 16.) Style-wise, we treat the exclamation point like a letter–other punctuation goes after it.

Naturally, companies and copy editors have different priorities. Companies have to promote their brands and protect their trademarks. Copy editors prioritize readability and consistency, among a hundred other worries.

My rule of thumb is to follow the company’s spelling for its name and its products, as you would for any other proper names, but to set your own house style for capitalization and punctuation. For instance, our style lowercases the “i” in “iPhone,” except when it’s the first word in a sentence; then we cap the “I” for readability.

I remember when “WALL-E” came out, and editors were going nuts trying to figure out what to do with the title. Pixar was spelling it with an interpunct before the “E,” one of those special characters that won’t work everywhere.

The title was also in all caps, and you couldn’t tell whether it was an acronym unless you had seen the movie. “WALL-E” is an acronym, as it happens, but lots of other company and product names are capitalized or even all-lowercase for marketing reasons, and you should choose a treatment that’s right for your readers.

Q&A with Kristen Douglas, freelance copy editor

Kristen Douglas is a freelance writer and editor in Durham, N.C., who recently embarked on a career change into journalism. In this interview, conducted by e-mail, Douglas talks about this transition and the challenges of working in online media.

Q. You’ve worked in education and mental health. Why the change to editing and writing?

A. Working in the mental health field was kind of a natural evolution for me, having grown up around mentally ill people. My stepmother owns a 32-bed facility for mentally ill adults, and I grew up in that environment. Teaching has also always been a love of mine, and I taught special education on temporary certification for a few years, as well as teaching in a welfare to work program in the midwest. In the meantime, though, I’ve always loved writing, and have written articles here or there over the years for local newspapers and other publications.

Even working in the mental health and education fields, I spent a lot of time writing and editing. I developed curriculum for a welfare to work teaching program, edited marketing materials and found that as my work in mental health gravitated more away from direct care of clients and into administrative roles, I was constantly being asked to look over progress notes, teach staff members how to write them professionally, develop and lead workshops that concentrated on writing treatment plans and other medical record documents, and edit documentation that was turned in.

I was one of many layoffs in the mental health agency I worked for in January 2010. I’d already been reading professional blogs on writing or copy editing online content, and I decided to use those skills I had always been using in the mental health and education fields to transfer to an entirely new career in writing online content rather than trying to find a lower-paying job in the floundering North Carolina mental health field.

I applied to several content-producing sites as a writer, and was hired to a few, but Demand Media seemed to fit my abilities well, and I like their work platform, so I predominantly write articles for their sites, which include Livestrong.com, eHow, trails.com, golflink, cracked.com and travel sections for several national newspapers.

After a few weeks of writing, I was invited by Demand Media to take two very stringent copy editor tests.  They don’t normally do this with new writers, but they liked the experience I’d already had editing in my former positions, and they liked my writing. I now spend about 70 percent of my time copy editing other articles for Demand and the rest of the time writing.

Q. You do much of your work with Demand Media. What is your typical workday like?

A. Being a night owl, I typically don’t get started with work until about 9 or 10 a.m., though I can flex my hours any way I’d like. Sometimes you’ll find me working at 1 a.m. if I’ve taken a break during the day to go hiking or grocery shopping.

I log into my “workdesk” at Demand and first check to see if I have any article re-writes that I need to repair. Normally my written articles are approved the first time through, but even a content editor can miss something in her own writing on occasion.

I then check to see if any articles I’ve copy edited and sent back for re-writes have returned, and I complete their edits. Once those things are out of the way, I begin choosing new articles to edit.  Demand’s writing work platform allows me to choose up to 10 article titles to write to at a time, from thousands of titles.  When copy/content editing, I see a list of 10 articles out of the thousands that need editing, choose one that looks interesting (and that I hope is well-written), and begin editing.

I check references first, before doing any editing, to make sure they’re listed properly and to skim through and make sure the content is not simply paraphrased or plagiarizing other content. Demand Media insists upon its articles containing original and innovative content, so making sure I’m a good “gatekeeper” and not allowing shoddy work or work that is just a re-hash of something else out there is my most important job as an editor.

If the references check out and the content is original and the article doesn’t need a re-write for structure, I’ll go back to line edit the article. I never line edit until I’ve checked to make sure the article isn’t going back to the writer; it takes time, and the writer might change the article enough I’ll have to line edit again.

Once editing for content, sending back for re-writes, and copy editing is done, I will either approve or reject an article. I’ve only had to reject a few outright, because I tend to become “the teacher” when sending an article back for a re-write, and I want to help the writer learn to write well for Demand Media content. I probably spend way too much time with this, because it cuts in on my bottom line pay (I’m paid per article by Demand).

Q. You don’t have a journalism degree or other formal training as an editor. What is it like to learn things as you go?

A. I’ve had to brush up on my AP style, for one. I was a bit nervous at first, because while I have many years of experience writing and editing, it has all been within the education and mental health fields.

Learning to write a “how to” article on laying self-adhesive linoleum or a “list” article on Frisbee golf courses in Washington state has been a learning experience, but it’s interesting. I’ve always gotten bored doing the same things over and over in traditional jobs, so the variety in writing and editing online content just seems to fit.

It’s the same on the copy/content editing end. I was nervous at first that I would not catch those things that needed fixing in articles that I was editing. I still worry once in a while that I’ll miss a glaring grammatical issue or allow something through that isn’t up to Demand Media quality, but I’m becoming more confident. My first performance review helped with my confidence. While I had let a few obvious errors through (like those infernal serial commas that AP style disallows), I was also told that I was doing a great job “gatekeeping” to make sure only quality content makes it through.

I still get nervous about learning to edit online content, because once it’s out there, it’s there for anyone to see. I want to make sure what I edit or write is high quality, because my name is attached to the writing — nobody can see who edited an article, but I still feel that I’m attached to the content I’ve edited in some way and don’t want it to be shoddy work.

I’m having fun, though. I was experiencing a lot of burnout in my mental health position, and I’m loving this career change. It’s hard work, and I have to pay my own taxes (and I don’t get paid vacations or sick days), but I’m much happier in my work.

Q. What advice do you have for people seeking work as a freelance editor and writer?

First, look at the experience you already have. Some people think that because they’ve worked in a particular field, they don’t have any experience writing or editing.  Check to see if you have more experience than you once thought, either through former careers or internships.

Study blogs that talk about freelance writing or editing. Avoid the blogs that are trying to sell you something and concentrate on those that seem to be just giving information. If you’re wanting to write in the online world, learn about search engine optimization and keyword phrasing.

Most of these media outlets aren’t just providing articles, they’re selling something, even if it’s just a click on an ad that appears around the article. Online content writing isn’t at all the same as writing editorials or other pieces for newspapers and magazines. You have to focus more on drawing people to your article using key phrases in your writing without making the article feel awkward.

I think I “lucked in” to the editing world. Most copy/content editors for Demand Media and other outlets have journalism degrees and have worked for years in newspaper or magazine editing. I’m one of the few who has been hired without that specific degree or newspaper editing experience, and it’s only because I had so much experience editing within my field.

Even that wouldn’t have gotten me the job, though. I got the offer to test to be a copy editor because I’m a good writer. I learned AP style, I learned to write in the “voice” that Demand Media and its outlets require by reading articles at Livestrong, eHow and the rest. I learned to check my ego at the door and write in the style that was asked of me.

That really is key. I have edited so many articles that might have been well written if the writer was submitting the work to a literary magazine or to a newspaper as an editorial, but that isn’t the “voice” that Demand Media is looking for.

Whatever company you write for, you need to learn the voice of that particular company and lose your ego about what type of writer you think you are, or find an outlet that better fits your style.  For example, I was hired by WiseGeek.com early on, but I found that I really didn’t like writing in the encyclopedic format they were looking for, so I very politely thanked them for allowing me to write with them and bowed out.

This isn’t easy – I’m still struggling to find my niche and make enough money to live well on while building my experience to a level that might get me editing or writing work elsewhere. My dream would be to work as an editor in a fiction publishing house, but jobs like that don’t come easily, so I’m content building experience for now.

Follow Kristen Douglas on Twitter and read some of her articles on eHow.com.

A slideshow with nothing to show

Roger Ebert, film critic and prolific Twitterer, recently criticized The Huffington Post’s use of slideshows this way: “Dear HuffPost: Slideshows are a cheap trick to force more hits. I refuse to play.”

The Huffington Post is certainly not the only site to use weak slideshows to generate clicks. But it does seem to do more than its share of meaningless ones.

Here’s my example of a bad slideshow from HuffPo. The news, as stated in the headline, is a list of “states with the fewest college degree holders.”

After a bit of introductory text, the reader is then invited to click through 13 slides with a Flickr image from each state and the percentage of people who live there who have a college degree, presumably of the four-year variety. (To save you time, I will tell you that Arkansas came in first, or last, depending on how you look at it.)

The choice of images in the slides is curious. For Mississippi, we get a view of a lovely wooded area. For Georgia, we are offered a street scene of Atlanta, including the historic Fox Theater.

The question, of course, is why these images? Why present this information this way? Is it the best way to convey this news, such as it is, to the reader?

The answer to the last question is no. This isn’t a visual story, so the slideshow format is ill-suited to the news. In other words, there’s nothing to see here.

So what would work better? A simple list would. Or, if you are feeling a little bit interactive, you could do what the Chronicle of Higher Education did and present this information as a map that allows the reader to roll over each state and see the percentage of the college-educated population of each one.

For better slideshows, try these sites:

Editors at these sites are matching images and words well to convey information to readers. Their slideshows tell a story.

Short people are just the same as you and I

National Public Radio does a nice job with a fun story on its Web site today. The topic is short people and a book about them called “Short: Walking Tall When You Are Not Tall At All.”

NPR uses a simple list to summarize the book and a well-edited slideshow to review some of the famous short people in politics, music and movies. The result is a pithy, perfect package of words and images. Apparently, the Internet agrees, as this is the most popular story of the moment on NPR’s site.

My only edit: The story should make it clear that Randy Newman was being ironic when he wrote and sang “Short People.”