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Apr 9 / King Kaufman

5 powerful lessons from the young editor of Indianapolis Monthly

Amanda Heckert

Amanda Heckert

Amanda Heckert recently told a group of Ball State journalism students the story of how she became editor-in-chief of Indianapolis Monthly magazine at the age of 30, in 2012. That story and the five lessons she says she’s learned along the way appear on the blog of John Strauss, who teaches and advises the newspaper at the school in Muncie.

Heckert’s story is one of hard work, taking chances, being willing to start at the bottom and making the most of opportunities. Here are the five lessons she offers for students or early-career journalists, particularly those who are trying to make their way as freelancers, which is a starting point for many people. The blog post is long and packed with good information and advice, but here are the fab five in a nutshell, with a few comments added by me:

Make the most of it: “It” being whatever situation you find yourself in. As an intern or working an early gig as a fact-checker, Heckert says she didn’t just put in her hours. She pitched her own stories, studied what others were doing.

Stay in touch: Make the most of the connections you make along the way. Don’t be a pest. Don’t constantly ask for things. Just stay in touch. Give an update once in a while. Let people know what you’re hoping to do.

Freelancing can help—if done right: Doing it right means not vaguely telling editors that you’d love to write for them. It means pitching compelling stories. Read the publication you’re pitching to so you’ll know to pitch the right type of story in the right style—and not one that’s exactly the same as one that just ran.

The cover letter counts: Here’s Heckert on the hundreds of applications she gets when she posts a job: “The first piece of writing I see is the cover letter … Take time with your cover letter. I want you to treat it the same way you would treat a pitch to the magazine. I want to hear your voice. I want to get an idea who you are. You’re pitching yourself and what you can do for the magazine.”

Don’t wait to start writing: Find the right platform for you, even if that’s your own blog. As Heckert says, “Be enterprising even if you don’t have a job.” This is one of the great strengths of the Internet. You can be a publisher. Create something good and people will be able to see it. That wasn’t always the case. Make the most of it.