Congratulations! You’ve scored one of those crazy-hard-to-come-by internships at a magazine, newspaper, or publishing company.
Welcome to the ranks of editorial interns everywhere—you’ll be reporting till your hand aches, you’ll be editing till your eyes cross, and no, you probably won’t be getting paid for it. But trust me—if you ever want a full-time, paid job as a writer or editor, this internship will be crucial for your career.
First, though, you’ve got to reap every benefit. Here’s some advice for maximizing your time, courtesy of someone who’s been there.
1. Ask Lots of Questions
Sounds pretty simple, but when you’re the newbie in the office, it’s easy to feel silly asking questions that may seem obvious to co-workers within earshot. But go ahead and swallow that worry, because even the most veteran reporters ask questions. If you’re struggling with anything about the publishing system, run your questions by a kind cubicle mate. (It’s not you—the systems are notoriously difficult and unintuitive.) When you’re writing a story, don’t be afraid to ask your editor exactly what he or she wants. (Most editors will appreciate it—less work for them down the line.) Remember, everyone around you was once in your shoes.
2. Be Curious and Observant
Do you know when the magazine ships out? Find out. Or where your newspaper story goes when it leaves your editor’s hands? Ask. What big events and stories is the editorial team prepping for? Offer to help out, even if you’ll be the most behind-the-scenes periphery player.
These are all details you should be aware of as you’re learning about the industry and trying to stay up on what’s going on in and outside of the office. And if you’re a part-time intern, you’re not off the hook—you’ll need to work extra hard so you don’t miss crucial events.
3. Attend Meetings (as Many as You Can)
Editorial meetings are where the section leaders discuss published and future stories—and they’re incredibly important. Just by sitting in, you’ll increase your visibility while also figuring out how editors think. You’ll quickly learn what stories get traction, and which prompt discussion, smiles, even snores.
If you’ve been invited to a meeting, that’s great—take good notes. If you haven’t, tell your boss you’d like to observe. It shows that you’re interested, eager to learn, and who knows? You could be in the right meeting at the right time and get a fantastic story.
4. See Your Assignments (All of Them!) to the End
When you’re given an opportunity to write a story (even if it’s just 200 words for the lowly weekly online newsletter), give it all you’ve got. Editors might not be floored by every inch of copy you turn in, but they will remember that you put energy into the assignments they threw at you, even the mundane ones.
And once you’ve submitted a story, don’t let it slip out of your mind. A few days later, ask your boss when it will be published. Ask for feedback, and offer to make any more necessary changes. This will help ensure the story is moved along the production line and actually gets used.
5. Pitch Your Own Stories
Pitching your own stories is a good idea for several reasons: It shows initiative, it gives you the chance to write about something that’s interesting to you, and it might allow you to work with new people who aren’t in your section.
A great way to get your pitches approved is to find uncommon stories, ones that haven’t been written before. Or, try to find a fresh take on an already-covered topic. If you’re in a new city you aren’t familiar with, hit the streets and check it out. Do any striking people, shops, or events catch your eye?
And don’t be afraid to think outside the box. I spent one summer interning at a magazine but took a short trip to try out to be a ball girl at the U.S. Open. I thought about writing a short story about it, but knew it wasn’t a fit for the print version of the magazine. And after looking on the website for a nook to no avail, I decided, “Nah, I won’t bother.” But the day before my trip, I summoned the courage to discuss it with my editor. She loved the idea and told me there actually was a blog it would work well for. I was thrilled and able to add one more story—in a different medium no less—to my portfolio.
6. Take Feedback Like a Pro
So you turned in your story, and you’re so excited about how it ended up—until you get it back and find it more marked up than a graffiti wall. That’s OK. Grab your thick skin, and take a good look. Make sure you understand why each edit was made. If you have questions, ask your editor, and see if she can elaborate on her comments.
One way to ward off the red pen shock is to initially ask your editor for a side-by-side editing session. You’ll be able to see more clearly what direction she wants the story to go in, and you’ll learn a lot about her preferences and editing process.
7. Find Mentors
Much of your career trajectory will depend on who you know, so build as many relationships during your internship as you can. (An editor from my last internship now is the person I turn to for career advice.) If you feel like you haven’t yet formed that connection, ask your boss to coffee—we all know journalists love coffee! Even more, though, people love talking about themselves and the paths they took to get to where they are today. Take advantage of the talented colleagues you have around you to learn about your field. Bonus: Once they know you on a more intimate level, they’ll be able to give you better advice for your future.
8. Collect Your Clips
The references you developed and stories you write throughout your internship are your ticket to a job in journalism. So collect copies of all your stories—electronically and in print—and track down several hard copies of your best ones. (Hey, your mom probably wants a dozen to pass out to her friends.) One easy way to get electronic copies is to access the publication’s PDF archive. Then, when it’s time to send a clip, you’ll already have a high-resolution copy in the right format.
Most importantly, have fun, relish that official company email address, and sop up all you can. Journalism jobs, in any capacity, can be incredibly exciting, and thanks to your hard work, you snagged a front-row seat to the presses.