My Featured Guest today is Christine French Cully, Editor-in-Chief at Highlights, which means she oversees both the magazine and book sides of editorial. Because the subjects are different in various respects, Christine chose to discuss the magazine side with us today. I’m most grateful for the time she has taken to repsond to my questions. Christine, thank you. Now it’s your turn.
Describe your job and what you like best about it.
I’ve been with Highlights for almost 18 years, but I certainly haven’t been doing the same thing all this time! My job has changed over the years and continues to change as both our company grows and the industry responds to the changing world.
Currently I serve as editor in chief, so I’m focusing more on editorial strategy, vision, editorial management, and product development that includes but goes beyond the magazines.
I also wear the hat of editor of Highlights magazine. In that capacity, I lead the planning of each issue and give final approval when each issue is finished. I am less involved in the day-to-day work of creating an issue, but I do also read and approve all manuscripts before purchase and lead all redesign work.
Tell us what you look for in a new story.
Writing for Highlights continues to be very competitive; we receive between 800-1,000 manuscript submissions monthly. From these, we seriously consider only the best and buy very few, so a story has to be extremely well crafted to be accepted.
We also want our stories to be fresh—to include an interesting twist or show the reader a different way of looking at something familiar.
Sometimes it seems as if everything has been done, and maybe it has. But there are still original ways to make a familiar theme feel fresh and new.
Our stories must also support our corporate mission to help kids become their best selves—curious, confident, caring, and creative. We often say that a good story for Highlights is a story that leaves something positive with the reader—long after the details of the story are forgotten. But that’s not the same thing as saying a story should be moralistic or preachy. We definitely don’t want that. A story has to be a good read, first and foremost. But we also want it to leave the reader feeling hopeful, inspired, more confident, more tolerant, more self-aware—or just, in some general way, a little bit wiser about the world. And this take-away must be organic to the story–not tacked on or forced.
I think you were asking about fiction—but most of this applies to nonfiction articles, as well. Additionally, for nonfiction, we want the reader to use original sources when possible—and to avoid “dumping the whole load” on a reader. The nonfiction writer needs to use a zoom lens and focus on one aspect of his or her subject. A writer just can’t do birth-to-death biographies and the everything-you-need-to-know articles in 800 words or less. A common mistake nonfiction writers make is sounding too scholarly or encyclopedic. We think kids respond best to nonfiction that has a story-telling quality to it.
Has children’s publishing changed since you became an editor?
I’ve been in children’s publishing my whole career—thirty years now. (Yikes. Let’s keep that number our little secret, shall we?) No doubt, the biggest changes are related to publishing technology. I remember the days when the art directors were using Rubylyth and Xacto knives and the entire office smelled of rubber cement. This was before desk-top publishing.
Today, we have to think more about how our work will accessed by or delivered to readers. Publishing is not just about ink on paper anymore, and we can’t afford to think of ourselves as simply “magazine editors.” I am not especially fond of the word “content,” but for lack of a better descriptor, editors are becoming “content creators” who are platform agnostic. Or, as Dr. Samir Husni, also known as “Mr. Magazine,” says: We have to think of ourselves as “experience makers.” Today we talk a lot about reaching kids where they are—and they are as likely to be in front of a screen of some sort as they are to be curled up in a chair with a book or magazine. But whatever the platform, a published story still has to be a really good, immersive story with a clear theme, plot, conflict and tension, memorable characters, writing that sparkles–all those good things.
How and why did you become an editor?
Many people in this field have fallen into it, after first having careers as teachers or other kinds of journalists, for example. I’m an anomaly because all I’ve ever done professionally is edit children’s periodicals. I loved magazines as a kid and was fortunate to have parents who happily supplied me with several subscriptions. When you’re a kid, it’s such a thrill to pull a magazine out of the mailbox with your name on it! It was like a visit from a dear friend. I usually read my magazines from cover to cover in the first day or so–and then kept them for rereading.
I have a vivid childhood memory of reading a favorite magazine, Calling All Girls, and discovering the masthead. I remember the editor’s name was Ruby Something—and I knew at that moment that when I grew up, I wanted a job like Ruby’s, choosing and editing great stuff for kids to read. I well know how unusual it is for an early-childhood career aspiration to come to fruition, and I often marvel at my good fortune. I am doing the only thing I’ve ever wanted to do.
What’s particularly gratifying about my job at Highlights is receiving mail from kids who are having the same kind of intimate relationships with their magazines as I did with mine. They write and tell me that they devour their new issues right away. They stumble upon my name on the masthead and write to me personally and tell me how lucky I am to have this great job creating magazines. I tell them, “Yes, I know exactly what you mean!”
What are the main differences between a magazine story and a book?
Here are just a few differences we talk about with writers. Although a good magazine story should deserve a second read or more, a picture book really must stand up to repeated readings. A magazine story usually takes place in a short time frame, requires a certain pacing, and is usually sufficiently illustrated with just a few illustrations. A picture book tends to be more episodic and must lend itself to varied illustrations. A magazine story usually has to fit within specified word counts; picture books are usually created with a 32-page template in mind.
Sometimes a magazine story can be expanded into a fine picture book. But it is unlikely that a story written for magazines can also serve as a picture book without significant revision. And vice versa.
What can writers do to improve their chances of being accepted?
Rewrite, rewrite, rewrite. Don’t send your first draft. Put your first draft in a drawer for a few days or even weeks. Then look at it with a fresh eye, revise, and repeat this process. Good writing is rewriting.
Aspiring story writers should also study the magazine market and make sure they’re sending the right story to the right publication. The best way to study a magazine is read at least a year’s worth of back issues.
Having said that, I do think that a writer can overdo the research. Some writers mistakenly think that they need to write exactly the kind of story we’ve already published. We’re always looking for something fresh and different—and if you understand our mission (stated on page 4 of every issue of Highlights) and if your story is aligned with our mission–it’s OK if it’s different. In fact, your story may very well be that “something different” we’re always looking for.
We urge writers to write what they feel passionate about. To write well, you have to write from the heart. Research is important—but you don’t want to be formulaic or imitative.
Should authors copyright their material before submitting it?
It’s not necessary to copyright your material before sending it in. As the creator, you already own the copyright, according to law. If we purchase your story, we buy all rights, including the copyright from you.
How do you feel about simultaneous submissions?
At Highlights, we don’t mind simultaneous submissions—but we do like for you to tell us you’ve submitted the story simultaneously in your cover letter.