They say that the first step in dealing with a problem is simply admitting you have one. So, here goes—my biggest issue in my career is that I’m much better at figuring out and looking ahead to the big picture rather than ironing out the little details. For example, during my senior year of college, I decided that my campus NEEDED a magazine. I had the right connections to get the project off the ground. I was also convinced that I’d never land a job after graduation (which was looming) without this feat on my resume. Something I am good at? Making things happen. So, I ran with it and within minutes, booked a meeting with the Student Activities director.
“What do you envision this magazine to be like?” the Student Activities director asked me during my “pitch.” I can almost verbatim remember my answer because, again, big picture comes much more naturally to me than the pesky little one(s). “I’m thinking Vanity Fair meets the ‘Random Notes’ section of Rolling Stone,” I blurted out. “I want big features—a day in the life of the student government president, a real view of the struggles some students face to pay tuition and what it really took to get our football program off the ground.” I spewed every “buzzword” I picked up during my recent summer internship at Rolling Stone—we’d do “photo shoots” and “sit down interviews” and could use “pick up” art from university archives to “offset” costs.
I walked out of the meeting fairly confident that my magazine idea would never get the green light, that I’d spend the remainder of my senior year fighting for it to come to fruition and then pass the baton to other hungry journalism students who could do the heavy lifting and figure out how to launch it. I’d get the credit without having to figure out any of the little details. Big picture work and leadership at its finest.
Instead, I was granted a test run.
I was given a small budget but enough money to print a test batch that could build the case for creating more issues—before the end of the school year—if successful. “You can graduate by leaving this legacy behind with a huge notch on your belt,” the Student Activities Director proudly told me.
Now I really had to do this.
All those big ideas that I threw out there? I had no idea how to manifest them. I didn’t know how to build a staff and layout an article or even commission a day in the life piece. I was a lowly intern at Rolling Stone who worked from the floor of the library and somehow sold myself as a mini editor-in-chief. Yet, I managed to pull a small team together and the GIANT story ideas I pitched, turned into, well — I’ll let this “pamphlet” speak for itself. I think I blocked out the meeting where this title–a nod to the USF Bulls—was decided upon.
I published one more issue and then was given the huge honor of creating a third edition, the last before I graduated, exclusively for freshman orientation. I’d leave my legacy, recruit incoming students as future contributors and then share this accomplishment with every potential hiring manager. Big picture wise? It sounded great. Little details were of no interest to me at the time because at this point, I was weeks away from graduation. And, so, despite touting a copy editor in the masthead, it’s kinda no shock that this happened . . . THERE WAS A TYPO! ON THE COVER!
I was mortified—especially because no one noticed until thousands were handed out and it was too late to pull them. Great first impression . . . and it didn’t help that the campus newspaper staff AND journalism department were not happy that I launched a “magazine” without their blessing. It supported their case that we couldn’t successfully create a campus publication without them. So, I graduated and talked up the legacy that I left behind by launching a magazine— conveniently leaving this particular issue out when sending clips. Yep, I was careful not to reveal my legacy of carelessness and ignoring the “little things.”
So, you must think that I used this experience to go on and become the most conscientious editor/writer in the history of the universe? That I was ironclad in my research and editing and that the little things were all I thought about?
Well, at least not right away.
Here’s a little ditty about a young magazine editor with her absolute dream job in the entertainment department of CosmoGIRL!. I was promoted from “assistant to the editor-in-chief” to “associate entertainment editor” in just nine months. I heard horror stories of others stuck as assistants or in very junior jobs for YEARS and only breaking out of the rut by leaving the publication. After a bumpy start as the assistant to the editor-in- chief—I pulled off some big projects that made me the front runner when a position in the entertainment department opened up. I’ll backtrack soon on how that transition was anything but smooth and why I was definitely NOT ready for the responsibility less than a year out of college. But for now, I’ll hone in on just this one part of the story that’s relevant to this blog post.
About a year into being associate entertainment editor, I started taking on bigger features and conducted more celebrity interviews—the exact assignments I WANTED to nab. I attended a lot of red carpet events to ask big stars little questions we needed answered for various round ups. Sometimes I arranged phone interviews with “medium” level stars when we needed some name recognition and the publicist either owed me a favor or doled out this favor as leverage so we’d cover a “rising star” client too. There were several problems with this: a) This was the HEIGHT of boy band mania, so I was often interviewing 3-5 guys at once and it was tough to keep track of who said what b) I wasn’t good enough with managing the little details (yet!!!!) to keep these transcripts and interviews organized c) I was NOT senior enough to warrant the help of an assistant or even an intern to do so.
The biggest hurdle/problem? Writing about teen stars for a teen magazine meant their RABID fans were their unofficial yet fearless watch dogs. All mini Carrie Mathisons—I guarantee most work for the CIA today (their endless and useless knowledge almost always checked out). It gave them life to pounce on any mistake—and they wanted to take down whoever put the wrong thing out there.
This was pre-social media so instead of spamming our Twitter feed—they flooded our mailbox (online and snail) with nasty-grams—threatening to boycott the magazine and demand retractions and Game of Thrones style punishment. They knew that our editor-in-chief famously responded to every single letter—and made editors immediately make corrections—IF we were wrong. Lucky for me, I had my transcripts from every interview as proof whenever I was challenged. Usually fans didn’t like it when whatever boy band member of the moment told us their type was brunettes but told Teen People they were into blondes . . .this happened a lot as these poor guys usually had a girlfriend (and in many cases, a boyfriend) they were trying to hide so they couldn’t keep track of what they “revealed” to each magazine. Their fans/mini-detectives, however, had meticulous reasoning for why they were right despite what our transcript might contradict.
And, despite my transcripts, I still had a few near misses when our fact checkers caught some discrepancies with my reporting and things had to be fixed very late in the process. It wasn’t a good look—even with being “young and green” as my “excuse”—and I was told I had to start looking at those little details with more care immediately or—well—or else.
So, here’s what finally whipped me into shape. We had this column in the entertainment section of CosmoGIRL! called “Musical Memory.” Every month we asked a celebrity to recall a song that always made them think of a specific moment, time or memory of their life and why they had to drop everything and listen whenever the song came on. It was a popular section as I quickly discovered everyone has that “song” and LOVES talking about it.
I interviewed the boy band LFO (of “I like girls who wear Abercrombie and Fitch” fame . . .) and asked each of them to recall their “musical memory.” They all did—but one had a particularly great story about a song he listened to in the car with his dad right after his parents divorced. I could have sworn that the “lead heartthrob” of the group said it (they talked over each other and it was tough to tell who was actually speaking) but after we went to print (yet before the issue hit stands) . . . I discovered in another interview that “lead hearthrob’s” parents were very much together and it was “heartthrob number two” that the “musical memory” actually belonged to.
My conundrum boiled down to the following . . .
Door Number One: Come clean, tell my editors and wait for the fallout that could possibly terminate my employment and end my career before it really ever began.
Door Number Two: Do nothing, pray LFO fans were no longer subscribing to CosmoGIRL! and my mistake would go unnoticed.
Door Number Three: Move to a secluded island in the middle of the night and sell coconuts on the beach until this all blew over.
I chose door number two—which meant three LONG, draining and arduous months of self-inflicted torture. You see, after I discovered the mistake, I had to wait almost a month for the issue to even hit newsstands. Then I had to hold my breath when the issue actually did hit stands for the fans (or worse—the band and/or their publicist) to catch it and rat me out. And then another month AFTER it was off newsstands for any crazy readers who went back and found it. Sure, someone could have caught this mistake a year after it went off newsstands but I felt like the statue of limitations was up after three months.
This meant three months of hell. I didn’t sleep. I gained 15 pounds from stress eating. I cried in the bathroom at work daily—sometimes from fear of that being the day I’d get caught and other times out of relief that I was still off the hook. I begged both of my grandmothers in heaven to protect me. In college, I learned at a women’s empowerment seminar that when you needed help you should literally ask for it and shout out “HELP!!!!!!” It put it out to the universe that you needed a proverbial life raft. My roommate thought we were getting robbed at least once a week during that time because I’d shout “HELP!!!!!” at the top of my lungs before falling into a fitful, nightmare ridden, sleepless night.
Moral of story? I didn’t get caught. But, I would not wish my three months of constant anxiety and fear on my worst enemy. I couldn’t tell anyone what was going on and I had to pretend everything was fine when interacting with my bosses and colleagues. Bottling it up all day just made it worse and I had no healthy way to cope other than go through the motions, eat every carb I encountered and wait it out. I still get a pit in my stomach whenever I hear an LFO song.
I never told this story until now. And even 18 years later, that anxiety floods back as I recount it. Work should never make you feel so terrible that you can’t function. If I could do it again? I’d come clean and live through the fallout. It would have sucked and I could’ve been fired. I also could’ve been slapped on the wrist. But at least I could have dealt with the consequences with a clear conscious.
Let’s Get Real!
· Bullistic is the worst title in the history of magazines. I can say that now—and while the magazine lived on for a few more issues—it did, as they say, quietly fold.
· Later in my career, I was a tough boss and drilled into my staff the importance of checking, rechecking and quadruple checking their work—but I never ever wanted anyone to suffer like I did. I tried to make it a rule that it’s way better to speak up early then cover your tracks when it’s way too late.
· However, that’s easier said than done. Sure, I was understanding—but no boss wants to go to THEIR boss and explain why they’re cleaning up a mess. It’s tough trying to reassure someone that a mistake won’t cost them their job—but on the same token, can never ever happen again.
· I’m first to admit that my blind spot is the small details. I can come up with big ideas with a fervor—envisioning big projects with multiple layers and extensions. Yet, sometimes I don’t think about the obstacles or little things that need to be accounted for—until it’s too late. It’s a muscle I work on strengthening with every new job and project I take on.
· One way I’ve learned to combat that is by making a checklist BEFORE I dive into a big project. It includes every last thing needed to accomplish each “big” component—including everyone and everything that could help me along the way.
· I also take ten minutes during every 1-2 hours of my work day to stop and check in with myself, my team, my lists and my goals. Has anything changed? Anything I need to add? Cross off? Reevaluate? Anything I forgot to do? Anything that I did do but happened differently than expected and might affect my outcome? Okay great, what do I need to do to fix things or change course? Where is my team at? Do we need to reassess their priorities?
· I try not to rush—which is especially hard because I’m all about instant gratification. My excitement and desire to achieve big goals the second I set them is usually what trips me up. I recently had a big deadline looming and a lot of people breathing down my neck. I was about to send in my copy when I noticed a typo. I knew if there was one typo—there were more to follow. So, I turned off my email and put my phone on silent so I could read through again, distraction-free. Sure enough, I found more typos, awkward language and big chunks of text I had to re-edit. I turned back on my phone/email to a barrage of “What’s going on? We need this copy NOW” —and it didn’t stress me out. I knew the work was now clean and I likely just eliminated any future rounds with the client by turning something in that was well vetted and edited. It worked as the client replied it was the best draft they ever received.
· Now, I’m by no means touting myself to have transformed into the queen of the”little details”—but I’ve learned the value of doing everything humanly possible to put my best work forward THE FIRST TIME. Sure, the internet has allowed for second chances and continuous edits—but getting it right on the first try builds a lot more trust. It also gives you the gift of time . . . time you can use to focus on your creativity as opposed to combating a reputation of sloppiness!
Lauren Brown West-Rosenthal is the Storyteller-in-Chief of her site The Not So It Girl, sharing lessons learned from her career in media as a writer/editor (and more) over the past 20 years. She gets real about her experiences at outlets ranging from CosmoGIRL! and Glamour to MTV and Sirius Satellite Radio—and recounts painfully true stories (such as how/why reality stars got her fired and declaring bankruptcy at 30) to dole out career advice and create camaraderie. Follow @thenotsoitgirl on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter—and read my full bio here!