How I became...

Karen Packham

...a magazine editor
July 2007

Karen Packham (BSc 1984) is a freelance editorial and website consultant based in London. After graduating from Bristol with a Physics degree, she became a journalist and spent several years as editor-in-chief of a successful newsstand magazine before working in the internet market and then going freelance.

Starting out

As a girl I loved reading books and writing stories. I was lucky to be taught spelling and grammar in a very traditional way and at 12 I won the school English prize. However, I was always good at mathematics and science, so, with no clue about what career I wanted, I chose a Physics degree. At Bristol I discovered that I really enjoyed the written aspects of my course. Having been warned off technical writing by my (technical writer) father, I decided to pursue a media career and use my choice of degree to my advantage. Sure enough, a well-written CV from a female with a Physics degree stood out from all the wannabe scribes with arts and journalism qualifications, and I landed an editorial assistant’s job on a technical magazine.

Becoming an Editor

The first time I saw my name on the masthead of a magazine I was hooked. The thrill of producing something from scratch that was informative and that people wanted to read was very exciting. Starting at the bottom in a small company meant I learned a lot of valuable skills quickly, as I had to do layouts and editing, as well as writing.

My first editorial job

My first editor’s job was on a monthly computing magazine. Even as a child I’d been told I was a good organiser, but when I was given responsibility for the whole editorial process, I realised that being good with words is just a minor part of the role.

Moving on

Later I landed a features editor position on the first magazine to be launched in the UK by a major US publishing firm. A couple of years later I became editor-in-chief. The magazine covered the mail order PC market, and its huge success mirrored the growth in that industry during the 1990s. At its peak we published an issue with nearly 1,000 pages, of which over a quarter were editorial – a major feat of planning.

Ups and downs

Being an editor is hard work and carries a great deal of responsibility. You have to be good at planning but you also need to be able to make decisions fast when you’re up against a deadline. And you have to stand up for what you believe the readers want and for your journalistic ideals in a business where advertising pays the wages.

There are bonuses. Foreign trips weren’t glamorous but did offer chances to see places I’d never otherwise have visited. I’m not a techie, so learning to write about the PC business enabled me to write about almost anything, and I also learned to write speeches and marketing materials, and to give presentations.

Since turning freelance, I’ve worked for a wide range of clients including charities and trade unions. Funnily enough, though, the very technologies I wrote about as a magazine editor are the ones that now let me juggle my freelance career with looking after my children.

What you need to make it

Good writing and management skills are imperative: you can be taught how to improve, but you need innate skills in both. Journalism and media courses can help but it is possible to get into publishing without doing one. Having been an editor, though, I would recommend getting any relevant experience you can to make your CV stand out from the crowd.

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