How many editors do you know of who work with an all-volunteer writing staff? I’d guess the answer is not that many. But that’s exactly what Cheryl Serra does as editor of Cat-Tales, a magazine written by and for the retirement community of St. James Plantation, near Southport, North Carolina. Nearly every article is written by a volunteer.
Cheryl has some interesting advice about how to work with — to coach, to teach, to motivate — people who aren’t professional writers. And it’s advice that works just as well for the pros.
You have an all-volunteer staff. How do you go about training people on the basics of writing?
Two years ago we had our first writer's retreat, where we brought possible contributors to a meeting. We talked about what constitutes a good story and where you find good stories.
Some of our attendees were a little reluctant. They thought they didn’t have skills or didn’t know what it took. So we tried to assuage some of those fears and get them on board.
It was a really good mix of existing contributors and newbies. It really worked out well because the existing contributors got to tell their story. We had hands-on activities where people might interview someone or we’d say, “Here’s a story idea. Give me your first two graphs.” And the seasoned writers would help the new people.
We try to make it fun. We don’t make it school.
What other things do you do to help contributors?
We’re always trying to improve the quality of the writing, and I think that allows the writers to take pride in what they do.
Some people start out and they're not great. But they're not professional writers. I mean, I’m not an engineer, so I can’t go build a house. But they have an interest, and a lot of times that’s all it takes: an interest and enthusiasm.
We’ll work individually with writers, and we also try to enhance the skills of our frequent contributors. For example, we’ll send them AP Style Guide points that they might not be familiar with. Or, we’ll work with them to understand why deadlines matter. If one person misses a deadline, they could throw off the production process.
How do you generate ideas for the magazine?
We realize that people want to write, but they might not necessarily have ideas. So every month our volunteer co-editor and I meet with our editorial board and email our writers a list of stories we’re considering running, which gives them the opportunity to write them.
Sometimes we’ll sit down with someone and brainstorm ideas. For example, we sat down with the incoming mayor, and she said, “I don’t have any ideas.” But then we just talked for an hour, and we came up with a whole list of story ideas.
What advice would you give to someone who is early in their career and interested in learning how to run an editorial team?
When assigning pieces, I think what really helps is working to people's interests. When people are excited about what they're doing, they do well. I think that's the most important thing.
Also, make a lot of friends. Keep your ears open. I actually tell people that at our writer’s retreat. We had one story from a woman who was in her backyard and heard a bagpiper. It turned into a story — who knew there were a bunch of bagpipers in this residential community?
So be receptive. Unless you're receptive to story ideas, you're not going find them. It doesn't have to be earth-shattering. It could be some person that you don't even know about is doing some spectacular thing. Stories come in a lot of places. You really have to keep your eyes and ears open and talk to people — and you really have to like people too, I think.
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