Why I Refuse to Ever Take Another Edit Test
Job recruitment used to be about finding superior talent. Now it’s just ticking boxes.
It’s taken nearly 15 years, but I now realize just how good I had it during the first half of my career. I graduated from the University of Florida in Gainesville in May of 1991 with a bachelor’s degree in Magazine Journalism, and by August of the same year, I was an intern at People magazine, nine months away from becoming the youngest person on staff.
Several days after graduation, I packed up my white 1980 Toyota Tercel and drove to Charlotte, North Carolina, to begin my summer internship at the Charlotte Observer. Part of what got me through that long, hot summer working for a satellite Observer paper in Monroe, a town so small at the time it didn’t have a local bar, was the impending realization of my New York City dream. One evening while having drinks with a visiting college friend in downtown Charlotte, I was telling him about my upcoming People gig when a lady sitting beside us interrupted me.
“What? You’re going to be working at People magazine? At your age? That’s the kind of place people spend their entire career trying to get to.”
Her enthusiasm flattered and inspired me. It immediately made me feel better about working for a publication I’d always considered to be my mom’s magazine, terribly uncool. From that moment on, it became more than just an opportunity to move to New York City and be in the center of everything. I started to see it as proof that my potential had been noticed. Surely it would be smooth sailing from there on out.
After turning down an offer to extend my time at the Observer to fulfill my commitment to People, I was on my way. But it wasn’t as smooth a ride as I expected.
Once I was inside the door at People, I had a lot of proving myself to do, especially as a young Black journalist in an industry dominated by White editors. Others may have climbed the ladder faster than I did, but when I left New York City to move to Buenos Aires 15 years after my arrival, I knew I had made it, and as the old saying goes, if you can make it in the Big Apple, you can make it anywhere.
I am a Black Journalist, and I Have Always Felt Like an Outsider in the World of Media
Black talent matters. It needs to be nurtured and valued.
I’d like to think I did, first in New York and later in South America, in Australia, in Asia, in Africa, and in Europe. I spent the first eight years of my professional career at People, where I worked my way up from intern to staff writer. Then I went on to be an editor at Teen People, Us Weekly, and Entertainment Weekly. I made enough of an impression at Teen People to be rehired there three years after leaving, as the second-in-command editor. With each new job offer, I didn’t have to fill out an application or send in my resume. The hiring editors all approached me, and not once during my entire 15-year first run in New York City did any of them ask me to do an edit test.
It wasn’t until I left New York City to live and work on multiple continents as a freelance writer and blogger and as a contributing and staff editor, covering celebrities, entertainment, travel, and later, political and social issues, that edit tests entered my life. The first one I did was for a position as executive editor of Glamour in Australia. I didn’t get the job.
The second one I took, for a digital entertainment editor position in Sydney, had a positive outcome. After I passed the test, which required me to edit three short stories and took about 30 minutes to complete, they interviewed me over the phone, and then flew me from Cape Town, where I was living at the time, to Sydney, to meet me in person. By the time the first of my two flights home landed in Johannesburg the next day, I had received an email offering me the job.
Over the next five years, I built up my resume further. I transitioned from print to digital, compiled a reel filled with samples of my best on-camera interviews and TV appearances, sparred with Piers Morgan on Good Morning Britain, wrote and self-published two memoir/travelogues that were Amazon best sellers, edited a Time Out travel book from my couch in Buenos Aires, produced an LGBTQ video series for Thought Catalog during a global pandemic while in lockdown in its epicenter, and became an activist writer whose Variety essay about the harmful history of the word “Dixie” may have encouraged, according to the New York Times and a number of other major publications, the Dixie Chicks to drop “Dixie” and become, simply, the Chicks.
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In spite of how hard I’ve worked to become — in the words of several international writers who cited my Variety story when covering the Dixie Chicks-to-the Chicks name change — a “top” U.S. journalist, I’ve never had as hard a time finding another full-time editorial job as I have since returning to the US last year.
In the years between my departure and return, the job hunt and interview process became a far more multi-layered and unwieldly beast than it was back in the days when I was climbing the ladder of success in New York. It’s now so padded I once was interviewed by a website’s editorial assistant after being interviewed by the editorial director for a Senior Editor position. No matter how many questions they ask, how hard you prove yourself, how thoroughly your work has populated the Internet, the edit test is now, apparently, de rigueur.
Here is one I tackled last year for a Senior Editor position at a New York-based website (in addition to two rounds of phone interviews and two in-person ones). It took me a full work day, which I spread out over a weekend, to complete:
1) Pitch 5 news stories the publication did not cover with a headline and two-sentence synopsis, conveying the publication’s particular angle. (Assume all five would be running on the same day.) Please write one of them, keeping it to 500 words or less.
2) Pitch 3 second-day responses to news stories that have a slightly longer lead time and would require additional reporting. Please include a headline for each.
3) How would you rewrite the following three headlines?
4) List any topics/areas of interest/significant people/movements/happenings/trends that you think should be covered by the publication, but you just don’t see covered by competitors.
5) In addition, I had to edit a 1,000-word story.
Even if you ace the edit test, as I was told I did the one above, there’s no guarantee that after you’ve sat though a half-dozen interviews you’ll receive even a courtesy phone call or an email informing you that they’ve gone in another direction. To date, I’ve only gotten one.
Still, I keep trying. Several weeks ago, I applied for a senior editor position at a travel website that was posted on LinkedIn. An HR recruiter soon contacted me to tell me how impressed she and the editorial director were with my resume, and she wanted to set up a preliminary interview.
An hour-long chat with her was followed by a 90-minute Zoom interview, first with the editorial director and then with another person holding the same title as the position for which I was applying, in which I had to recount my career trajectory for the billionth time (as if it isn’t laid out in minute detail in my resume) and answer all the expected questions: Why do you want to work here? What is your editing style? What do you like about our publication? What would you improve? What is a hurdle you’ve faced on the job and how did you overcome it? Did everyone pull these questions from the same “How to Interview” guide?
And of course, there was the dreaded edit test. I was actually a bit surprised when the editorial director bought it up. Usually, they give you the edit test before scheduling multiple rounds of interviews. They’re supposed to be like the initial audition before the call back, so that the job seeker is the only one who ends up wasting their time.
After devoting two and a half hours to grilling and interrogating me, after listening to me expound upon my credentials and throwing 150 minutes worth of questions at me, they still weren’t sure if I could string sentences together effectively or do a job at a no-profile website that, frankly, is not worth the hurdles set up in front of it? To seal the deal, I still would have to complete an “editorial exercise,” as the editorial director called it, probably aware of the increasing stigma around the “edit test,” especially among older, more experienced candidates who are probably more qualified than the people interviewing them.
Spend a little time exploring the last few months of Stories we’ve published. In general, what’s working well, and what could be improved? What do you think of the level of journalism and the content mix?
Please pitch one original idea for each of the four categories below. Keep in mind our mission: to inspire curiosity and a sense of wonder about hidden or unusual places around the world.
a) An individual freelance article, including a recommended writer
b) A recurring story form or series
c) A particular writer you’d be interested in recruiting as a regular contributor
d) A story you’d like to write yourself, including your narrative and reporting approach
A freelance writer we’ve never worked with before submitted the article draft below. It was pitched as an unknown history of how Los Angeles’s Art Deco architecture has a history connected with 19th-century Scottish writer Walter Scott, and how this connection was related to anxiety about immigration and race. Please respond to it as you would were you currently assigned to work with the writer to get it ready for publication. Please use AP and Merriam-Webster as style references if needed.
With due diligence, I do my homework so that I can field every interview question like a pro. What always surprises me, though, is how little preparation the people who interview me do. A resume only tells part of the story; A Google search tells a more complete one. If you have no idea I’ve written even one book, you clearly haven’t vetted me.
I understand that the purpose of the edit test is to see if a candidate can do things their way. Does that mean my way, which they’ve spent hours asking me about and which ostensibly led to them reaching out after receiving my resume, doesn’t actually matter at all? Do they think a seasoned editor who has written and edited for multiple highly respected and recognized publications on all but one continent doesn’t have a firm command of the English language and cannot be trained to adapt his talents to suit their brand?
At this stage in my career, having to do an edit test before the main interview is insulting enough. Being asked to do one after more than two and a half hours of interviews made me feel like I was no closer to proving myself than I was at the beginning of the Zoom call.
I’d been down that road so many times, though this detour typically came a bit earlier in the journey. I knew where it was possibly — likely — headed. I’d spend hours completing the test, putting off work I am actually being paid to do, in order to finish a series of exercises that paid nothing and probably ultimately never would.
The more I thought about it, the more clarity I achieved: I knew what I had to do. I decided to respectfully decline the invitation to do the “editorial exercise.” Here is what I wrote to the editorial director:
Hello. It was great to meet you over Zoom on Monday. As much as I appreciate being considered for the Senior Editor role, I have decided to decline the invitation to do the editorial exercise. I feel that if my 30 years of professional experience, my extensive online presence, and the 90 minutes I spent talking to you and your colleague and answering pretty much every job interview question imaginable on Zoom (including what is included in part one of the editorial exercise) don’t confirm my ability to excel in this particular role and demonstrate what I can bring to your team, then I probably am not what you are looking for anyway. Thank you for your time and best of luck in your search for a Senior Editor.
And so my own search will continue, but it’s entering a new phase, one in which I will no longer spend hours doing the job before I get it. Going forward, from the outset, I will make it clear that I won’t be doing any edit tests that don’t take a maximum of 15 minutes to compete.
That’s as much time as I am comfortable waiting for someone who is late for an appointment with me. I give everyone a quarter of an hour window to show up or call before moving it along. I’d be perfectly willing to spend that amount of time crossing I’s, dotting T’s, and showing my command of the Queen’s English and AP Style.
Over the last year, I’ve realized that looking for full-time editing job these days is a lot like looking for love. If you want it too much, so much that you’re willing to stand on your head to prove you’re The One, you probably won’t be. You’ve got to put in the work, but at a certain point, once you’ve laid the foundation of a distinguished career with experience working for globally known institutions, you’ve earned the privilege of being properly courted.
I’m thankful I get enough freelance work to pay my bills and exciting projects to keep me busy and fulfilled. I don’t have to jump through hoops to nowhere. I’ll leave the edit tests to young, hungry journalists with unseasoned and untested talent, newcomers to the chase. I’m holding out for a hero — or at the very least, a position worthy of my experience that doesn’t require me to prove myself by spending hours toiling for free with zero guarantees.