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"Our Readers Are Intelligent and Savvy":
A Conversation with Girls' Life Editor Kelly White

By Anna Olswanger

Kelly White, Executive Editor of Girls' Life, a magazine for girls 9-15, not only generates story ideas, assigns stories to freelancers and regular contributors, writes feature stories and department columns, conducts celebrity interviews, edits all copy, oversees professional photo shoots, and tests recipes at home in her kitchen (whew!), but on the afternoon that Anna Olswanger visited her, tested "Surf Frogs" (a live frog habitat with tiki club and a surfboard) and whipped up toothbrush-handle bracelets while answering the following questions.


ANNA OLSWANGER: What makes your magazine different from others on the market?

KELLY WHITE: Other magazines for girls 9-15 have a tea party mentality. American Girl, for example, has a lot of historic fiction, while we're more contemporary. We're "teen" in the sense that we're hip and trendy, but we don't talk about issues, like sex, that are too old for girls in our age group. Our readers are smart, opinionated, and yes, they like boys and shopping and make-up, but they have thoughts and opinions. They like sports, they like music, they're consumers.

OLSWANGER: What's your mission at Girls' Life?

WHITE: Our mission is to boost girls' self esteem, and make them feel powerful and good about themselves. For example, we don't set up a prototype of what girls are supposed to look like. We give them the message that they are all cool, no matter what their height, their shape, their hair color, their eye color. And we challenge their minds. Just because girls like things that are pretty, doesn't mean that they're not smart.

OLSWANGER: What's the magazine's connection to the Girl Scouts?

WHITE: The Girl Scouts approached us about four years ago and asked if we would be their magazine, and we said sure. The Girl Scout subscribers get the same magazine that the newsstands and the regular subscribers get, but they have four extra pages of Girl Scout news bound into the center. Rosemarie Cryan at the Girl Scouts handles that.

OLSWANGER: Where do you get article ideas?

WHITE: We listen to our readers through letters and e-mail. Occasionally we send out written questionnaires and ask girls what's cool and what's not—if they've ever cheated on school work, that sort of thing. Plus, we always post a "Question of the Week" on our web site. Recently we asked how girls feel about single sex classrooms, so we're doing a feature on this. And because we listen to our readers, we do a lot more boy and crush stuff than we used to.
We also look at other magazines and see what they're writing about. That's not to say we steal their ideas, but we keep on top of what's out there. We watch the television channels Nickelodeon and The Disney Channel. And we talk to kids. I have teenagers, so I know what the trends are.

OLSWANGER: Do you have a theme for each issue?

WHITE: All of our issues scream a certain season or holiday: December/January is a holiday issue; February/March is a big crush issue because of Valentine's Day; April/May is spring; June/July is summer; August/September is back-to-school; October/November is fall.

OLSWANGER: Are you looking for any particular articles?

WHITE: We could always use feature ideas and quizzes, but what we're looking for most are ideas for a "Try It!" column we just revived. In the past we featured sports like snowbiking and spelunking. More recently, we did scrapbooking and how to start your own summer camp. We want anything that challenges girls to get out there and break new ground.

OLSWANGER: What do you not need?

WHITE: We have a department called "One Girl/One Solution." We feature a girl who has done something cool, some community service, or once we had a girl who wrote her own book and had it published, that kind of thing. We love charity, and we like to tell the girls that they should get out there and volunteer, but we get a lot of queries about "this girl did a food drive," or "a clothes drive" or "a neighborhood trash pickup." We see too much of those particular things.

OLSWANGER: Do you reprint from magazines?

WHITE: We've done a few reprints, one from Marie Claire about a girl who takes care of her chronically ill mother, another about cheerleading, and a piece about Venus and Serena Williams. But we really don't accept pitches of reprints. If we see it in another magazine and like it, we go after the rights.
We regularly reprint from books. A lot of agents from sub rights divisions at children's books publishers send me books. If I have an idea in mind, but none of the stories in the books float my boat, I contact our book reviewer who works in a children's bookstore, and I put her on that. I give her one hundred dollars to negotiate with sub rights.

OLSWANGER: Is that the going rate for contributors to Girls' Life?

WHITE: No. A hundred dollars is for reprint permission. Generally we pay $350 for a department, and if somebody starts writing for us regularly, that might go up. We pay about $500 to $800 for features.

OLSWANGER: How should writers contact you?

WHITE: I hate to see somebody go to the trouble of completing a manuscript that's going to be rejected, so I like to see a query wrapped up in a couple sentences. If it doesn't grab me in the first couple of sentences, it's going in the reject pile. I don't have time to read a two-page letter. The query should be fun and punchy, and if I like the idea, I will assign it to that person whether or not I have seen the writing. I can fix the article if I have to.

OLSWANGER: Do you want clips with a query?

WHITE: Preferably. But some people don't have clips. They're just breaking into writing. I will give anybody a chance if her idea rocks.

OLSWANGER: So which queries or articles go into the reject pile?

WHITE: Some writers may not be used to writing for a younger audience, and they send me articles that read like they're talking to a dog. It's insulting. Our girls are intelligent, they're savvy. Just judging from their letters, they're not dummies. So we don't ever, ever talk down to our readers.

OLSWANGER: What's your day like as an editor?

WHITE: I don't know that I have a typical day. Today I'm testing "surf frogs," making toothbrush handle bracelets, and testing the recipes that our food writer has come up with. That's because we had an incident where the ingredients of a Christmas cookie recipe were messed up. So I figured, if we test the recipes, this won't happen. I just do it in my kitchen—it's not a big deal.
I throw parties, and this is something probably few editors do. We actually throw most of the parties that we shoot. I have one next week. We're doing a middle school graduation party at a country club. Everything that is in the article—invitations, decorations, games—will be in the shoot.
I also travel. For example, I was at Disney's 25th Anniversary. I interview bands, and that's fun. I get to meet the bands you see on MTV. And I edit a lot. Every piece of text that comes into the magazine I have to tighten up.

OLSWANGER: Are you a harsh editor?

WHITE: I do the red pen. I take the hard copy and mark it. I go to town on this stuff, let me tell you. But sometimes I just send the article back. For example, in the "Try It" column, we had someone do an article on jump-roping. The writer interviewed a jump-roping team in Indianapolis, and the whole article came out as a profile of the team. I sent it back and asked her to put it in a "hands on" perspective. I told her to give us some moves.

OLSWANGER: It sounds as though beginning writers might have a tough time breaking in at Girls' Life.

WHITE: No. If they send me a query with a great idea, I'll assign it. I think as long as the pertinent information is there, I can fix it if it's not well written. I can make it readable. That is not to say that they shouldn't try to make the article great, but I'm not going to say, "Oh, I like this query, but I don't like her clips so we're going to do it in house." I don't steal people's ideas, ever.

OLSWANGER: What do you do to fix an article?

WHITE: That depends. If an article comes in and it's a snore, and just needs to be funned up a little, I fun it up. I inject it with words like "swank" and "stoked." [laughs]

OLSWANGER: How can writers learn fun words?

WHITE: This has a lot to do with personality. You can hang out and listen to how kids in that age group talk, you can read the magazines they read, watch the television shows they watch. But many writers try to weave trendy language into their pieces, and it comes out sounding contrived. Our magazine has an overall voice that is laid-back, and not uptight.

OLSWANGER: So are you editing mainly for voice?

WHITE: Sometimes I'm working out sentence structure. For example, a lot of sentences start with "there"—it's unnecessary. One of the most overused words in the world is "that," and I take it out. A lot of times I turn a sentence around so you don't have so many sentences that start with the same word. Sometimes articles are choppy. They don't flow very well, and I make them flow, or if there's not good transition from one paragraph to the next, that kind of thing, I fix it. Other times, maybe the lead needs to be rewritten, or maybe the whole thing needs to be restructured—this thing at the end is more important and should be pulled to the top.
And I'll tell you one thing I see a lot of: I just got an article about mothers and daughters that said something like, "Maybe you and your mother should try to do more things together." Instead of being general, I want the writer to be specific and say, "Maybe you and your mother should go out rollerblading together."

OLSWANGER: What's your final advice to writers?

WHITE: They should read the magazine. Then they get a feel for what our voice is. We are, like I said, not condescending. Still, we try to speak our readers' language.

Other interviews by Anna Olswanger are available at Anna Olswanger Books.


Copyright 2000 Anna Olswanger. All rights reserved.

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