From Wes to the Real World: Liana Heitin

Liana Heitin ’04 left Wesleyan with a B.A. in English and is now the Associate Editor of Education Week Teacher.  Read on to learn about what happened in-between and for some great advice for aspiring writers (as well as for anyone who’s starting to think about what they want to do post-graduation)!

You started out as a special education teacher. What made you decide to start writing?

I was actually writing throughout my years in the classroom.

Here’s a bit of the winding back story. The summer before my senior year at Wesleyan, I interned at Marie Claire magazine. The internship involved lots of photocopying and very little writing (as so many internships do), but while there I proposed an article about a women’s health issue that was close to my heart. Six months later, I got a call from the
health editor asking me to write the piece. That first big clip started off something of a
freelance career for me. I decided to go into teaching (kind of haphazardly–my first job was a summer tutoring gig that turned full-time), but stayed on the lookout for opportunities to write.  I blogged for an online music magazine, did some reporting for a local newspaper in Princeton, N.J., and took honorable mention in a food-writing contest.

After my fourth year of teaching, I realized I much preferred writing to lesson planning, so I set out to find a full-time writing job. What I found was another internship, at Education Week. I spent a year interning 40 hours a week and working two side jobs. During that time, the economy tanked and reporters were losing their jobs, so I volunteered for any and all writing and blogging they would let me do as an intern. I began amassing clips, and eventually picked up my first full-time job as a writer/editor.

What does your day to day life working at Education Week Teacher look like?

It depends on what sort of deadlines I’m under. But in general, I spend my days blogging,
editing freelance pieces, updating content on the website, preparing for webinars, keeping
up to date on local and national ed news, and writing for both our website and the print
newspaper. For several months in the summer and winter I’m focused on our biannual print magazine, which I write longer-form articles for and edit all the way through. I also
periodically live-blog from education conferences, visit schools for human-interest and best-practice pieces, and moderate live panel discussions.

What do you have to keep in mind when writing for a specialized audience?

It’s a careful balance–explaining enough to keep inexperienced readers engaged but not so
much as to frustrate those who are well-versed in the subject. Editors are helpful in this
(telling you what to flesh out and what to cut down). Links can be a helpful crutch when
blogging–you can save a few lines of description by linking to previous stories or outside
websites.

What I really enjoy about being at a niche publication, though, is that we’re able to dig into
stories–take time with the background and nuances and players–in a way that reporters on the education beat at a large national newspaper can’t. In fact, that’s the value we add as a specialized news provider. It’s not enough to just tell people what’s happening. We have to provide analysis and context–and that’s the stuff that really makes you think.

Do you believe writers should be experts in the fields that they’re writing about?

That’s a tough question for me. Between my internship at Education Week and being hired
on as a full-time editor, I worked as a health care reporter for a small trade publication in
D.C. I wrote mainly about the business of health insurance and HIPAA–two things I knew
nothing about before starting the job. I had no choice but to quickly become an expert on my topics. It was a steep learning curve. I did a ton of reading and found the most important voices in the field and learned everything I could from them. Pretty soon, I was a go-to source for other reporters.

But now that I’ve returned to writing about education–which I have an on-the-ground
background in–I’m much more comfortable. Coming into the job, I had immediate credibility with both my sources and my colleagues. I trust my news sense in education much more than I ever did in the health care reporting. And I have more fun with the writing because I’m more invested in the subject. That said, I also have opinions on what I’m writing about. And I have to be more careful to check my biases.

So I guess the answer to your question is yes, you need to be an expert. But there are
several ways of getting there.

You maintain a heavy presence on Twitter: what’s your strategy for writing great content in 140 characters or less?

Oh, Twitter. It took more than a bit of prompting from our Web team and my most tech-savvy friends to get me on there. But now I enjoy it. My strategy is to write something punchy that I myself might click on. And to use it pretty much exclusively for self-promotion. 🙂

What are your plans for the future? Do you hope to continue writing and editing?

That second question is easier. Yes! The best days are when I get sucked into a writing
project and lose all track of time. Writing is always hard and I love that about it. I enjoy the
editing, too–even copyediting. (Maybe that’s weird.) I’ve contributed to a book but would like to write one of my own at some point. I’ve got some ideas brewing.

As a teacher, what’s the best advice you can give to other writers?

I’ll pass along some good advice that my aunt, a revered writer and my mentor, gave to me.

Always walk away from a piece of writing mid-sentence. That way you can start writing
again as soon as you return.

Spend time around other writers. (This is what she told me when I was wavering about
leaving the classroom.)

Make sure every word is worthwhile.

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