Like many full-time freelancers, Allan Britnell combines steady gigs with shorter assignments. He’s the managing editor of Renovation Contractor, a bimonthly magazine for contractors and custom homebuilders. He also edits for ON Nature and the Smithsonian’s American Indian. As a writer, he contributes to Fresh Juice, Precedent, Connected and ratesupermarket.ca, and also works with corporate clients. Allan is president of the Canadian Society of Magazine Editors (CSME). When I asked Allan about his eclectic career, he replied, “My tired old joke is that I like to get around.”
Allan: I have a B.A. in journalism from Ryerson. I graduated from the four-year program in 1996, with my final two years focused on the magazine stream. I stumbled into freelancing by accident. There was a recession and jobs were scarce, so I started writing for whoever would take me on. (My first paid assignment was a piece on local cemeteries for the Ajax News Advertiser.) I developed a diverse stable of clients, and I really liked the lifestyle of being my own boss, not having to commute, and working on a variety of subjects. Another of my tired old jokes is that my one and only “real” job was a four-year stint as an associate editor at Cottage Life. I did a three-month contract for them and, near the end of it, then-editor David Zimmer offered me a full-time position. It was too good of an opportunity to pass up. I learned a ton, but knew that after a couple of years I’d try my hand at freelancing again. (Of course, they didn’t know that until now…) I left in 2002, and my business has grown ever since.
How long have you been at Renovation Contractor?
We launched the magazine with our May/June 2011 issue. I was hired as managing editor in February of that year. When I started, we had a media kit, a URL and a printer lined up. We built a magazine from scratch in a couple of months. I was recommended to the publisher by a good friend (and career doppelganger), Jay Somerset. In 2013, we were nominated for magazine of the year at the KRW Awards for work we did in 2012, our first full year of publishing. We didn’t win, but it was still a nice pat on the back.
What do you do there?
I discuss story ideas and get input from our editor-and-chief, Jim Caruk, but his main job is building and renovating houses. I take care of the day-to-day stuff: develop the issue themes and story ideas, assign stories to our freelancers and guest columnists, coordinate photo shoots and layout concepts with our art director, Darrell Leighton, and copy edit and proofread all the copy. (Jay Somerset is also a freelance proofreader for us.) I also write most of the copy for our departments, and usually write at least one feature per issue. Renovation Contractor represents about 60% of my time.
What are your favourite aspects of your job?
I love what I do. I truly enjoy researching new topics and still get a kick out of those eureka moments when you come up with a witty turn-of-phrase or transition line. And the editing side means I get to develop story ideas and packages that I would enjoy reading. But most of all, it’s the work-life balance that I love. As I said earlier, I quickly realized that I was well suited for the freelance/work-from-home lifestyle. And now that I’m the father of two young girls, I wouldn’t trade that freedom and flexibility for anything. I walk them to school most mornings, but can still be at my desk by 9 a.m. I’m always first to volunteer to chaperone school events – and am often the only dad who does, so I usually get picked. And for most of our life together, my wife has worked in high-stress corporate jobs, so being home most of the time really helps us cope as a family. Of course, nothing’s perfect. For one, I certainly wouldn’t mind making more money than I do. And every year or two, yet another magazine that I work for disappears, and a couple long-time colleagues announce they’re giving up and taking jobs in PR or some other (better-paying) field.
How do your experiences as a writer inform your work as an editor, and vice versa?
The two roles constantly complement each other. I can’t tell you how many times a line or passage from a piece I’m editing has inspired an idea that I could write for another publication. And as an editor, I know how frustrating it is to have to clean up sloppy writing, so I always proof my copy several times before I hit send. And you can’t underestimate the value of having a variety of tasks to handle. If the creative juices aren’t flowing, I can switch to proofing or something else less mentally taxing. Not that I’m saying proofing is a brainless task, it’s just that I’ve been doing it for so long it’s more of a mechanical exercise.
Tell me about volunteering for CSME.
I’ve been on the board since 2009, and have been president for a little more than two years now. But to be completely honest, the wonderful and hugely talented Jessica Ross should be president. She’s been on the board longer and is endlessly generous with her time and expertise to the entire industry. She was about to have her baby when my predecessor, Bob Sexton, announced he was ready to move in. I was the most senior person left, so they gave me the fancy title.
What role do you think CSME plays in Canadian magazines?
Editing can be a very isolating job, particularly if you’re a freelancer. I joined CSME primarily for the social and networking aspects. But in my years on the board, I think we’ve put on some really interesting and informative career development panels and sessions. But at a recent board meeting, Kat Tancock – another incredibly talented person who’s extremely generous with her time – suggested that we really should take more of a stand on issues facing the industry, and I wholeheartedly agree. Step one towards that is an event we held in November on the future of interning and what recent legal rulings mean for the industry.
What would you like to see in CSME’s future?
We’re a national organization, but most of our members and all of our events are in Toronto. We’ve been taking baby steps to get satellite events going elsewhere. Anicka Quin, editor-in-chief of Western Living, is our one non-Toronto-based board member, and she’s done a lot to raise our profile – and solicit input – from mags in Western Canada.
Do you have advice for people who want to break into magazines?
Rule number one: Don’t miss deadlines. Ever. Rule number two: See rule number one. Also, the Canadian magazine industry is a small one, so if you make an effort to get out to events (shameless plug alert!) such as those put on by CSME, you’ll quickly get to know people and make connections. I’m sure I’m not the only editor who pays closer attention to pitches that come in from people I know than cold calls from complete strangers. And because it’s such a small community, you really can’t afford to go around burning bridges or submitting sub-par work.
Allan Britnell is on LinkedIn.
This interview has been edited for length.