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An Interview with Rachel Sanoff

HelloGiggles was the first publication that I read regularly. It was one of the first accounts that I followed when I was finally allowed to make a Twitter on my thirteenth birthday, the first website I checked when I woke up in the morning, and the first publication I ever submitted my work to. It was a guiding light to help navigate the volatile years of my adolescence, and in recent years it's become an oasis from the celebrity gossip and doomsday headlines I'm constantly bombarded with; it offers diverse perspectives on a range of crucial issues but never strays from its roots as a feminist website centered around fostering community. I've been following the site basically since it was created in 2011, and I've watched it change, evolve, and grow into what it is today.

Integral to those changes was the editorial board. In particular, Rachel Sanoff, the features editor, embodies HelloGiggles' values of positivity, social justice, and authenticity. I've been following her work since she became features editor nearly three years ago, and she never fails to impress. Her interviews always seem to come from a place of genuine appreciation but are not overly fawning. Her essays are earnest, upbeat, and entertaining, but they are also articulate, and never saccharine or vacuous. Perhaps most importantly, she's helped to make HelloGiggles an inclusive space that addresses cultural and political issues in a way that never sugarcoats the severity of these matters, but also, in a way that is hopeful and never veers into nihilism.

Both HelloGiggles and Rachel have been hugely inspirational to me. HelloGiggles actually served as one of my biggest influences when creating Hype; their mission statement to cultivate a positive community is a sentiment I've tried to implement in all my creative projects, but especially this one. So, it was truly an honor to speak with Rachel about her career trajectory, her current role at HG, and the advice she has for aspiring journalists.

When did you realize you wanted to go into journalism?

Writing and reading has been my outlet since elementary school, so I can't remember a time when I didn't want to be a writer—but as I got older, I wasn't sure what "being a writer" would actually look like for me. I was a creative writing major and student journalist in college, but even after graduation, I didn't think journalism was my route. Not because I didn't love it (reporting on feminist issues for one my college's magazines, Fem, was really transformative for me), but because I'd been convinced by peers that writing and journalism wasn't a "stable" career choice. So I'd never seriously considered going into it.

It was more than a year later, after applying for "stable" jobs and either not getting them (lol) or not being happy at them, that I decided I might as well pursue the one thing that has always mattered to me: storytelling—especially oft-ignored stories. Getting that first byline required a lot of trial, error, and unanswered emails to editors—but soon I was freelancing for places like The Culture Trip and Bustle and getting part-time contributor gigs (while holding down a part-time day job at the same time. Don't be ashamed of day jobs! Full-time freelance isn't sustainable for everyone!). Writing and working with editors on a professional level, reporting on politics and culture, and interviewing activists and artists was so exhilarating and so rewarding. I'd assumed that my passion was an unattainable job, so the fact that failing to achieve a more "traditional" career led me back to it really confirmed that journalism is for me.

What work are you most proud of?

I really appreciate you asking this! Working with writers as an editor is truly one of the greatest honors of my life, but as any editor will tell you, that role also means you don't wear your own writer hat as often. So I'm very excited whenever I get to share the writer part of me.

Before I joined the HelloGiggles staff, my freelance beat largely focused on health—usually sexual health, reproductive health, and medicine's gender bias. I'm very proud of a feature I wrote for Bustle in 2015 that explored how American sex ed and the U.S. government is failing students. I'm so proud of a story I got to tell for Jezebel in 2016: a reported long-form feature about two abortion-themed theater productions, and what the student activists, playwrights, and performers experienced on their journey to the stage. It got me some hate from a well-known anti-choice website, and pissing them off made me feel like I'd done right by all the folks I interviewed.

I've been HG's Features Editor for almost three years now; I'm so incredibly lucky to do this work and learn from such talented writers. Knowing that writers trust me enough to let me guide their most personal stories, that I've helped some writers achieve their first byline, that together we've celebrated unsung heroes and responded to our country's darkest injustices—I find the words for a living but I struggle to communicate how much it means to me. I’m so proud that I get the unique experience of writing pieces that span politics and pop culture—from essays documenting America's history of anti-Semitic violence and interviews with women who protect pregnant immigrants detained at our border, to conversations about Cardi B and Romy and Michele's High School Reunion.

What do you think is the most vital skill for a young journalist to develop?

Such an important question, and very hard to narrow down. I think I'll go with a few vital skills if that's okay:

Learn when a story is yours to tell, and when it's not. What are you adding to the conversation? If you're writing an op-ed, are you from the community impacted by the current event that you're covering? If you are reporting, did you interview experts from that field or folks from that community? There will never be a shortage of stories to tell, so it’s okay—and necessary—to take a step back so the best person or people to tell that story are the ones who do. Think of journalism and writing as a service to society and to the readers—not just an opportunity to get your name on something.

Don't let social media followings impact how you view yourself and your work. Working in journalism means always being on social media and being hyperaware of your notifications. If a story that is very important to you doesn't go viral, if another writer who made you feel insecure has more followers on Twitter—that doesn't matter. What matters is that you are dependable, flexible, respectful, smart, willing to be edited, and willing to start a professional conversation if you have questions/concerns about those edits. That's what makes me want to work with a writer, and keep working with a writer. A blue check or a viral tweet does not a talented writer make. If you get those things, amazing. But if you don't, you're still amazing. Don't worry about it. I’m not Twitter verified and I’m the only person in 2019 with a private Instagram. I’m self-conscious of my modest social media presence...but I’m also on a masthead, so I remind myself to focus on the actual work.

Know your worth. Journalism and media is an industry that requires a lot of self-advocacy, especially as more writers/editors rely on freelancing. If an editor expresses interest in your pitch, don't be afraid to ask for more money while you negotiate your rate. They might not have the budget to provide that higher rate, but they will never be annoyed at you for asking (we have all been or continue to be freelancers, too!). If an editor is rude because you decide to professionally take back your pitch and search for a higher-paying outlet, that's their problem.

Have patience, but be persistent. Editors are pulled in so many different directions. Our to-do lists change multiple times a day. We often don't have an associate with whom we share the workload. Follow-up emails are important—we genuinely aren't seeing your email because we are in an essay editing hole or your message got buried by PR newsletters. If your pitch isn't timely and you haven't heard back in more than a week, send us another email! I am so happy that writers have followed up with me—HG wouldn't have published some of our gorgeous essays if writers hadn't emailed me two, three, or FOUR more times. Do that—don't go on Twitter and "at"/subtweet an editor who hasn't gotten back to your pitch yet. And when the editing process does begin, know that notes are a good thing! They are not an attack on you as a writer; they intend to make your piece shine and fit into that specific publication. Every writer needs an editor, including editors when they put on their writing hat.

What's the best piece of storytelling you've ever encountered?

Oh wow, how do I choose. For the sake of conciseness, I’ll keep it to the work I’ve encountered at HelloGiggles—except I really can’t list just one. They all are so important to me—they move me and make me laugh. To answer this question, I will say that as a reader, I’m personally really affected by our essays that explore how pop culture shapes our identities and experiences—whether a writer is discussing how movies and TV helped them navigate grief, how the first time they saw themselves represented in media was in a music video, how and why they schemed to consume the media their parents banned, etc. Inside and outside of my job, I love reading meditations on pop culture and self.

How did you get your job at HelloGiggles?

Unexpectedly! But it was a good lesson in patience and going for a job even if you don't think you're qualified—as we women so often assume about ourselves. An editor at Bustle told me that HG was hiring a staff writer. I found the post on Linkedin and excitedly got my resume together, but the task took me a few days because my resume was so old. By that point, the job posting had closed and I was devastated—until I saw that HG was also looking for a senior editor. At that point in my career, I wasn’t qualified, but I was also aggravated that I had this shiny new resume with nowhere to send it. So I applied for the senior editor position for my own sense of satisfaction—and shockingly got offered an in-person interview with the Executive Editor at the time. Not so shocking was the fact that I...didn’t excel. I was so nervous during the interview and, once again, unqualified. I didn’t get the job. But seven months later, I got an email from the same editor offering me another position that I was ready for: Features Editor. I’m so glad that I took a risk and applied for an intimidating job just to apply—my name would have never been in the running for the next appropriate position if I hadn’t stepped outside of my box to make myself known. And I’m still here almost three years later.

What changes has HelloGiggles undergone since you first became features editor? How do you hope it will change in the future (if at all)?

We’re really focusing on publishing even more original storytelling—creating new essay series based on what we’ve seen matters most to our readers and expanding our base of contributors. The internet is so big, and that’s why we’re working really hard to create a special, unique corner of the internet for our readership. I am so excited to see these ideas come alive.

What do you wish you had known when you were younger?

I wish I’d known that “cool” would have a different meaning to me once I was grown up. I would have been a lot nicer to little Rachel if I’d known that cruelty directed at me as a kid wouldn’t always dictate my worth--my “coolness”--as a human being, as a girl, as a woman. It’s about to get real earnest up in here, but do you know the scene in Almost Famous when Zooey Deschanel’s character tells her little brother/the main character, “One day, you’ll be cool”? I’d like to tell my younger self that one day, you’ll be cool—but that’s because you’ll have a different definition of “cool.” It won’t be because you wake up without an overbite or because your parents suddenly agree to buy you expensive graphic tees from Hollister (ack, what's the contemporary equivalent of Hollister??). Just continue to be empathetic, kind-hearted, resilient, aware of what’s right and wrong, and continue to make yourself laugh, and you’ll end up around people who celebrate and embody those qualities. I wouldn’t be able to tell stories or help others tell their stories for a living (which btw is pretty cool) if I didn’t adhere to those tenets.

Images used in collage c/o Rachel Sanoff


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