Candor's managing editor Susan Arendt came to the agency having spent her career as a writer and editor for publications including WIRED, Polygon, ArsTechnica, Joystiq, The Escapist and others. Today, she works with our writers to help get the most out of their talents and to make sure that everything we publish meets our quality standards while matching the style, tone, voice and messaging of our clients' brands. We sat down with Susan recently to catch up on her role, what "brand journalism" means for her, and her efforts to bring better mental health to the gaming industry.
Hi Susan! Can you start by telling us a little about yourself and your role here at Candor?
I come from the world of tech journalism, where I covered video games for about 15 years. Before that, I worked in all kinds of publishing: books, magazines, even safety standards! At Candor, I get to take those skills and apply them to an entirely new kind of content and audience. I work with our team of in-house and freelance writers to craft brand journalism content for our suite of clients; to help them understand each client’s area of expertise well enough to write about it intelligently; and also to just plain make stuff worth reading.
What do you see as the primary job of an editor?
To give writers the support they need to be able create the best possible version of their content. It’s my job to be their cheerleader when they succeed and their coach when they fall short. It’s also up to me to have the 3,000-ft view of their words, so I can make sure they’re making the argument they want to make in an eloquent and effective way. At the end of the day, it’s my goal to help them make a piece of content they can point to with pride.
You’ve worked at a number of traditional media outlets, where you’ve held several managing editor and editor-in-chief roles. How is your role here at the agency different from your previous experience? How is it similar?
I get to work with a team of talented and creative writers in both settings, so the biggest difference is that we don’t have the same kinds of pressures here at Candor that exist at media outlets. Web media is a constant crush for output; teams are so understaffed that there’s often little or no room for editorial review and oversight. The demand for high-volume content production leaves no time to wonder if something truly serves the reader, or is as good as it could be. We have deadlines at Candor too, of course, but the overriding philosophy is “Is this good? Does it provide value to the reader?” Being able to take the time to create content that not only suits its intended purpose but is also genuinely good in and of itself is a welcome change.
Candor often talks about doing “brand journalism” for its clients. What does that term mean to you, as someone who comes from the world of traditional journalism?
For me, journalism aims to tell everyone’s stories, while brand journalism aims to tell one particular story. I like the use of the word “journalism” because it implies attention to detail, truth, and a code of ethics — all of which belong in marketing!
What qualities does a person have to have in order to be an effective editor?
More than anything else, you need empathy. You need to be able to put yourself in the mindset of the reader so that you can envision the journey they’re taking as they read a piece of content. In its simplest form, that means things like asking if they’ll recognize a pop culture reference, or if a certain word might be confusing in the current context. But it also means understanding their motivations, wants, needs, biases — everything that might influence the way they respond to that content.
You also need empathy for your writers, though! A lot of being a managing editor — maybe most of it — is handling the different personalities on your team of creatives. Every writer is different, and it’s important to learn how to give feedback in a way that they’ll hear it. They not only need to understand what it is you’re asking them to do, but they have to want to do it because they believe it’s the right decision. Most importantly, they need to feel comfortable pushing back on edits with you, because their vision might be better than yours and the issue is just that they didn’t execute it quite right. They need to be able to say “I want to keep this idea and here’s why.” A piece of content is the result of a partnership between the editor and the writer, and for that partnership to work properly, there must be trust. And for that, you need empathy.
What’s the most important or most common advice you give to the writers you work with?
In the agency setting, it can be really easy to get in the weeds when you’re crafting a piece of content. You might find yourself writing about a topic that’s incredibly broad or extremely intricate, or both! There are so many different ways to write about things that it can be overwhelming to the point of confusion. So ask yourself, what would you find helpful? If you were the person reading this, what would you want to know? Simple, I know, but really easy to forget. The person on the other end of all those words is not all that different from you, so if you create something that resonates with you, odds are really great it’ll work for them, too.
The other thing that’s crucial for every writer to know is that no matter how talented you are, every once in a while, you’re going to work really hard on something and it is nonetheless going to be garbage. Just absolute trash. That’s not a statement about you, or your effort, or your skill, or anything. Writing is freakin’ hard, really hard, and doing it well consistently? Nothing short of a miracle. So yeah, of course you’re going to blow it sometimes. When that happens, don’t beat yourself up over it. Take a step back, recognize the trash for what it is — just part of the same process that literally every good writer goes through — shrug it off and move on.
One last thing. A lot of writers are obsessed with “good” writing, so they read the classics or advice about writing. That stuff is helpful, sure, but it also provides a very, very narrow view of what effective writing looks and sounds like. So, absolutely, read the greats, but also read news on websites (How quickly and clearly can you tell a story?) and menus (Why does a chocolate truffle seasoned with “Himalayan sea salt” sound more delicious than one with just “sea salt”? ) and biographies (What specific vocabulary is the author using to steer your opinion?). Expose yourself to more kinds of writing and consider what has an impact on you and what doesn’t. The more you take the time to notice the way language influences you in every aspect of your life, the more you’ll understand the power of the words you wield.
You’re also the co-founder of Take This, a non-profit organization dedicated to increasing education, awareness, and empathy for mental health issues within the gaming community. What progress has the gaming community made on this front over the last decade, and what is the biggest problem that needs to be addressed today?
I’m pleased to say that a lot of progress has been made since we founded Take This back in 2012. Mental health was not a welcome topic of conversation then; in fact, one prominent game developer organization told us that “mental health was a consumer problem, not a developer problem.” Since then, the gaming community has recognized that mental health is an everyone problem, and discussions about it are now much more commonplace.
Misinformation and stigma are still challenges to be overcome, but the biggest problem with mental health today, in my opinion, is one of access: More people than ever are willing to seek help for their mental wellbeing but are unable to get it. Both therapy and medication are often prohibitively expensive, even for those with insurance. That’s a problem that sorely needs to be fixed in order for there to be long term improvement.