Interviewing Jo Usmar was especially inspiring as not only is she a UoB graduate but she has my dream career as a columnist, freelance journalist, and published author. She joined the ‘Book to the Future’ festival to offer advice on how to make it as a journalist and met me beforehand to give me the inside scoop on her own journey.
Jo revealed that she got her first big break at FHM by networking her way up from being a studio runner at Channel 4. Finding that opportunities often open up “once you’re in the building”, she asked for work experience with Zoo, three floors up from FHM, and became their Editorial Assistant for a year and a half. She emphasised that FHM and Zoo were less controversial at the time and were certainly more successful than women’s magazines, reiterating her belief that any experience is better than no experience.
When asked whether she prefers writing for magazines or newspapers, Jo chose the former without hesitation, stating she “dabble[s] in news” but it’s “hard core… running out and finding stories. With magazines you have a longer timeline.” She conveyed the value of experience in news though, stating that it teaches you to write fast and to deadlines, which is helpful for any aspect of journalism. Indeed, Jo said that a transition from news journalism to magazine journalism is easier than the reverse, declaring that “if you can survive in news you’ll do well in anything!”
Jo now has the luxury of being a freelance writer, but it’s not an easy switch; to be successful and earn an employer’s trust you have to have a substantial book of work. Neither is it for nervous people as work is never guaranteed. Although she enjoyed the camaraderie in the office, she said she wouldn’t go back to being a staffer and it was clear that she enjoys the flexibility and freedom that comes with freelance journalism.
Aside from journalism, Jo is incredibly passionate about her latest project: a series of four self-help books which will be released on 7th January. Designed to be smaller and more accessible than other self-help books, they carry the overarching title ‘This Book Will’ and focus specifically on happiness, confidence, sleep and calm. Written with close friend and clinical psychologist Dr Jessamy Hibbard, their collaboration combines cognitive behavioural therapy with a style of writing that Jo hopes is “less intimidating and vaguely entertaining!”
In her spare time, Jo is a voracious reader and enjoys everything from Roald Dahl’s children’s classic Matilda to Bram Stoker’s gothic horror Dracula. She expressed her love of thrillers such as those by John Grisham, Lee Child and Stephen King especially – sharing her enthusiasm for his post-apocalyptic horror novel The Stand.
Jo finished with a few key tips for aspiring writers:
- Be enthusiastic and get as much work experience as you can.
- “Don’t take things personally!” Ask why your work was edited and learn from it.
- “Have ideas- if you have amazing ideas you will get an interview.”
Finally, she warns aspiring journalists to be prepared for long hours and menial jobs. “The hours are ridiculous and the pays non-existent. If you can’t hack it you won’t last. You’ve got to really want to do it.” Despite this, she declared that the “pros massively outweigh the cons for me”, before concluding with a smile “it’s the best job in the world”.
by Ellicia Pendle