Tag Archives: Jo Usmar

Jo Usmar: Being a Cosmo Columnist and Other Stories @Book to the Future

jo usmar 2“I am proof that, if you graduate from here…you can touch Harry Styles! Oh no, not in a weird way!”

With her nervous gesticulating and self-deprecating manner, Jo Usmar  instantly charms her audience, negating any preconceptions of the officious, odious journalist.  The talk has an informal but intimate feel from the outset, as Usmar guides her listeners through a career story with such humble origins as to put all aspiring writers in her midst at ease. Describing her younger self’s reluctance to get involved in student media societies until her final year, Usmar assuages the anxieties of those of us clamouring to fatten our portfolios, whilst also stressing the importance of utilizing such resources.

Whilst such a platform could have afforded Usmar the chance to self-indulgently pontificate for a 45-minute stretch, she instead chose to impart insights and advice laden with the benefits of experience, as well as some choice anecdotes; she had the hotly contested job of ‘preparing June Sarpong’s blueberry porridge’, not to mention the coveted ‘first interview with One Direction!’ Her delivery is rushed, with neither comic-timing nor polish, but the result is compelling, for Usmar is accessible, and thus fascinating.

 Starting her career at Sugar magazine – which unfortunately met its demise shortly after – Usmar worked her way up through the journalistic ranks: a healthy dose of reality for those who thought they could simply waltz into an editorial position at The Times. Currently working as a freelance writer, Jo eschewed any fears her listeners associated with such a precarious position, by demonstrating what a vast range of opportunities such a position afforded her, having written for Stylist, Heat and The Daily Mirror. The title ‘Being a Cosmo Journalist’ really doesn’t do justice to the talk, for Usmar has accomplished so much more. She has also published self-help books, and speaks of the daunting task of finding a willing publicist in a frank but optimistic manner.

At times the writer is ill at ease, and this may reflect an anxiety to fill the allocated time, but these occasional uncomfortable lulls are punctuated by frank and honest observations, and the contrast between the seeming self-doubt that lingers with youth and the self-assuredness that comes from success appeals hugely to an audience of nervous undergrads. At one point she pauses, and asks “Is this helpful?”; here is a woman with an interest in her audience and a passion for her topic. The talk spans an invaluable range of topics, from work experience, to the importance of tailoring your writing style, to the importance of “just talking”.

 Jo Usmar is a University of Birmingham girl with no laboured airs or graces, and ‘Being a Cosmo Journalist and Other Stories’ could not have done more to convince her listeners of the importance of such qualities.

by Susie Dickey

Jo Usmar Interview @ Book to the Future

Jo UsmarInterviewing 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