I do a little corporate writing work as well as journalism and one of the things I always used to ask was: do you have production sorted? The answer would generally be “yes”, but it would turn out that they hadn’t. I’ve given up using the word outside newspaper and magazine offices but a lot of my colleagues still will. This is because to a journalist, “production” is something the production editor has organised alongside the editors and subs.
Too often you ask whether there will be production staff, the answer is “yes” and then the commissioning person goes into near-apoplexy when there’s a single typo. By “production”, the client often means the physical production of the magazine, in other words “have you hired a printer”.
So it’s worth explaining the journalists’ standard processes.
How we work
We get commissioned, we research, we write and we send the copy off electronically. That much is pretty obvious. The features editor, news editor or whichever commissioning editor we’re talking to reads through for sense and relevance – basically if we haven’t followed the brief or misunderstood it, this is the stage at which we’re weeded out.
Assuming it’s reasonably OK, our copy is then passed to the sub-editors. It’s here that the pieces are bashed into shape, checked for length and house style (is the first number written 1 or one? Are companies singular or plural?) and also for sense. Here’s where you’ll get queries coming in from someone who’s a grammar specialist rather than a subject matter specialist, and although the subs don’t welcome copy with typos, they’ll sort them out. So will their boss, the production editor.
Of course they’d rather have clean copy and I always try to send it. But if there are multiple deadlines then it’s only human to think “someone else is going to be looking over this, two people in fact…” and hit “send” to keep to timing.
Now, if you’ve given the writer the impression – using the word “production”, generally after going on about how much you know about journalism (I get this a lot from contract publishers but also corporate clients offering flannel about how well they know hacks and their world) – that this process will be intact, you might therefore get some copy in which the typing is less than 100 per cent. It’s not something we journalists should do and certainly not something of which we should be proud but it happens and it doesn’t mean we’re neglecting our job – just assuming there’s a decent safety net below.
The other thing a handful of corporate clients haven’t understood is that journalists are very good at finding things out and expressing them clearly, and after that we come to a halt. I was on a call a few months ago after writing a piece. On the call was me, the end client and the client’s digital agency – nobody from the writing agency that had employed me directly (and which itself reported to the digital agency) was there.
Embarrassingly, the client’s agency asked me to talk the client through my approach. I didn’t have much to say other than “I had the brief, I interviewed the client and I followed it”. But how, the questions ran, did I see this being laid out and what was I going to use to illustrate it?
The only accurate answer was that the writing agency had professionals with a vastly better visual imagination than mine, who’d be laying out and sourcing illustrations accordingly. And no, none of this would happen free of charge (although I was approximately 100 per cent convinced the cost would already have been in the contract). The digital guy clearly hadn’t taken any brief as to how the thing worked, and ended up making himself and me look ridiculous in front of the client.
So if you’re ever commissioning a journalist:
- Be clear about what’s expected. If there are no production people to proof and double check, we can handle it as long as we know.
- Be aware of what journalists do. We’ll be pleased to ask interviewees for pictures and come up with ideas for illustration if you need it; we may not be proficient in page layouts and if we claim to be photographers, watch out for quality, that’s a skilled job using specialist equipment and it takes years to master.
- If you find the odd typo, point it out by all means but don’t pick at it like a running sore – we’re a bit mollycoddled by other people picking these up for us and not saying anything, and probably didn’t know how bad our typing actually was..!