did you read the brief?

Read the damned brief

If you’re ever contributing to a publication and it’s not your property (in the way that this blog, for example, is indisputably mine) there’s something I’d like you to do. It’s really simple.

Read the brief and listen to the editor.

No names, no pack drill, but sometimes people just write what they feel like. And it’s never right. I’ve had this more than once.

Writing isn’t as creative as you think

One instance was a year or so ago. I was approached by a potential contributor to a magazine I was editing at the time. She was an author and was brandishing her new book. This looks interesting, I said, could you write a piece for us on (I named a particular subject). She sounded enthusiastic.

Later I followed up by phone. I discussed the angle I needed her to take. “OK,” she said. “I’ve thought about this and I think I’m going to write you an article on partnerships.”

She never did, but then I didn’t chase up, for the very good reasons that 1) I couldn’t use an article on partnerships, and 2) I certainly couldn’t use a contributor who’d ignore my requests and write what they felt like instead.

The big secret is that magazine writing is a craft rather than an art form. An editor has to balance the content up, make sure it all works together, and if a writer with no knowledge of the rest of the content starts writing what they feel like, they’re likely to end up duplicating something already going in or – worst sin of all – ignoring the reader. It’s factory writing in a way, and as editor if I order one of those and four of these, that’s what I need to see in the magazine.

Not unique

It wouldn’t be so bad, but this wasn’t a unique occurrence. I’ve had contributors on press day turn around and say “I know you wanted something on A but I’ve written about B instead because I thought it was interesting”. So did I, which is why I commissioned writer C to put together an article about it, please close door D on your way out. I’ve had professional journalists turning up at the last minute with a story of 200 words instead of the 500 I’d commissioned, because they “didn’t think it was worth the extra space”. Fine, but tell me before the end of the publishing process, I still have a page to fill.

It’s endemic, and the presence of the Internet sometimes leads people to think pages don’t exist any more so they can scrap length ideas, editors will just cope.

This isn’t how it works. Editors with publications coming out in hard copy still have physical pages to fill, and if they’ve allocated space then your part of the agreement is to fill it with something relevant. Here are a few tips:

  • Read the brief
  • If anything’s unclear, check with the editor
  • If you’re working through an intermediary, perhaps a public relations person, make sure you contact the editor directly too – I’ve been told in the past that “my PR said this would be all right” when I don’t actually know the PR and certainly don’t work for them.
  • If you’re not happy with the subject, say so early on. Don’t just write about something else and imagine we’ll feel obliged to print it, because we won’t. If you really feel our take on something is wrong, fine – tell us about it, we can talk.
  • Basically have some respect for our accountability to our readers – you might well have agreed to contribute something and if it’s on topic and good we’ll be genuinely pleased. If it’s not on our topic, or on something completely irrelevant, we’ll reach for the virtual bin very quickly indeed.

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