Magazines: what’s the deal?

I edit a magazine, Professional Outsourcing. I also edit, from time to time, supplements for the New Statesman. These share something in common: we very frequently use contributions from people whose day job isn’t journalism. And I’m guilty of forgetting, from time to time, that not everybody is going to know the “rules”. So in case you or a client are ever in that position, here are some thoughts based on mistakes I’ve seen people making.

  • A magazine is probably not a professional document. There are exceptions. The Lancet, Hansard, no doubt others are, but most magazines are going to be written with consumers in mind. Even if they’re intended for a professional audience the editor will anticipate that they’re going to be read in the lunch break, or on the commute. So if you’re writing for a magazine, remember to relax the language a little – and if someone is writing a piece on your behalf, don’t be at all surprised if it doesn’t look like something from your internal knowledge base. (Side note: this applies to any written quotes you might supply – I’ve agreed to accept written quotes before and been faced with a 700-word screed for a 1000 word article – nobody is going to use a quote that long!)
  • A magazine isn’t an extension of your marketing department. This means an editor will take what you’ve written and manipulate it to serve the readers best. This is in everybody’s interests but it does mean that the editor might well tone down some of the hype in your piece, if you’ve put any in. If you’ve written well and authoritatively, this won’t matter, the article will still serve you well.
  • A related point is that editors are aware they’re working in a visual medium but they may not have a good visual sense. I don’t believe mine is particularly strong and I’m pleased to have the backing of a superb designer, Leon Parks, for both the outsourcing mag and the NS (plus a proofreader, Louise Bolotin, who is better at micro-editing than I am). One result of this is that we tend to regard the written side of an article as entirely separate from the illustrations – so if you had a particular slide, or graph, you believed was central to your piece, do draw it to our attention. If the article stands up in its own right – and a well-written article will – we’re likely to leave the visuals in the hands of the designers, whose job is to make it as arresting as possible. This doesn’t always chime with the writer’s intention.
  • Be prepared for us to edit. I’ve had two incidents that clash with this idea recently; on one occasion a writer took it badly that a chart had vanished (see above). The other was when a client for a sponsored supplement of a magazine did most of the commissioning himself. I’ve no doubt he was trying to save me time – but that couple of weeks when you don’t know what’s coming in and haven’t seen the brief (hello, I’m supposed to be editing this!) can be pretty nerve-wracking.
  • Finally, a deadline’s a deadline and an agreed length is an agreed length. If you can’t commit to delivering 2000 words within three weeks, don’t commit at all, that’s not a problem. Whatever you do, don’t deliver 700 words after four weeks and assume that will be OK. I’ve actually had this happen and the writer didn’t see a problem (note: you can edit down but rarely up – or at least not to that extent).

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