Writing: When the editor says 1000 words, they mean it

In the last 12 months I’ve had two corporate contributors writing for supplements who’ve done very peculiar things in terms of word length. At least, they were peculiar to me as a journalist. Let’s see what you think.

Essentially I asked one of them to write something and they readily agreed. They wanted to publicise their business – they were consultants or analysts rather than full-time journalists – and they had some excellent ideas on content. So this was all good. They asked what sort of length they should write and I said, 2000 words. I said I’d need it within three weeks.

Four weeks later they asked what the deadline was. I extended it a little for them (always, always lie about the deadline to a first-timer).

In week five they sent the article. 700 words. I queried this; they told me that they’d assumed 2000 words was a “guideline length” and no, they weren’t going to write any more. We found a plan B and I published that instead.

The second incident was similar except the guy’s timing wasn’t a problem. He accepted a commission for 1500 words and produced just under half that. His reasoning was that he thought 1500 words was the absolute maximum. He hadn’t anticipated the next steps.

The process

So here’s how a magazine – and these were both articles for a hard copy, paper magazine – works.

The editor lines up his or her contributors. Once they’re all agreeable, he or she makes a basic map of the issue, usually on a spreadsheet, called a flatplan. This is a really basic diagram in which every cell represents a page – you put the ads in and you know where everything is supposed to be. Easy. Here’s a real life example:

The magazine I edit happens to have around 500 words per page. So when I asked for 2000 words I was thinking of four pages of text, add a full-page picture and a couple of half-page illustrations and you have a six-page feature. Faced with six pages to fill there isn’t much you can do with only 700 words and no, nobody’s going to pad it out with that many pictures. The problem is that the writer’s mind doesn’t always work in the same way as that of the editor.

If you’re writing something on a subject about which you care, I get that the content is going to be more important to you than anything. Editing, however, is about polishing the content of course but also about logistics. You have to fill the magazine and get it out there. Length and deadline become very important indeed. “You can always edit” I’ve been told in the past. Yes, but editing isn’t going to double the length of an article. If you agree to contribute to a publication you need to understand how it works and its structure.

All of the writers’ issues above could have been overcome if the writers had considered for a moment that they were fitting into something rather than writing their own blog (at the moment, obviously, I’m writing this blog and I don’t much mind about the length). Fatally, probably unconsciously, they assumed an editor would structure an entire magazine using their content as the starting point and fitting everything around them.

Ain’t going to happen. We accommodated the last article because it was very good indeed. The first we binned, and the contributor is going to have to perform a miracle if I’m going to consider using them again.

I spent a pleasant day last week training writers at the Henshall Centre and in a couple of weeks I’m training a private client on writing for business. Do you need help contributing to publications for your business? Email me by clicking here and we’ll talk.

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