Trust the editor to do the job: five unhelpful behaviours

I edit a few publications, mostly supplements for the New Statesman (here’s a recent example) and Professional Outsourcing Magazine. Something they share in common is the use of external contributors, whether these might be government ministers, academics, industry analysts.

One thing a handful of them share in common is, how can I put this: excessive pride in their work. I’m in favour of this to the extent of doing a good job, but it can be extreme. Here are some examples of behaviours that can backfire when a contributor thinks he or she is helping:

  • Asking to see the laid-out PDF of an article. This is fair enough until you start asking to change the headline (we’ll have worked on that, it will be the right length to fit the space and it might be part of a theme for the issue), insist that a job title should have a capital letter (I’d refer you to my previous piece on house style) and soforth. Also asking to see the PDF after it’s all gone to print. This is baffling in the extreme – why would you need to? We’re not putting any more changes in.
  • Insisting that your illustrations are the only ones that will work. If you want to send charts in to support your arguments, fine, but the text should stand up by itself in case they become separated in the production process (or if there just isn’t room). Oh, and if there’s a particular chart you don’t want to see in print, don’t send it. Seriously, someone did this to me once.
  • Assuming your English is better than mine. OK, there’s a 50/50 chance it may be, but guess who’s editor and therefore whose crummy standards are going to apply throughout the magazine? That’s right.
  • Assume your length is going to work and we’ll work around it. I’ve made the point about article lengths before but it’s worth repeating. We will have allocated space for everything that’s coming in and if you’re two pages short that can only mean you’re unconsciously assuming the entire publication can be redesigned around you. As editor even I’m not that important – nobody is. Please write to the agreed length and if there’s a reason you can’t, give us plenty of notice.
  • Overall, fail to understand that anyone else is doing this as anything other than a hobby. Contributors sometimes have a picture they’d like illustrating their piece – this is great, I’ll send it to the designer who will try to find something similar. Only then they send a further note and say they’ve found someone else owns the image (we know, it’s the first thing we’d check). So they send another. And are surprised when we refuse to commit to a particular image (we may not have an agreement with the picture library in question, for a start). Guys, we produce magazines for a living and have experience to fall back on when we need to judge what’s going to look right. We won’t always get it right but it’s a good starting point. We also know whether there’s a remarkably similar image illustrating the article next to yours.

That said, the vast majority of the contributors with whom I work are an absolute pleasure. The odd thing is that the higher up the food chain you go, the easier-going they tend to be. Curiously enough the two easiest ever, who made a couple of calls to me to check the angle and wrote to length and on time, were a former attorney general and a senior Cabinet Minister.

The troublesome ones, on the other hand, tell me they’re busy.

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