Category Archives: Writing

What journalists understand by “production”

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.

Pictures

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..!

Stick to the deadline

I once attended a dinner of CEOs and chief technology officers. They were talking about tight deadlines and how people had to understand in a modern world that they couldn’t be broken. Then during the dinner the guy sitting next to me leaned over and said “mind you, if you want to talk to someone really strict about deadlines, you talk to a journalist”. Proof, if any were needed, that he’d completely forgotten who I was.

Journalists do have a reputation for being fierce about deadlines. There are actually good reasons – it’s worth considering the process of what happens after an article reaches us, if you’re an executive or PR person writing something for a magazine.

Errors and assumptions

There seems to be an air of “we can probably move this if we want to” around contributors to magazines for which I’ve worked. Here are some examples:

• I commissioned some items for the Radio Times once – and a famous conductor missed the deadline by a day and decided that meant he probably didn’t have to write the piece after all. We had of course reserved the space.

• A contributor to a magazine once assumed that he could write something the day after it came out and it would appear on the website, no harm done. We had of course reserved a space and were left scrambling around to fill it.

• A sponsor for an entire supplement once decided to commission the articles himself (fine, I’ll charge you anyway but I’d leave it to a professional if I were you). The supplement was due to appear the week he’d set everyone as a deadline. This gave no opportunity for any other process to happen…including printing the thing.

The process

If you or your client are approached to contribute to a publication, or pitch to a publication and succeed, great. Here’s what happens afterwards – and this happens on smaller as well as larger publications.

First the editor will have a read of the piece you’ve written. If it’s not to length and on topic you can expect us to send it straight back. This sounds like common sense but a lot of people get it completely wrong.

Second, he or she will pass it to the subs to massage into house style (so ‘is a number written 1 or one’, ‘are companies singular or plural’ become important questions). This is non-negotiable; if you’re lucky enough to see it again after this stage, do not send it back with red biro amending your job title back into capital letters. I’ve actually seen this and other than the editorial team having a chuckle it doesn’t achieve much. Remember your article is not the only one being subbed. So expecting this to take less than a couple of days is unrealistic.

Third, the layouts will happen. Again, this is in the context of an entire magazine rather than just your pages – allow days again. Several designers work on more than one magazine simultaneously so there can be quite a queue.

Fourth, the layouts go back to the editorial team. Unless you are stunningly lucky, your piece will need trimming or expanding to fit the space exactly. No, we won’t change the font size to fit. We’ll also add a headline – the one you sent might give us a steer on the tone to adopt but the chances of it fitting properly on the page and matching our style are remote (ask yourself whether the publication for which you’re writing always has a verb in the headline – the people making the magazine will know).

Fifth, if you’re very lucky, there might be time to send it back to you for a quick once-over. This isn’t a cue to start rewriting entire paragraphs, it fits and we’re looking for tweaks unless we’ve amended something to fit and misunderstood the meaning entirely.

Sixth, the designer changes it to PDF and we proofread it.

Seventh, it goes to the printer in the case of a hard copy publication, or it may go straight online in the digital world. If it’s going into print, then it will take about a week – not only do we have to sign off the galley proofs (as those of us of a certain age still call them; it may be called a Delano system officially but to me the last pre-print stage is a galley proof) individually, page by page, then they’re printed. The ink literally has to take a day to dry and then the issue is assembled and delivered.

So this is why, when you’ve agreed to contribute to a magazine, we’re a bit precious about our deadlines. It’s because we understand the chaos that ensues when they’re overlooked. Of course, neither you nor your clients work for us, so this doesn’t have to be part of your world. But do yourself a favour; if you can’t honour a commitment to write on time and on length, don’t make it in the first place. The next time you come across us might be when we’re interviewing you about an important announcement, and you really don’t want us having “that’s the pillock that doesn’t keep his or her word” at the back of our mind at the time.

Don’t pay to be published

I’m not planning to use this space to rant often, I promise, but I’ve just seen this news story and it’s made my blood boil. Put simply, a newspaper group in South London appears to be charging students to have their work published online so they build up a portfolio. Here’s the link to the NUJ’s coverage:

https://www.nuj.org.uk/news/newspaper-groups-charges-students-120-for-chance-of-a-by-line/

Now, if it’s wrong or mistaken then I’ll take this post down willingly and I’ll be relieved. If it’s right, then the whole concept is wrong in more ways than I’d care to list.

Let’s start with the parallel in the commercial world. There are companies that will pay handsomely for a place in a sponsored supplement in national newspapers and magazines, and I’m certainly one of the journalists who will write for them. And yes I’ll take a payment. These are adults, though, looking for commercial advantage themselves and making decisions about how to deploy corporate budgets.

It’s a little different in the student world.

Finances

Students, in my day, had very little money. We felt very sorry for ourselves but with hindsight we were wrong. If we ended up with a debt at the end of college then it was because we hadn’t budgeted our money very well. There was no question of paying for our tuition fees. It is now radically different and young people end up leaving college with massive debts (here’s a report from Which?). And yes, they write them off 30 years after you’ve left, but to put this in perspective I turn 50 in a couple of months, I left college in 1986, so if we’d had the system in place then I’d still be in debt.

Even in the olden days, we’d have fought shy of paying for vanity projects. The reasons would be many. Affordability is the first.

The second, though, has to be quality control. What, you think the mags are going to be a stringent about quality when they’re obliged to publish something because someone is paying for it? If I’m honest I don’t see how they could be.

This leads to a second issue. You end up with a string of these pieces in your portfolio. An editor writes you a certificate saying you’ve been published. What next, then – you show them to another editor when you seek a job? OK, but she or he is going to identify these as paid-for pieces. Do you seriously think they’ll be taken as seriously as “proper” clippings? Once again, if an employer knows you’ve paid for them, I can only imagine there would be something of a downgrade in their eyes.

This is as nothing compared to my final two objections, though. The first is a simple moral point. If you want to sell newspapers and gain a profit, you pay the people who make it, not the other way around. I can’t make sense of any system in which the writer pays the publisher unless they believe there is no other way of getting into print.

The second objection is that this is, ever so slightly, 2015. I know that won’t last but there it is for the moment. People are already looking seriously at blogs as a means of publishing their own words. Guys, if you need your work published to show an editor, do what I did and sign up to a blogging service and put your words up there. It will cost nothing – or you might do what I’ve done and pay for a design that suits you, but you’ll know why you’re paying.

If any students are reading, please, please don’t let these people think they can charge for publishing your work. They can patronise you with a little certificate if they like; ultimately, though, they should be paying you, not the other way around. And anyway, I’ll let you publish something on here for only £119. That’s a quid saved, at least.

My thanks to my friend and colleague Steve Bustin for drawing this issue to my attention

UPDATE: I’ve now been told that this company has been laying off journalists – so it used to pay for copy and is now going to get people to pay it to publish. If this is a training course then it may be worth something, but let’s label it as such rather than guarantee people a sheaf of cuttings.

Does grammar matter?

I’m running a course on sharpening writing skills for the Henshall Centre today and one of the things we’re talking about is grammar. I’ve had a number of discussions on the subject on Facebook and elsewhere – does it matter whether something you write is 100% grammatical, does anyone care any more?

My answer is that although language evolves, grammar ultimately matters a great deal because it leads to clarity.

Redundant rules
The flipside of this is that if a grammatical rule doesn’t add anything to clarity, it’s probably not useful any longer. Take one of my favourites, the split infinitive. Many people condemn this and insist it shouldn’t happen. Well, phooey to that. The original rule about not splitting infinitives came from latin, is arcane and elderly and has nothing to do with making statements clear or otherwise.

There are also regional variants. The American “I could care less” means the same as the British “I couldn’t care less” – both are correct in the right geography but there’s room for confusion.

Clarity is everything
However, there are areas in which clarity has to count for something and picking something someone has said apart to find out what they meant can take too long. It’s almost 20 years since I bought my current house, and some of the correspondence I had with the mortgage company still baffles me. It didn’t even have jargon in it (another major issue with some writing), just an attempt at sounding official by a junior who probably shouldn’t have bothered.

So I’m going to be advising sensible grammar when it aids comprehension. Short sentences. Easy words. I’m not all that worried about whether every sentence contains a verb (the previous two in this paragraph didn’t), nor whether people start a sentence with a conjunction. But poor grammar that actively distorts meaning, as some of it does, is something to watch for.

What’s everybody else think?