Five things not to say to editors

What should you never say to an editor if he or she is commissioning you?

I’ve been involved in setting up a new website for the New Statesman this month, editing numerous supplements for them and also editing Professional Outsourcing Magazine for more than a couple of years. It strikes me that there are still some pretty fundamental mistakes being made by a minority in the PR and business world.

Let’s make this clear: this is about people pitching commercially-driven articles rather than independent journalists or members of the public being interviewed. Journalists will know how we work and members of the public shouldn’t have to.

So, some pretty fundamental errors I’m still hearing:

  1. That’s the deadline? I’ll try. You’re trying to be helpful, I understand that. But if you’re going to struggle with a deadline, the longer I have to plan, the easier my job becomes. Editors get so close to the job (as do other professionals) that we assume you understand this – so when you say “I’ll try” we hear “I’ll definitely have the piece with you in plenty of time”.
  2. The deadline is difficult for us this month; can we go into next month’s issue? The chances are this is a “no” because I’ll already have the next slot filled. It gets worse. The person who asked me this recently was asking about a specific supplement for a specific magazine, so there would be no repeat of an appropriate slot in the immediate future; not only that but the magazine is weekly. The magazine I actually edit is quarterly. Anyone asking me about “next month’s issue” goes straight into my mental “not a clue” file. (I do stress I’m talking to people who are pitching to me for their own company or client’s gain – so I have the right to expect them to have done the basic research; readers and members of the public can make all the mistakes they want without prejudice).
  3. I’ve written over length, that’s OK, isn’t it? Yes it is as long as you don’t mind me making all the cuts I fancy. Editors, when they ask for 1000 words, mean precisely that. Technically you can indeed go over length on the Web, but if our house style is for shorter pieces we won’t accommodate longer pieces. And on the printed page we don’t have the flexibility. I’ve actually had people send 800 words for a 600 word slot and failing to understand that we can’t fit it in.
  4. I’ve got a colleague/associate to write this. This is probably fine as long as I know about it in advance. Next week there’s a supplement coming out from the New Statesman. I’ve edited it and there’s a piece from an academic; it was prompted by an interview with one of his colleagues, who I initially approached. It was clear very quickly that choice 1 wasn’t going to be able to fit it in, while choice 2 was probably a better expert anyway. They kept me fully abreast of this and re-confirmed when they’d made a firm decision; the resulting article is utterly superb. I’ve had other instances in which, at the last minute, having the layouts done including a headshot of the contributor, copy has come in by someone who’s been a complete stranger to me.
  5. I decided the subject wasn’t interesting enough so I’ve written about something else entirely. Genuinely, I had this only the other week. Now look, guys, I’m the editor – and if I’m expecting an article on a given subject I don’t want to be surprised at the last minute. Nor do I want to read an article that appears completely irrelevant after discussing it with you. If you find there isn’t enough substance in the original idea I’m fine with that – pick up the phone, talk to me, it proves you’re thinking about it and engaged! That’s a great thing. Never, though, decide you’re going to do something else and forget to tell me. For all you know I’ve commissioned someone else to write about something identical to, or too close to, your new idea, rendering it unusable.

The majority of people get it spectacularly right, most of the time. The guy in point 4 has written one of the best pieces I’ve ever commissioned, seriously. If you’re one of the small number who do otherwise, please take note!

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How to write an advertorial

I’ve been editing a few supplements carrying advertorials recently – I did some for the New Statesman last year, you can click here to see an example (the ones with the green flashes on the top are the advertorials). I’m delighted to say that most of the writers “get it” – just a couple don’t. Here’s the secret.

An advertorial is an opportunity for the client to put their message out there and generally hint at how wonderful they are. Roll up, roll up, come and see we’re terrific. And the best ones…do no such thing. Instead, they address an issue, they provoke some thought and barely mention the brand. To inexperienced marketers and PR people this seems baffling. So why does it work?

Writing for readers

The thing is, you might think your organisation or client is excellent. You might think that paying an outlet for an advertorial is a superb opportunity to shout this from the proverbial rooftops. That’s understandable. The problem is that so far this is all about what’s interesting to you. Should you really be writing for yourself, though?

I’d suggest you shouldn’t. Writing for the reader is a much better idea. A single paragraph of puffery and they’ll stop reading. Arrest their attention with something relevant to their lives or work and they’ll continue. Of course they might not be inspired to go and buy your stuff or to start working with you immediately but that’s not how the medium works.

If you want rapid impact and someone to start buying from you immediately, you should probably look at involving yourself in a straight advertisement. Advertorials are a slower burn. Readers will be resistant to them because they know they’ve been paid for, so you need to establish credentials and make points even more effectively than you would in the case of independent editorial. Once you’re over the resistance, though, you can establish that you’re a real authority in your field, and become a trusted resource of knowledge.

That’s when the magic starts to happen. People who want to know something about your area start to think about you before the competition because you’ve already offered so much. It’s all about putting the reader first and forgetting the “advertorial” label – just write a really good piece.

Longer term, it’ll deliver far better results.

Do you need help with your business writing? I can help – call me on 07973 278780 and we’ll talk.

Media mistakes 6: Don’t write the headline

I’ve been editing supplements and articles for clients again and one of the corporate contributors has been late.

This often happens so it’s just as well I lied through my teeth about the real deadline (experienced editors will know this is essential when dealing with non-journalists who have no reason to be accustomed to deadlines). The writer was a pleasant and professional person – she explained the delay was because she’d written the article but hadn’t put the headline or the subheadings in.

Another contact was writing a piece for me and made the headline into a question. The text started “That’s something I’m often asked, and the answer is…”

Uh-uh. That’s not how it works.

We have experts

Think about a magazine or newspaper for a minute. If you have one handy, pick it up and have a look at the headlines. It may not be obvious but they will be set out according to a particular font and a particular size depending on where they are in the paper. The headlines will also be set to a strict formula – in Professional Outsourcing Magazine, which I edit, you hopefully won’t notice but when I point it out you’ll see that all of the headlines are two decks (that’s journalist jargon for two lines), the straplines are three lines each.

It gives the thing a uniform feel. Now look at the sub-headings. Ask yourself whether they’re there to break up the text visually or there because of the sense of it. Ideally it should be both but – and it’s a big but – ask yourself whether there is a subhead at any point at the beginning of a column or at the end of one. If the subs and production people are doing their job, there won’t be. It looks messy.

So, back to my contributors. There was actually no point in putting the heading or subheading in – if it doesn’t fit exactly it’s going to be thrown out. Likewise, the subheads: unless you can predict exactly where a particular piece of text is going to fall in a column, we’re going to move them or rewrite them for neatness’ sake. And of course the same goes for tying a headline in too closely with the text.

It’s always useful to have a change of tone or subject emphasised, or a suggestion for a subject of a headline. I’d suggest, though, that you don’t bust a gut over it if you’re contributing an article; it’s quite likely to be used as a guideline and then jettisoned in favour of something that will showcase your article better.

Do you need help with writing for publication? I can help – call 07973 278780 and we’ll talk.

Don’t let me ask this question

When I’m writing something for the press there’s a question I ask myself after every paragraph. That question is: “Why am I telling them this?”

If I can’t answer that question then I abandon the paragraph and start again. Frankly if I can’t see the point of a section of an article I can’t expect the readers to do it for me. And yet so many people don’t seem to worry; this is particularly true of some sections (by no means all) of the PR community.

If I’m reading your press release and wondering why you sent it to me, you’ve frankly lost me and I’m going to be hard to get back.

Reasons I may not be interested

There can be many reasons I won’t be interested in a particular release and many are easy to eliminate. Here are some of the more frequent offenders:

  • The poorly-targeted release: Just before Christmas I had a lavishly-illustrated press release on hand-designed-and-painted silk scarves for women. To the right journalist this had everything including images. To a business journalist writing about SMEs, Outsourcing and a number of related areas like me, it was of no interest whatsoever. The fact that someone has “journalist” in their job title doesn’t mean you can send them just any old thing.
  • The poorly-written press release: These are in the minority, fortunately. I still get the poorly-spelled and punctuated release from time to time and I try to rise above them. More seriously I receive releases in which the main point isn’t clear from the headline, the thrust of the release is buried in the third or fourth paragraph or the point of sending it in the first place just isn’t clear.
  • The release is of interest only to the stakeholders: A good PR person is a consultant as well as someone who just does the bidding of the client. So if you’re aiming to be a good consultant, please do tell your client that their new regional manager or their ten per cent uplift in sales is interesting mostly to the people working for them. Outside the business is anyone really going to care who heads up the sales team as long as they don’t cause a problem?
  • The release with no point: Sometimes I get sent a release that just tells me a client has an opinion on something. There is no effort to find out whether I might be writing about the topic in question, I’m just offered opinions. I suspect the client is standing over the hapless PR person insisting the release be sent; these releases fail the “why am I telling them this?” question immediately.

A lot of these issues are caused by clients who think that if they pay a PR person, coverage will follow immediately. They are compounded by the journalists moving about so much: yes, I get a lot of poorly targeted stuff but no, I wouldn’t particularly want the job of keeping tabs on all of the thousands of freelancers like me in the industry. We get commissions in the short term that might well leave us appearing to be specialists in something we’re not. That’s the job, though, and the PR community can’t afford to let itself off the hook because keeping track appears a bit difficult.

So before you send your next release out, ask why you’re telling the journalist this stuff. If you can’t answer, you might do well to redraft it a bit.

Do you need help with your PR writing and interaction? I can help – fill in the form below, click here to email me or call 07973 278780 and we’ll talk.


If you say you’ll write, write!

This is an odd one. I edit a couple of publications and have had this happen to me twice over the last couple of months. It’s from corporate writers doing it as part of what they do for a living rather than professional journalists, so I can kind of understand where they’re coming from, but…basically…if you’ve agreed to write something for me, please write it. Or say you’re not doing so.

Exhibit 1: a professor agrees to write something for a supplement I’m editing. No names, no pack drill. He gets it to me on time and it’s well written.

And he tells me the name of his co-writer so I can credit them properly.

Co-writer? It was a good piece so I wouldn’t have minded. However, having briefed the original writer as to what I was after and how the supplement would work, it was peculiar to find a complete stranger creeping into the mix somehow.

I’ve got this friend who can write

Even odder was the contact on another publication who had a specialism in a particular area in which we were interested. So I approached him to write something and he readily agreed.

He submitted early. It was a good piece. We had a photo and a bio of him so I was ready to go.

Then at the last minute I checked whether his bio was still up to date. And thank goodness I did so, because he then told me a colleague and contact – from a very reputable source – had in fact written the piece.

So there was a last minute scramble to get the right pictures in place, source a bio for the actual writers and I’m still not certain why the original writer either thought it was OK to substitute someone else without mentioning it or why he felt he had to be the middle person sending emails back and forth as if he were the writer.

Editors aren’t all control freaks. However, they do like a fighting chance of being aware of what’s going on in a publication someone is paying them to assemble. So if you or a client are ever contributing to a magazine or website, throw us a bone – tell us if you’re having it written by someone else!

Do you need help with corporate writing or engagement with the press? I can help – give me a call on 07973 278780 or fill in the form below.

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.

Do you need help engaging with the press? I can help – email me by clicking here, fill in the form below or call me on +44 (0) 7973 278780

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.