Tag Archives: marketing writing

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!

Do you need help engaging with the press? Contact me via this form and we’ll talk.

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.

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.


Don’t get your briefs in a twist

I had an incident recently in which I was writing for a corporate blog. I’ll change the subjects to protect the guilty. However, they wanted ideas from me, which was fine. So I emailed them to say: how about something on computer operating systems working on multiple devices?

They came back quickly, OK-ing the idea – but asking whether we could downplay the operating system side and write about word processing instead, and leave out the multiple devices and instead focus on keyboards.

It was nearly that extreme. My resolution was to suggest a completely different angle and just write about the subjects they wanted, rather than trying to manacle my original thoughts into it. Politeness is one thing, but they’re the client and they clearly didn’t want my topics.

If you’re briefing a freelance writer, here are a few things to bear in mind:

  • We need clarity. I’ve been to meetings before at which I’ve listened to the client ideas and they’ve listened to mine; their response has been “yes, we should include that” – and then when I’ve drafted, they’ve asked why my ideas are still in there. Because you gave the impression you’d approved them.
  • We need to know your processes. OK, maybe not all of them but if you don’t have sign-off on a project, if you don’t have the authority to change a brief when we suggest ideas, don’t give us the impression that you do – or we’ll change stuff.
  • We need an idea of your objectives. OK, you want to write a white paper: the more experienced among us might know this approach has failed several times in achieving the result you want. Let us in a bit, we might be able to help more than just by bashing out words.
  • We need to know what sort of resources you have. One client once assured me they had production sorted out; this means something very specific to journalists, and it was a great surprise when she became positively schoolma’amy when she spotted a missing full stop. She didn’t have production staff at all.
  • We need specifics. Those clients that don’t know exactly what they want but they’ll “know it when they see it” are never worth the time.
  • You may need to understand a little about how we work. I had a client once who booked me for a flat rate including one draft and two rewrites based on their feedback and changing requirements. The UK branch of the company signed this off and were happy with the work I’d done. Then the US head office came back with a few more queries, which I accommodated – then a few more, which I accommodated again. It carried on. In the end, the UK office (kindly) emailed its HQ to explain that I was no longer available to them. The US office said they understood, and kept emailing me for more anyway.

It’s basically about communication and confirming stuff. Like any business engagement it’s a lot easier when we’re speaking the same language. If we’re not, we’re in for trouble!

A word about copyright

Something that happens to writers and speakers a lot is that people nick our stuff. They don’t mean to, they just don’t understand that if they commission something, if we speak at their event, our slides or our content remain our property unless we’ve specified otherwise.

People are sometimes shocked at this. It dates back to the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act of 1988. This specifies that where there is a creative work, the originator retains all rights. What you buy from a contributor is a license to use it, once unless specified otherwise (this applies to freelancers; if you’ve commissioned staff to create something then it’s deemed that your company is the creator, so you’re covered).

It’s at this point that a lot of clients throw their hands up in alarm and say “but I’ve paid for this, it must be mine”. To which I have one response: “Wedding photographers”. They turn up, they charge you a fortune for some pictures and then they sell them to you and absolutely prohibit you from reproducing them. How and why? It’s you in the pictures, after all? Well, yes it is. Nonetheless, in law they own the pictures.

It’s the same with book authors; we get royalties on sales because we, not the publisher, own the rights to our text. The publisher may well own the cover design and the layout, so I have to get permission when I’m using a cover to promote myself as a speaker or author.

Restrictive v. co-operative

Now, many writers and speakers take a flexible view of this. If you commission me to write for your publication, for example, and I’m doing a half-decent job of addressing your reader specifically, the work should be unusable by anyone else. And if I’m speaking at your event then absolutely, you can send my slides out afterwards (I use mainly images so they won’t mean much without me standing there explaining them anyway).

It’s worth putting this stuff in writing, though. A magazine publisher I used to know was at one point thinking of putting a book together of some of the best contributions he’d run – and his face fell completely when I pointed out that if he hadn’t sent out an agreement in which people allowed re-use of their material, he would have to ask for the rights all over again. I’ve seen event organisers announce that slides will be available after a speech only to have the speaker announce that they won’t; worse, I’ve seen organisers giving out slides on memory sticks and ending up in dispute with speakers who didn’t fancy giving away the crown jewels with no further payment, thanks. I’ve even seen small companies dismayed to find that their web designer owns their site, not them.

Most of this can be overcome by negotiation. I’d always advise speakers and writers to expect to share their stuff, the current audience expects it and frankly you’re going to get a better response and more chance of repeat commissions.

Just be aware that if you’re going to commission someone to create something for you, you need to have a look at what rights are assigned to you and just what you can do with it. Get it written into a contract and there will be no problem later; both walk away assuming you own the work and you’re heading straight for a clash.

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.