19 May 2007

Commissioning editors - what do they want?

Here's a question to vex the minds of writers... what do commissioning editors look for when hiring freelances?

I got involved in a rather heated online debate with a bunch of fellow hacks earlier in the week. What started off as a simple discussion on whether a journalist needs to have good written English or not spilled over into a wider and intense argument.

I commission writers myself, as a part-time, freelance contributing editor for a quarterly niche magazine. I know what I want - a writer who knows the magazine well, who has great ideas to pitch to me, can put a story together coherently and deliver their copy on time. Controversially, I pointed out that I also expect any writer I commission to have a reasonably good grasp of written English - I want them to spell properly, know their grammar and use punctuation correctly.

For daring to say this, I was shot down in flames and told I am deluded and not living in the real world. Apparently, all journalists need to be able to do is get the story out. Actually, I broadly would not disagree with that - with a proviso. That's fine and dandy if the journalist is supplying copy to a newspaper that has desk editors and an army of subs to restructure the writing and clean up all the typos and poor grammar.

For magazines on a tight budget, it's a very different matter. The one I work for is run on a shoestring. I don't get paid vast amounts for the copy I write for it and I get paid very little for subbing and proofing the laid-out pages. For me, this means that if I have a choice between commissioning a writer who can write well and supply me with copy that doesn't need vast amounts of work at the production end and a writer who writes well but needs a lot of time spent on delivered copy, I know who I'm going to choose. Every time, it will be the writer who is the all-rounder (or as near to as possible). The magazine simply can't afford to pay me hours to rewrite thousands upon thousands of words of hot stories that are badly structured and a copy-editor's nightmare. The writers I commission not only get a brief, they also get a copy of our house style guide and are asked to adhere to it. Those that play by our rules are much more likely to get a second shot on our pages.

So, am I deluded? I'd rather think I was being practical. When money is at stake and you have to be efficient with it, the writers who get recommissioned are the ones who will save you valuable pennies at production stage. Another journalist involved the above-mentioned debate operates in the same way.

Perhaps if I was a section editor at the Guardian, my priorities would be different. I'd be looking for writers who can deliver news, now, and get the subs to work their magic on the pedantic details. Newspapers run on a vastly different timescale to small irregular magazines and have oodles more funds to play with. Here, the need is to publish a freelance's copy quickly before anyone else does. As long as they deliver to deadline, the subs have time to bring that copy up to scratch.

Journalism comes in all shapes and sizes these days. It's not all about news. There are hundreds of magazines - weeklies, monthlies, quarterly - that operate very differently to the daily press. And there are the websites too, which have their own way of publishing. What suits one commissioning editor will not necessarily suit another as it depends what publication they work for.

I believe the hacks I was arguing with were looking at the debate very one-sidedly.

To anyone breaking into freelance writing, sending in a poorly written pitch full of typos will give a commissioning editor the first pointer as to how good your language skills are. If the ed is on a tight budget, that will make a huge difference as to whether you ever get rehired.

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