Advice for would-be journalists. Part 1: Navigating briefs

As someone who’s been actively employed as a journalist for more than 25 years now I’m frequently asked by aspiring writers how they should navigate what can seem like a very competitive, scary and somewhat bewildering industry. With this in mind I thought it might be fun to impart some of the knowledge I’ve accrued over these years to anyone interested in a career behind a keyboard.

So here’s the first in an occasional series of advice pieces for aspiring scribes. I know. I’m a sucker for alliteration. We’ll touch on that later, when I talk about personal style, but for now here are a few words on handling briefs. Not the type in the picture above (I just used that pic to grab your attention and I assume you’re already fully trained in the art of underwear adjustment) but the type of brief you get from magazines and websites when they want you to write something for them…

Navigating a brief

Over the years I’ve been on the receiving end of all kinds of briefs, which have resulted in pieces on everything from baldness to bereavement, and they’ve been a mixed bag to say the least. Some have been detailed and precise in a modern-weapon-of-warfare kinda way; others may as well have been written by your nan –  after she’s just popped a diazepam.

Receiving a good brief is like getting instructions to a wedding reception that say, ‘Take the right turning and travel exactly 2.3 miles down the winding road until you see a pub called the Dog in Diamanté. Take a sharp left and you’ll see a red post box to your right – the entrance to the Cricket Club where we’re celebrating our nuptials is directly opposite’. A bad brief may as well say ‘we’re having one almighty piss up in a local Cricket Club. Look for sick in the street. Laters!’

Having been on the receiving end of hundreds of briefs and having been a Commissioning Editor myself I can spot a bad one a mile off. A bad brief invariably started life as an idea that sounded brilliant in a features meeting and was agreed to with an enthusiastic nod of heads – especially if the features meeting in question happened to take place just before lunch or at 5.30pm and everyone couldn’t wait to exit the office.

I’ve been in those meetings myself and have been the Editor who chaired them so I know the score. The only teeny-weeny fly in the ointment is that on occasion the idea in question is actually a load of old bollocks: it’s either ill-conceived, ill-thought out or, as is sometimes the case, utter nonsense of the first order. In my experience, a lot of modern-day Commissioning Editors don’t really care about this: they just want the idea off their desk and palmed off onto some poor journalist to sort out so they can scurry off down the gym or attend an imminent tights launch (never underestimate the lure of a goody bag to addle the brain).

Now, do not let that poor journalist be you because, trust me, if you do the day you submit that piece will most definitely not be the last time you see it before it appears in print or online. I once wrote an article for a men’s magazine that came back to me so many times for rewrites it resembled a flesh-starved zombie I’d hit repeatedly with a shovel but which still rose from the dead to scare the bejesus out of me. This was not because the piece itself was badly written (a second opinion from a fellow journalist confirmed this) but because the person who commissioned me had absolutely no idea what they wanted from the piece in the first place. Of course, they knew exactly what they didn’t want from it. Yes, my eyes are rolling right now too.

And a bad brief doesn’t just cost you sleepless nights – if you work for yourself it costs you time and money too. If you ever hear the words ‘it’s just not quite right’ take that as shorthand for ‘I honestly don’t know what I’m doing here and never have. Only three weeks ago I was an intern doing the sandwich run, and even then I messed up and bought the office vegan a pastrami on rye’ (a more common experience than one might think given we’re in an age of o’erhasty promotions).

The kind of brief I’m talking about here is the one that instantly sets off alarm bells when it lands in your inbox. So, if the one you get isn’t clear or is too all-encompassing  politely force the Commissioning Editor to pin it down. If it’s of the ‘nan-on-diazepam’ variety and makes no sense whatsoever ask them to block it out for you and explain what information they want and how they want it presented. Ask about tone, any expert input required and any sidebars or panels they want added.

If you’re feeling bold ask them to sum up the piece up in one sentence. That’s usually a good test of how robust an idea is and was a practice I often used when I was an Editor. Trust me, if you can’t sum it up in sentence, a thousand words of carefully crafted prose ain’t gonna shed any light on things. If you’re feeling really brave, pick up the phone and talk to them in person: a big ask in this day and age I know but sometimes old-fashioned, actual talking is the best way to bring clarity to the situation. I remember a brief that made no sense to me whatsoever, despite a three-day email exchange, but when I spoke to the Commissioning Editor on the ‘phone it suddenly all made perfect sense – for both of us, since it turned out he wasn’t sure what he was on about either.

Truth is, they’ll probably hate you for all this because it puts them on the spot and the burden of responsibility back where it firmly belongs – on them – but it’s better for everyone in the long run because they get exactly what they want and you get to move onto the next next piece and fire off your invoice.

Also, don’t be afraid to go back to them if you discover, in the course of your research, a better or more original story idea. Such is the organic, tangential nature of writing that, on occasion, the original story is not the best story. If a more captivating angle emerges as you start writing flag it up. You might even curry favour by allowing them to claim the idea as their own.

Interestingly (and this is merely a personal observation gleaned from years of experience so if you’re a men’s rights activist kindly do one) I’ve found that female Commissioning Editors tend provide much tighter, better thought-out and better articulated briefs than male ones. I honestly don’t know why this is and, as I said, it’s just my personal experience. One commissioning ed, at a well-known women’s magazine, was so good at communicating what she wanted, how she wanted it and when she wanted it by that I was moved to email her to thank her for her old school professionalism. I say ‘old school’ because, alas, a good brief is a bit like cooking from scratch these days  – something of a dying art.

 

PS. Hopefully you’ll never encounter the kind of loose brief I had where an editor asked me to explore the subject of teen suicide with a ‘personal angle’. On filing what was a deeply moving and rather affecting interview with the mother of a young girl who’d taken her own life, the editor in question hauled me into their office, banged their fist on the table in disgust and screamed ‘Why, WHY, do we always end up talking to the person left behind and not the victim themselves?!’ Hey, nobody said a writer’s life was easy.

 

Dunhill ICON: a fragrance of diminishing returns

I love Dunhill ICON. When it was launched back in 2015 I named it as one of my favourite fragrances of the year, even going so far as to call it a future classic. And if you look at the reviews of it around the time of its release I was not alone – it was almost universally praised, which is no mean feat for a new men’s fragrance these days. Wasting no time in capitalising on this success, a reworked version, Dunhill ICON Absolute, complete with differentiating gold-coloured flacon, was launched that same year. It too, was a pretty good fragrance, though as is often the case with hastily thrown out flankers, it wasn’t quite as good as the original. Then, in 2016, came ICON Elite (are you keeping up?). The original award-winning bottle, jet black this time, was as wonderful as ever – it truly is a work of art  – but the fragrance itself was a little less impressive than both of its predecessors.

Thankfully, we were spared an ICON Elite Absolute but the brand is back this September with yet another ICON variant in the shape of Dunhill ICON Racing (it was originally called Racing Green from what I can gather but the Green bit seems to have been dropped). And, following the downward trajectory of the ICON concept it’s, in my opinion at least, the weakest of the bunch so far. A woody oriental with notes of Volcanic Red Orange (your guess is as good as mine), bergamot, saffron, clary sage, leather, vetiver and patchouli it moves things ever more mainstream and predictable. Whereas the original ICON was one of Dunhill’s most complex and intriguing fragrances ever, Racing revels in blunt, unsophisticated mass-market simplicity. It’s sweet and soapy and although the dry down is pleasantly woody it’s simply not a patch on the fragrance whose DNA it (now only vaguely) shares.

The problem here I think is once facing many fragrance companies at the moment –  Tom Ford and Jo Malone amongst them unfortunately – and that’s that there are simply too many launches in too quick succession. Obsessed by newness (it’s what the customer wants these days I’m told) houses like Dunhill are signed up to a release schedule that feels like it’s on speed and there’s little time to pause for thought or grow loyalty to one particular fragrance or another.

Maybe, pressurised by such a release schedule, the perfumers themselves don’t have the time or creative breathing space to come up with something truly amazing, (though it’s more likely they have soul-destroying mass-market briefs to contend with) but what I do know is that with each successive version, ICON gets weaker and weaker. When you truly love a fragrance – as I do with the original ICON – this is terribly sad to witness and, although I’m sure the company won’t pay a blind bit of notice to what one reviewer like me has to say, my message to them anyway would be to take a deep breath and slow down a little. More haste, less speed – that’s how to create an icon.

Dunhill ICON Racing launches in Harrods next month and nationwide from October 2nd, priced £63 for 50ml EDP

Create your own meteor shower tonight

It’s one of my favourite annual events this weekend – the spectatular Perseid Meteor Shower. On a good year you can see up to 200 shooting stars an hour, which is a lot of wishes you can make if you believe seeing one happens to be lucky. If it’s too cloudy to see them where you are, though, I suppose you could always create you own little display at home with BLAQ’s new Meteor Shower shower scrub.

The final frontier in exfoliation (it actually contains meteorite dust) it also features sea salt and activated charcoal to help remove impurities. It’s also designed to leave a slight iridescent glow on the skin though don’t fret is leaving the house with glittery shoulders isn’t your thing – I found that the sparkle is minimal if you rinse thoroughly. The good news is that it’s 100% biodegradable, devoid of additives and preservatives and is cruelty-free too. What more could you wish (upon a star) for this weekend?

Blaq Meteor Shower is available from blaq.co, priced £19.95 for a resealable pack 

Reviewed: Cryotag Skin Tag Remover

Few skincare concerns are more unglamorous than skin tags – or ‘acrochordons’ as they’re known to their dermatologist chums. They’re those harmless but annoying little flaps of skin that often protrude on little ‘stalks’ known as peduncles which are often found around the neck, groin and armpits. They form when the outer layer of skin overgrows (a process called hyperplasia) and encloses a layer of skin with abnormally swollen collagen fibres and are thought to affect half the population. Genetics, being overweight and age all play a part (the older you get the more likely you are to have them) and they’re especially common when skin rubs, or is irritated by, clothes or jewellery.

Since they’re harmless doctors are often reluctant to remove skin tags routinely – and sometimes they simply fall off by themselves anyway – but if they’re unsightly or are causing irritation they can be removed by freezing or with the aid of a scalpel or surgical scissors, though chances are you’ll need to have this done privately.

I’ve had numerous tags in the last ten years (one popped up on my neck within months of me wearing a new silver neck chain) and a few years ago I had a couple removed by a dermatologist who anesthetised the skin around the tags and whipped the blighters off with an ultra fine scalpel. It was a procedure that worked like a dream but it’s definitely not one I’d recommend you try at home.

For years though, people have attempted to remove their own tags – with varying degrees of success (strangling them with knots of cotton is one often-attempted method) but it’s always been a risky business – until the advent of a new product called Cryotag.

Using the same cryotherapy technology used by doctors and dermatologists Cryotag freezes the tags to their core so that they eventually just shrivel up and drop off. Having been annoyed by a couple of new tags (one under my arm and another in my groin) for several months I decided to give it a go and have to say am pretty impressed by the results.

The product itself is a cinch to use: you insert an applicator into the canister; press down for three seconds to charge the tip with the freezing agent; use the plastic tweezers included in the pack to pull the tag away from the skin slightly and then place the tip of the applicator onto the tag itself for 40 seconds. The tag turns white almost instantly, which means the freezing process is working, and then you simply wait for it to fall off.

The instructions say this shedding process can take up to a fortnight but mine disappeared in under five days. The one in my groin – situated exactly where my pants rub my inner thigh – simply vanished of its own accord while the underarm one began to sting a little after a few days so, ignoring the instructions to leave it, I gave it a little tug with the tweezers and it came away, which immediately stopped the stinging sensation. Both are healing nicely (I applied a little Savlon for a few days to help things along) and nearly a fortnight on you can only see the faintest of red marks which are fading with each day, in the way the scar from a spot might.

It’s really no more complicated than that, making Cryotag a fast, efficient and cost-effective way to remove skin tags in the privacy of your own home. Admittedly, it’s not the most glamorous skincare product I’ve ever road-tested but, trust me, it’s certainly one of the most useful. Curiously fun too.

The Cryotag skin tag remover is available from Boots and Amazon.co.uk priced £21.95  for 12 applicators, which will deliver up to 12 skin tag treatments. 

Clarins Men Tanning Booster – an easy way to boost your summer colour

Getting a tan is one thing; keeping it another altogether. Come to think of it, if you’re fair-skinned like me, even the first part is a challenge. And that’s where self-tanners and bronzers can be useful. So popular have they become that the number of 16-24-year-old men using self-tanning products has gone up by a whopping 27% in the last year. To put a little colour into your cheeks (and forehead, chin and neck) you could just buy yourself a self-tanner, of course, or (and this is much more fun) you could instantly turn your existing moisturiser into a self-tanner with the help of ClarinsMen‘s clever little Tanning Booster.

To do this you simply add three drops of the Booster to your regular moisturiser, mix in the palm of your hand then apply evenly across your face and neck, taking care to wash your hands and to remove any excess moisturiser from your eyebrows and beard. It’s not a wash-off bronzer so the colour will stick around but because you’re applying a small amount you can build up the colour over time, stopping when you’re happy with the result – which will hopefully be before you come to resemble an endangered wood.

The instructions state, rather sternly, that it should be only used with a Clarins moisturiser but I’ve tried it with a couple of non-Clarins products and the results have been just fine so I’d be tempted to ignore that, especially as being able to pimp up your preferred moisturiser is the big bonus here. The instructions also warn against exceeding the ‘recommended dose’ and that’s one piece advice you definitely should stick too. After all, the objective is to look sun-kissed not oven-baked right?

ClarinsMen Self-Tanning Booster is available now priced £20 for 15ml. 

La Mer launch new Moisturizing Matte Lotion

I’ve always been a big fan of La Mer (née Créme De La Mer) but like a lot of men I’ve always been slightly weary of its weightiness so, for the most part, have used it as a night cream. Also like a lot of men, the idea of using any kind of moisturiser that adds shine to my skin is anathema. The launch of The Moisturizing Matte Lotion, then, is a godsend to male Le Mer fans like me because it’s both light as a feather and as matte as anything.

It achieves this with the help of special ‘Matte Lotion Capsules’ which help deliver moisture to the skin but which are also coated in a layer of naturally mattifying  clay, sea minerals and kelp powder. This ensures skin is hydrated but remains shine free – and don’t worry, there’s no powdery residue either. As an added bonus, the matte finish the lotion leaves also scatters light away from the skin’s surface, improving the overall look of skin and evening out skin tone in the process.

A must have for any man who’s mad for La Mer.

La Mer’s The Moisturizing Matte Lotion is available now priced £180 

Harry’s razors: born in New York, engineered in Germany, finally available in the UK

In the same way that a handful of supermarkets dominate the food market, the world of shaving has been monopolised by just a handful of big bucks corporate giants with a grip on the market tighter than your grip on their handles whilst shaving. They have had us,  if not by the short and curlies, then certainly by the fluff on our chins, for decades. Thankfully, things have changed in the last few years as increasingly savvy men seek out cheaper  – but equally as effective – brands that challenge the razor monopoly with money-saving subscription services that suit, not only customers’ pockets, but their increasingly time-poor lifestyles too.

The latest company to fill this need in the UK is New-York based Harry’s. Already well established Stateside, where they’ve been part of the shaving scene since 2013, the company perfectly chimes with the times and with the changing way in which we shop for our grooming gear. Harry’s mission is very simple: to offer high quality razors, delivered to your door and at a fair price. According to the founders, their leading competitors offer products with an average blade price of £3 whereas theirs come in at just £1.75 – a pretty hefty saving, not just for anyone on a budget but for all of us who’d rather spend our hard-earned dosh on other stuff (beer, holidays, generally having a good time).

I’ve been lucky enough to have met one of the brains behind Harry’s, the affable Jeff Raider (the one with the specs in the pic to the right), on several occasions and his enthusiasm for the brand is genuinely infectious, not least because the germ of the idea for Harry’s came about from genuine outrage about how men are taken advantage of by behemoth razor companies.

In an attempt to tackle this ‘injustice’, he joined forces with pal Andy Katz-Mayfied to create a flexible razor subscription service that offers a great shave at a fraction of the cost and removes the hassle of having to navigate a supermarket or chemist in the process. As well as some cool looking, ergonomically designed, handles featuring top-notch blades (they’re made in Germany in a factory owned by Harry’s) there’s also a superb ancillary range, featuring everything from Shave Cream and Face Wash to Face Lotion and an extremely good aloe-rich Post Shave Balm which, keeping with the value-for-money theme, ranges in price from just £4-£7.

If you fancy giving Harry’s a go you can try their free trial set which includes a razor, shave gel and travel for the price of delivery (just £2.95). You can then subscribe to one of their Shave Plans so new blades pop through your letterbox just when you need them.  As well as the economic advantage this subscription service is totally flexible, allowing you to modify or pause your plan depending on your needs,which makes it great for guys who occasionally like to mix things up by rocking some stubble or sporting a beard.

The big question, of course, is ‘are they   any cop?’ Well, even though I have a beard (or an approximation thereof) I still use a razor on a regular basis to give it definition and to shave my cheeks (no jokes please) and the Harry’s razor is as good as anything I’ve ever used. Plus, they come in a range of fab designs and cool colours so, at that price, what’s not to love?

For more info check out harrys.com