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.