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.

 

When imitation is NOT the sincerest form of flattery.

white-or-black-full-face-italian-mask-12-pYou know how they say you know you’ve made it when someone starts to impersonate you? Well, that’s the positive spin on impersonation. The darker side is when someone pretends to be you for their own material gain: that, dear readers, is commonly known as ‘fraud’. Sadly, a couple of weeks ago it came to my attention that someone (I nearly wrote f**ker there but am way too polite) had written to one of the ‘big three’ skincare companies claiming to be me and requesting product for review. The actual email they sent reads thus:

Hi,

I’m Lee Kynaston, and I am the Online Grooming Editor for MensHealth: the number one online magazine for men – sex tips, fashion, sport and health advice. We cover a wide range of segments in our website: including Style & Grooming, consisting primarily of fragrance / grooming / hair care and whatnot. We haven’t actually featured any XXXXX product(s) on our website, and we were wondering if this would be possible as we would like to get more scents in for review before the summer. The review would be featured on our fragrance section of our website, as seen here:

http://www.menshealth.co.uk/style/fragrance/

Please check it out, and let me know your thoughts.

Thank-you for your time.

Lee Kyanston.
Online Grooming Editor.
MensHealth.

They are absolutely right to laud Men’s Health but are wrong about the fact that I haven’t featured the product they requested and whilst they have accurately aped my notoriously flaky spelling in their sign off, even I know how to spell my own surname correctly. And who, apart from Jacob Rees-Mogg, uses the word whatnot in 2014? 

On investigation it transpired this person has mailing addresses (anonymous suite numbers of course) in both Portland Oregon and in Belfast and is using an email address similar to my own (using the inaccurate spelling of my name). Not only is this person committing a crime by impersonating me, they are also on the wrong side of the law by using one of my employers as a cover.

Let’s be clear about one thing here: in the UK the Fraud Act 2006 makes it an offence to dishonestly make a false representation with the intention of making a gain or causing a loss and laws in the US are equally as clear. The bottom line is that it’s a criminal act.

So, if you are a PR I would ask you to be vigilant and always ensure that the person contacting you for product really is the person they say they are (and if they are not, do as the PR in this case did, and contact your legal team for advice).

If you’re are a journalist or blogger, meanwhile, I would merely ask you to be aware that identity theft like this is an increasing problem, particularly online. And if you do find you are being impersonated in any way contact the police about it immediately. After all, your identity is probably the most precious thing you own.

 

 

Mask image from http://www.maskparty.co.uk

Just saying.

1932460_698429663512840_1469033327_nYou know how a picture paints a thousand words? Well, this one, which a pal of mine shared with me today, paints a better picture of the state of modern journalism, blogging and copywriting than words ever could. If, like me, you’re a scribe by profession I’m sure you’ll appreciate it.

Let’s stop moaning about Mos – and get on with the job of helping men beat cancer

merch(1)It’s strange, but criticising Movember now seems to be a national sport in my industry. Every year at least one of my colleagues breaks ranks and has a pop at the fact that Movember has become too commercialised, has too many official partners, or that success has ruined it and that – like an indie band who come up with a multi-platinum album –  it has somehow ‘sold out’. Others complain it has become a joke (wasn’t it always meant to be fun?) whilst some funsters suggest that it would simply be better to forgo the whole moustache growing part and just hand over some money charity.

It is, of course, easy to criticise a cause for not being perfect. It makes good copy and it has the allure of being controversial. It’s also fantastically mean-spittited and rather symptomatic of an industry that sees anything to do with women’s charities as worthy of praise and anything to do with men’s as either daft or cynical.

MOVEMBERWAXThe male grooming industry has a quite pitiful record when it comes to giving anything back to the men who buy its products. Come to think of it men have a pretty pitiful track record when it comes to giving anything back to men. And this is why I’m an ardent defender of Movember. Sure, it’s not perfect – and there are brands that rub up against it for a little of its feel-good sparkle –  but at the end of the day it’s one time of year when men actually get of their sorry asses and do something that helps other men. For this alone it should be celebrated rather than knocked.

So what if companies like Penhaligons, Gillette* and Kent get on board with their products? Who cares if Byron are getting bums on seats with their (rather tasty) Mo’Shroom burgers? Yes, they’re getting publicity. They may be even making a profit for themselves whilst raising funds for others (to be shocked by this is to not fully understand the mechanics of modern charity) but, hey, they’re supporting a great cause and their contribution generates a huge amount of press and publicity – and we all know that charities rely on the oxygen of publicity. On a more basic level, for me, our industry is proactively helping men, in a way that the beauty industry has been helping women for years. Whether the companies involved are doing it selflessly or selfishly, who cares? They’re doing it.

ELC 2013 BCA Campaign PR Visual with RibbonsThe cynicism about Movember comes into sharpest focus when compared with the industry’s attitude to Breast Cancer Awareness. Whilst sitting in the lobby of Estee Lauder’s London HQ a few weeks ago I was struck, not just by the effort that they go to in supporting that particular cause (even re-painting their front doors pink) but by their “We’re stronger together” call to arms. One of the beauty industry’s real successes is how it has united to raise funds and awareness for breast cancer charities (and by industry I mean cosmetic houses, beauty journalists, magazines etc working together to shine a light on the cause). Certainly, my industry could take a leaf out of the beauty world’s book and get behind men’s charities but it won’t if, every time it tries, scorn is instantly poured over its efforts. Just as women are ‘stronger together’ when united to combat cancer so are men. But we’re also weaker when we’re torn apart.

For more information on Movember click here.

*Last year Gillette donated over £100,000 to Movember via on pack promotions.

Free for all: why selling yourself cheap is ultimately self defeating

AvEsbfiCAAIWFCW.jpg-largeIt’s a dilemma facing every wannabe journalist or writer looking for a foothold in what is a notoriously tough and fickle industry: do you offer your work for free?

As a journalist I’ve only ever really been asked to work for free once professionally (more about that later) but as a blogger it’s a regular occurance. The typical scenario goes something like this: I get approached by someone who’s discovered my blog or stumbled across me on Twitter and they have something they’d like me to help them with. Some say they’d like to “collaborate” with me but I’ll vent my spleen about that term on another day. Anyway, we talk and they’re all over me like randy pup. I’m just the person they need! Then, when they twig I actually make my living from writing (and therefore require remuneration) they’re off my quivering leg like lightening.

But it gets worse. A couple of years ago I was contacted by the online editor of a publication asking me if I’d be interested in writing for their website as they were looking for good male grooming content. He knew I was a journalist and since I’d never written for this particular publication I was keen to contribute, so my answer was an enthusiastic yes. After sussing out what kind of thing he was after and agreeing that I could provide it I then asked what the payment would be.

The reply, although meant to be funny, actually took me aback. “Oh, you’re one of those old-fashioned journalists who likes to get paid!” he said. Given that I’ve been a journalist for over 20 years and have managed to earn a decent living out it (no mean feat given what a poorly paid profession it can be) I was pretty gobsmacked.

Of course, the moment I said yes to his question, I never heard from him ever again. He got his copy, though, and presumably for free, from elsewhere. Don’t get me wrong, not every single piece of work I’ve ever written has been paid for. I’ve done work for friends as favours or as part of contra deals and I wrote for free very briefly when I was doing work experience, back in 1990. I started out at 19 Magazine (ironically, a title I eventually ended up editing) and though I wrote a couple of small pieces without payment on a two-week work placement the features editor at the time – one of the best I’ve ever come across – eventually decided she should pay me for the words because she rated what I was doing.

There are, of course, many great commissioning editors and content managers out there but there are also also plenty of predatory ones essentially looking for writers to groom. Bloggers, in particular, are easy prey. I’m a curious breed of blogger known as a jogger. Half journalist and half blogger I’m the writing word’s equivalent of the bisexual – and treated with just as much suspicion. Since I was a journalist first, though, I’m pretty savvy about how things work when it comes the industry but I don’t suppose everyone is.

These days, many aspiring writers see blogging as the perfect launchpad for a journalistic career. And why not? Self-publishing has never been easier nor more respectable. The problem is, if you’re starting out and someone comes a long and asks you whether you’d like to write for them you’re naturally flattered. You see an opportunity to get your work out there. They won’t pay you? Fine, it may lead to something where you do get paid. Trust me, I get it. Like seeing a tray of doghnuts in a baker’s window, it’s a proposition that’s hard to resist. And the people offering you the opportunities know this.

Please understand that I am not having a go at all the aspiring writers out there – I was one myself once – it’s the unscrupulous people who expect them to write for free. Often these people work for websites or retail sites who are clearly making money. They’re businesses so they understand that everything comes with a cost attached. Except you of course.

What irks me about the website I mentioned earlier is that though they wanted copy for free the person that contacted me is quite clearly salaried. That website pays its staff so what makes its staff think they don’t have to pay its contributors? Wanting writers to write for free is shameful, disrespectful and frankly, turns commissioning editors into little more than petty thieves.

The problem is we live in a world where skill and creativity are have been undermined and devalued. It’s easy to blame the internet for this. Most of us expect content for free these days after all. But at the end of the day, businesses have a choice and they should choose to allocate budgets for ‘talent’. I totally understand that many start-ups don’t have huge amounts of cash to splash but I do believe that even if they can’t pay their writers the going rate they should, at the very least, offer them something for their work. And I think that all the writers out there have a duty to at least ask for something, otherwise they are doing themselves, future writers and indeed, established ones like me, a real disservice.

What made the features editor at 19 who offered to pay me for the pieces I wrote at the very start of my career so special is that she put a value on my work. And by valuing my work she she put a value on me too. If you constantly give your stuff away for free you’ll, quite literally, end up feeling worthless. So my message to budding writers is never sell yourself too cheaply because, to adapt the tagline L’Oreal are so fond of using, you’re absolutely worth it.

PS. Thanks to Guy Clapperton for pointing out this brilliant video after I wrote this post. If I’d have seen it beforehand I would have just posted it on here instead!