Thursday, April 08, 2010

The single most valuable skill in journalism

The human race is divided into two groups: those who are always late and those who are always early. The first group are no busier than the latter group. They have simply decided that being on-time is somehow beneath them.

The same divide exists among journalists. Here it causes more problems because it usually relates to copy and the lateness thereof. I've dealt with hundreds of hacks and can count on the fingers of both hands the ones who are always on time. I can count on the fingers of just the one hand the writers who are so infallibly reliable that I would happily put my house on their delivering their copy not just on time but early. In fact I've just counted again and I still have a spare finger.

There's a slightly larger group who generally deliver on the day. Then there's the majority who, sad to say, only deliver after nagging. You would have thought that a combination of professional pride and the recession would have brought about a change in these people's behaviour. It hasn't.

The sign of a proper magazine professional is that they deliver early, partly because they know that they need to build in some screw-up time, but also because they wouldn't dream of starting something so near to the deadline that it was likely to be botched as a result of haste. Anybody who tells you "it'll be ready later today" has not done what the professional would have done, which is stay up late the night before to complete it and then got up early the following morning to give it another read before sending it off.

They also never ever tell you what else they've got to do, whether it's personal or professional. They know that's not your concern. They realise that they are being hired not merely for their artistry or professionalism; they are being hired because they take an editor's load and lighten it. They are providing that most invaluable service: once something is handed to them, the editor doesn't have to think about that bit of the flat plan for a few days. Finally, the really odd thing is that the same people who are on time always deliver copy that is to-length and spelled correctly. Now explain that to me.


  1. Seems like some people are good at their job and some are not. Amazing how the rubbish is tolerated. Wouldn't happen in my game (film industry). If you're late or substandard there you're out. Unless you have good tits of course. Which is only to say that sex symbols can get away with behaviour that the rest of us can't.

  2. The word 'journalist' doesn't just apply to writers. I'm a press photographer (and therefore a journalist), and press photographers just have to be on time. If we're late, we've missed it.

  3. I'm curious to know if they also write better articles? I suspect they do as good preparation and planning is likely to lead to good quality, but maybe I'm wrong.

  4. These habits start very early. I experience the same thing with students. A very few will stick to the deadline, hand in early drafts, and work with you to improve the final result. The vast majority think its okay to be late, and an arrogant few always think there's a "real" deadline that I'm somehow not sharing with them. If I had my way, I'd let these people fail, because it would probably be the most valuable lesson they ever learned. Unfortunately, there's too much pressure to mask this incompetence to make the school look good (because it's always the school's fault if a student fails).

    So I've had to give up several days of my holiday to help students who are late with work so that they can get to university and be late with their work there, and then get a job and be late forever.

    When I did my PhD, there were always those who were planning a fourth year to "write it up" (god knows what they did for the first three years). I finished a month early, of course.

  5. My most recent bugbear was a TV interview which turned up late, was incredibly badly-written and spelled (not commissioned by me, I hasten to add), and which turned out to be a rewrite of a press pack. Git.

    There is also a writer I occasionally use who has the habit of sending you twice the length you commissioned, because 'it was all so good, I didn't like to cut it'.

    And yet these people still get work.

  6. I can explain your final paradox, David. The people who deliver late are often those whose work is actually a bit crap, but they don't realise it. What they do realise is that the subs do a lot of work on the copy they submit. So they deliver it late in the mistaken belief that there won't be time for the subs to work on it, so it will be published in its original form. Which they think is better - but you and I know is crap...

    Also, blame the mythology surrounding people like Hunter S Thompson, so legendarily late that he would write the copy at the printers. People want to believe they are SO good that those kind of rules should apply to them. But they are not Hunter S Thompson.

  7. Of all the people I've ever commissioned, I can count on the fingers of one, er, finger, the guy who is always on time and always on the money.

    Needless to say, as the recession bit, when pages were culled and space for features hit premium, only one guy continued to get regular work... and still does

    He is the very model of a freelance writing professional and there ain't many of them about

  8. Perhaps earlier 'deadlines' should be set for the previously late; my mum did something similar with me and leaving times for trips - simple but surprisingly effective.

  9. There's also a third group, those who are meeting people who are always late. In such instances I think it's acceptable to arrive a little late as you know you'll still be waiting for a while anyway.

  10. Last year Empire published a spin off History of... in which I wrote a piece that included the following:

    "Revealed: What An Editor Wants More Than Anything In The World.

    Lots of people want to write for Empire. To be a successful writer, you have to understand what an editor wants. It’s simple. If an editor says, “Can you write me 750 words on John Wayne by Friday?”, you actually write 750 words, and you get it there by Friday. You would be staggered by the number of people who don’t do that."

    And it can now be exclusively revealed on this here blog that in fact there was only one freelancer who ticked all the boxes in all my years of commissioning: early, not merely on time. Accurate. Right length. Clean copy. Interesting that 20 years on he's still banking cheques from the magazine.

  11. Sometimes managers know that picking a great player on a Saturday, who hasn't turned up for training all week, is better than picking Steady Eddie who has.

  12. thus spake zarathustra. "sometimes managers say "typical germans" after losing quarter -finals. Doesn't make it cool.

  13. In a different field : I am responsible inter alia for Bid Management for Computer Systems. Same problems here - everyone is told "I need your 2000 words by noon on Friday" and some hear "I will accept 1000 words or 4000 words on Monday. Or Tuesday. Then I'll wave a magic wand and make it readable." There are a handful of colleagues who have the courtesy / professionalism to alert me early to possible problems. A tiny number provide workable copy to schedule, every time.

    "Leveraging the benefits of our supply chain, who are individually and collectively enhancing and proactively delivering to forthcoming national and international standards, and providing leadership and proactive focus to the community" is how one shambles began, a week late. Not a single sentence that worked, (and few that were actually grammatical let alone readable) in 3,800 words to meet a 2,000 word target.

  14. Interesting points. I certainly think it's true that the habitually late *believe* that their work is better than that done by the people who deliver on time. It isn't. They also have the really irritating habit of asking "what's the real deadline?" which just demonstrates their cluelessness when it comes to the business of how a magazine is produced.

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  16. I regularly commission articles from people who are not journalists or writers, but who have interesting things to say about their line of work. They invariably submit their articles on time, on topic, and written to the requested word length. Why do 'professional' writers find this so hard to do?

  17. Still got that finger to spare David? If so, I'll take it. For me delivering on time means being early. Otherwise you're late.

    I'm available at short notice and can turn round copy at whippet speed. Recently an editor apologised for only giving me 48 hours to do a piece. Luxury, I replied. I was trained on newspapers. We used to be told five minutes ago; if it's six, make sure you say goodbye as you leave.

    You'll likely censor this bit but if only some of the companies you worked for were as prompt at paying and I was delivering. EMAP used to be one of the worst - often taking up to three months and even then only paying after threats of legal action.

    As a journalist who delivers sparkling copy always well within a deadline and writes the kind of stuff that invariably goes in without touching the sides, I believe I should at the very least be guaranteed payment within 30 days.

    Don't you think?

  18. Magazine I used to work at we started giving writers deadlines that were the day before they were really due because if you told them it had to be in by next Wednesday they'd file it at 5:30pm that day when everyone was going home.

  19. That's a very good idea Londonlee and worth doing in other areas of your life too - always tell people the show starts at least 15 minutes before it does if you want any chance at all of most people turning up anywhere near the actual start!

  20. The job I do involves internal job vacancies for a Police force. No matter how many times you tell applicants that the form MUST be with us by 1600 on the closing date a load of the usual excuses are wheeled out as to why their precious form is going to be late.

    I constantly tell them that their fellow applicants are subject to the same exigencies of the force and they've managed to get their forms in on time. There's no "I was on leave", "I've only just seem the advert" or "my arm fell off" from them. They don't appreciate that they wouldn't get away with it on "civvy street". Detectives are the worst. They all think they're Gene Hunt.

    Invariably those who have got their form in in plenty of time and have put some work into it get the jobs. That is natural justice.

  21. As a veteran freelancer of eighteen years, I accept that editors value punctuality above all things. It makes your job as an editor easier. And you are the centre of the universe, aren't you?

    You say that a true professional would work all night and all morning, presumably on a diet of ashes, in order to hit a deadline. Bollocks. That's not the behaviour of a professional. It's the behaviour of a slave.

    So, let's call it, shall we? That's the position we "content producers" now find ourselves in.

    I have written for magazines for the best part of two decades and, until two years ago, had very rarely missed a deadline. I was that guy you praise; the one who got his work in early. I had comments in return saying my submissions were like "clockwork". And I was proud of that track record.

    And then, the magazines started to lose money. The advertisers deserted us, the readers went to the Internet. And the first thing to go? The freelance budget.

    During a steady period of erosion, my fees were cut, then cut again by multiple publications. In some cases I'm working for half the page rate I was working for in 2007. I have friends and colleagues who confirm that they have experienced the same fate, some with families to raise.

    So, what must a freelance writer do to make ends meet in this climate? And, no, I don't mean to keep up the payments on his BMW or fund his expensive habit for high-tech gadgets. I mean, to pay the rent, to eat and to live?

    Mr. Hepworth - I am already working into the early hours of the morning to meet deadlines, because I am taking on more work than I can manage. The alternative would be to apply for staff jobs (few on the ground and which would involve a costly move and commensurate change in lifestyle) or to go on benefits.

    And, yes, I sometimes miss deadlines now. By a day - sometimes two. But the work I produce is of the same high quality, praised by editors, as it was when they were paying me twice as much.

    It may surprise you to hear that I haven't had a weekend off in two years. I haven't had a holiday in four. Family meals, impromptu days out, even a night at the pub. These are now so rare as to be forgotten. I couldn't afford them even if I had the time.

    Let me ask you, Dave, are magazine staffers taking pay cuts? Are advertising executive staff halving their salaries? Are editors and publishers giving up their foreign holidays and sick pay and Christmas bonuses?

    No. Because, in the magazine industry freelancers - your main "content providers" - are at the bottom of the food chain. With poor contracts and a laissez faire attitude to our rights among staffers, we put up and shut up. God forbid that you should sacrifice a sliver of your middle class lifestyle for the benefit of another human being.

    So, while I accept some of your argument - I would personally love to have my "clockwork" reputation back - do not tar us all with the same brush. I am ashamed that I cannot always hit every deadline now. But, sometimes, there are genuine professional reasons for that. Reasons that you appear to find too uncomfortable to even contemplate.

  22. I totally get where you're coming from Indignant. It seems we must dance to the tune of the editors while they can pretty much do what they like.

    My biggest gripe is when eds just won't confirm whether they want a piece from you or not. A no is fine - that's a pretty good outcome these days. But all too often pitches are ignored and do you chase or not? Do you risk looking a pain? Looking desperate? Or is that just being a professional? Especially when you have a hot idea you know you can place elsewhere?

    But the worst outcome of all is a maybe. Those eds that leave you hanging, not sure if you've got a commission or not and yes yes yes, I know, we can go elsewhere. Oh if only one could! You can’t though; there just isn’t the work out there to allow you to be choosy and only work with editors as professional as you are.

    These days writers are treated by editors in much the same way as Tesco treats farmers. We have the same relationship with those who give us work as a lamppost has to a dog. Just stand there long enough and eventually someone will piss all over you.