by Leo Wiles
23 January 2019
Umm… maybe. Personally I think you’re lucky to have anything in writing from a time-strapped, stressed-out editor! What you may not realise is that these directives will save you so much heartache now and in the future.
Think of a good commissioning editor like a swan. On the surface they may seem to be gliding along and making your life hell by putting questions in your mouth and yet … in-house they’re paddling furiously keeping all the pieces in motion until showtime. Pieces they may not have shared with you, such as hand-picking a dress to match the title’s distinctive banner (I kid you not).
When I was editing a weekly magazine, I liked to have everything spelt out. I wanted to state what was required with no wiggle room. This was because I was often investing a LOT of budget in certain stories, paying writers and stylists and snappers. Hell, on some stories I’d even go and direct the shoots and rearrange the talent’s furniture. I may have even plumped a cushion or two to ensure we had what we need for that cover story or ‘at home’ piece.
In regards to writing questions for the reporter – it’s not a dig at your experience or skills. Editors do what they have to do to get the story they want. If that’s a cover story or a piece we hope will provide a decent cover-line, that verbose commissioning email covers the editor’s butt as well as yours. And because budgets are tighter these days, it’s hardly any wonder editors want to lock a feature up-tight and make sure it delivers.
On my briefs to writers who were going off to do a commissioned piece on their own, I’d generally include the angle that had been agreed on, any mandatories that the PR required when granting access (often for celeb interviews), key questions that HAD to be asked of the talent and other essential details I expected of the writer for ‘colour’. While some writers might roll their eyes at a very specific ‘control freak’ brief, the alternative is a wishy-washy one where the editor doesn’t really seem to know what they want. (In fact, that kind of brief is a massive red flag and can be a headache for any writer.)
So I would reframe that prescriptive brief and those questions as helpful starting points. If you want input, say so upfront, add in some comments to their brief or add to the questions then send it back for sign off. There are lots of ways for you to be heard and feel integral to the process, but really, when all is said and done it’s not your dime. You’re just doing the job.
Do editors ever write YOUR questions? We’d love to hear what you think of this in the comments.