“Dear Editorial Director…” (Mistake #51)

Query from a student, who’d been looking at the flannel panel in a publication: “To whom should an idea be sent?”

Good question. I liked that the student asked it, that she didn’t just ignore the issue, that she didn’t think it unimportant, that she didn’t tell herself “Oh, it’s a dumb question”, that it didn’t just knock about in her head for a bit before being dispensed with (“Sod it, I’ll send it to whoever”).

Because it is important – indeed very important when there are a lot of staff at a publication. Check out that flannel panel – that’s industry slang for the box or list of names and job titles of the editorial team in the magazine – and, should you be holding a thick glossy, you may need to take the afternoon off to do so. Editorial director, editor-at-large, editor-in-chief, deputy editor, junior editor, senior editor, features editor, commissioning editor… and it goes on and on.

Where to start. Editor-at-large? Someone unlikely to spend much time in the office, but who perhaps acts as a kind of consultant, or with whom the publication maintains what is probably a mutually beneficial association of some kind. Editorial director? Someone who oversees the ‘vision’ of the publication, perhaps, or of the stable of magazines owned by the publisher, even. Don’t send your ideas to them. They’re not that interesting to – or interested in – you.

You need the person who makes decisions on buying articles.

There are no absolute rules, but generally if there’s a features editor or a commissioning editor among the team – that’s your man or woman. If there are only a handful of people on board – it’s probably the editor you want, but sometimes the deputy editor.

Don’t be afraid of these proper or wordy titles you might see, incidentally. They often sound more official than they are. That’s not to say the individuals concerned don’t fulfil important roles or don’t deserve their titles or your respect, just that they’re nothing to be intimidated by. They’re often mainly about establishing an in-house pecking order – who’s whose superior, and all that. I have one myself – ‘deputy editor’ – of a skin health website. My editor, wanting to delegate some of the responsibility to me, offered me a title of my choice, and that’s what I plumped for. It doesn’t mean I’m scary, or have an office with my title engraved into the door, or will bite your head off if you dare approach me by phone – it just means I’m basically a number two (quit sniggering at the back).

A big mistake is sending articles or ideas for newspapers to their editors. This seems very common, probably because there’s no flannel panel to offer clues, and rarely any simple means of finding out who staff members are. But papers are departmentalised, and you need to address the person looking after the section you’re targeting.

When in doubt – and this goes for magazine world too – you have to pick up the phone and call. I know this is intimidating – I still hate it, sometimes – but you’re only asking for a name not pitching an idea (which is a whole new tier of terror). If the receptionist can’t help (she often can), ask for an editorial assistant. “Hello, who commissions features / the sports section / the Friday supplement, please?” – or whatever, is all you need ask.

Don’t be intimidated by job titles. Do get the right name. Do not let phoning alarm you. The senior editorial director-in-chief-at-large of the Mistakes Writers Make blog is sure you’ll be just fine.

Comments 8

  • Sound advice,Simon, but it is hard when people are off hand with you. Someitmes it makes you feel like Oliver with his begging bowl

  • Sorry Alex. I tweeted about your post and clearly people think I wrote it! (One day I will be a No 2.)

  • @ Pat – yeah, but in a sense you've just got to harden yourself to it – and that comes with just doing it more and more. Most people are polite, but busy.

    @ Simon – I could offer you the position of *deputy* editorial director-in-chief of the MWM blog, perhaps?…

  • Offer me deputy editorial director-in-chief of this blog? Now that would be a mistake!

  • I find it somewhat comforting that you hate making those kinds of phonecalls. I was terrified at being put through to a deputy editor when I was just querying whether something had been received….strangely enough she turned out to be human, interested and did actually publish my article (albeit in a rather different format)!

  • Ha, yeah – sometimes I really do. Other days I barely think about it – which is, actually, the best way. The worse part of it all is the agonising over it.

  • The thought of speaking to some big cheese, (or even a little cheese, a babybel even) on the phone terrifies me. It's probably one of the reasons I'm disuaded from ever trying my hand at writing articles. I find it easier to agonise over and over (and over) a query letter. Which often brings me close to tears.

  • Jo, I'm sorry. Whenever things get to me that much I try to remember that, ultimately, none of it really matters. But listen – you don't always need to speak to editors. I've clients who I've never spoken with. Yes, it'll hold you back a bit, and I would always advise my students it is a hurdle they eventually have to get over, ultimately, but that doesn't mean you can't sell non-fiction. Good luck.

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