One of my goals for the How To Be A Journalist site is to demystify stuff. The kind of things which you might not get told elsewhere - or which even get mentioned elsewhere. So much of the business of being a journalist - the real nitty-gritty - is all about things which you can only figure out for yourself. Or you can read about it here, from time to time, if you add this blogroll to your RSS feed or follow us on Twitter.
You may have wondered how to go about approaching magazines - or even what some of these 'section editors' actually do. I touched on the former subject in my earlier post How To Write For Magazines, but it'd also be nice to hear it from a horse's mouth, no? For instance, an actual section editor on an actual magazine?
Top UK mag SFX's Reviews Editor, Ian Berriman, kindly agreed to an interview about what his role entails, how he prefers people to approach him, what he expects from his writers and things which turn him off. Make no mistake: Ian really is a very nice man, but in this interview he gives it to you straight. I'm sure you wouldn't want it any other way. After all, you need to know this stuff. Even if you don't fancy writing for SFX, or even that kind of magazine, the majority of principles and pet hates discussed here will be relevant right across the publishing spectrum.
Ian started his career as a daytime TV researcher before freelancing for SFX for a few years. He then joined the staff in March 2002. Here goes...
Hello Sir! Tell us about your role on SFX magazine - what exactly does it involve?
Ian Berriman: "Hello Sir! I’m responsible for all the reviews - films, DVDs, books, comics, audio CDs, toys and so on - that appear in the magazine. This involves researching what products are being released, chasing up review materials - check discs, advances, publicity images - from PR people, assigning reviews to freelancers and fellow SFX team members, and flatplanning the section. In case you didn't know, the 'reviews flatplan' breaks down the contents of each page for the designers. Once the reviews come in I check them and ask for clarifications and/or make minor rewrites where necessary. Finally, once they’ve been subedited to fit the available space, I proofread each page."
How often do you take on new writers and do you ever actively search for them?
"In the last year I’ve probably added a couple of new names to my freelance pool. The very notion of 'actively searching' seems downright bizarre when we receive so many requests for work: the nearest I’ve come to that is discovering that a writer whose work I’ve always admired was following SFX on Twitter and asking him if he’d like to work for us. What’s more likely to happen is that someone I trust – another journalist, usually – will recommend someone to me.
"Actively searching out new writers would take time, and time is a very rare commodity in our business. Even finding the time to deal with the on-spec submissions that come in can be tricky. I make it a matter of policy to reply to everyone (even if only with a standard form of words), and I try my level best to read all the samples that are submitted, but sometimes those emails get 'put aside to look at when it’s less frantic' and end up sitting there for a month or more. To be blunt: when it’s a choice between going home to snatch some time with my fiancé, or sitting in the office for another half hour to read through a pile of spec submissions, fiancé usually wins."
How many submissions do you receive from potential new writers, each month?
"It ebbs and flows, but I’d guess that it averages out at four or five a week. My calculator tells me that’s between 16 and 20 a month."
What are the most common mistakes that potential new writers make when contacting you?
"I’m afraid the main one is terribly obvious, but it bears repeating: if you can’t master the basics of English grammar, or spell, I will not employ you. Chances are no-one else will either, because professional journalists are invariably grammar Nazis. That may seem harsh, but it’s a fact. If you clearly haven’t even taken the time to run a basic spell-check on your email - which takes a few seconds - I won’t even send you a standard form reply back. Frankly, I consider it discourteous.
"Accidentally starting your email with the words 'Dear Total Film…' isn’t necessarily a capital offence - although I will take perverse pleasure in pointing it out to you - so long as what follows convinces me that you have read our magazine and understand its ethos. It’s always blindingly obvious when you’ve sent the same generic wording to 20 different magazines. Keep it brief - I probably won’t read beyond the second paragraph - and don’t send me your CV unless there’s something mindblowingly impressive on there. Send samples - maybe three of your best pieces - as Word documents or PDFs that are simple to print out. Don't send a link to a website and make me plough through it looking for relevant examples of your work.
"Finally, make sure these samples are relevant. A bunch of gig reviews doesn't tell me anything about your knowledge of/ability to write about SF & fantasy films/books/comics - and, worse, implies that you're not really that interested in them."
What's the one thing that potential new writers do, perhaps unintentionally, that really put you off them?
"I’m amenable to an informal, chatty tone, but don’t go overboard and try and be too pally. When someone’s initial email is along the lines of, 'Hi Ian! I see that you like crisps and support Hull City! Well I love crisps too, and I spent an afternoon in Hull once in November 2006!', it ever-so-slightly creeps me out. I’m looking for writers, not private investigators, so approach an initial email as you would a first face-to-face conversation. And whatever you do, don’t try any kind of 'poor-me' routine: 'I’ve always dreamed of doing this, no-one will give me a chance, boo hoo hoo…'. Future Publishing replaced my heart with a lump of gleaming black obsidian many years ago, so emotional blackmail doesn’t cut any ice with me."
When you do hire writers, is it then a case of entrusting them with progressively bigger tasks, depending on how well they do?
"Very much so. Initially, I am liable to toss some direct-to-video crud your way and see how you get on. If you continue to impress me over the course of several months - and without complaining - I will start to give you more work, longer reviews, and more stimulating assignments. Nobody starts off reviewing Hollywood blockbusters: it may take years to work up to that level, if you ever reach it. There are two key things to remember if you are a budding freelancer. Firstly, freelancers tend to be there for the dirty jobs: staff always get first dibs and SFX has a very large team. Secondly, even if you are a very talented writer, I have 15 or 20 other talented writers on my books who’ve been working for me for years, and have families to feed. Taking on a new writer means taking one of them out into the backyard and nail-gunning them in the head, so it’s not something I do lightly."
Once writers are reviewing for you, what are the biggest pitfalls in writing reviews for SFX?
"Not hitting the deadline: I have to hand over completed pages to our designers every day to avoid a backlog building up, so people who consistently deliver copy late will not be doing so for very long. Also, not getting the format right and including all the information specified in the commission. It might seem like a piddling triviality, but if your review is missing the BBFC certificate or page count, that creates more work for me, and after you’ve looked up the twentieth missing detail of the month it really starts to grate. Finally, any section editor will have their own personal bugbears - phrases or formulations that are the linguistic equivalent of nails down a blackboard. Work out what they are, either by asking me direct, or working out why I keep rewriting your reviews, and then never use them again. For example, I can’t abide passive sentence constructions, and generally loathe reviews written in the first person."
How do you go about stamping those pitfalls out, if you'll forgive the nonsensical metaphor?
"Every time I commission a review, the freelancer receives a formal commission document, in the form of a PDF. This explains precisely how the submitted review should be formatted and also includes some do’s and don’ts: for example, reviewers of fantasy novels are banned from cracking gags about the size and weight of the book – experience tells me that without that rule they’d crop up in about 30 reviews every year. This document also includes a list of forbidden clichés. People who ignore this and submit copy that includes phrases like “it does what it says on the tin” are liable to feel my wrath."
What do you do if a reviewer's opinion of something really flies in the face of the general 'party line' at the mag?
"I was about to say “absolutely nothing”, but then I remembered that once, years ago, I changed a DVD review from one star to two stars, because I personally considered the film worthy of four stars. The writer concerned was some chap called Jason Arnopp – I wonder whatever happened to him? I believe that was the first and last occasion I ever did that. Occasionally I will sense a mismatch between the overall tone of the review and the star rating and email the writer to query it, but SFX has never had an official party line, so if you write a two-star review of a film that I thought was great, I’ll respect your judgement and print it unchanged. Very often those reviews are the ones that stimulate the most interest and debate amongst our readers."
Hope this was useful, folks. Incidentally, the film which Ian is talking about in that last paragraph is George Romero's Martin (1977). I love most of Romero's work, but that film bores me senseless. Many people like it a lot, though, so it was perfectly reasonable of Lord Berriman to change the rating.
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