The Write Stuff

By Peter DeHaan

Peter DeHaan, Publisher and Editor of Connections MagazineConsider this: “ABC Company, a strategic provider of telecommunications services, technology, and applications for helping call centers leverage the power of convergent networks, announced today the release it’s unique solution, ABC Widgetiser, which is sure to revolutionize existing technological infrastructures.”

This is an example of a recent – and all too common – press release (the names were changed to protect the guilty.)  On any given business day, I will receive five to ten press releases and at least one article or article abstract. Only a small percentage of these ever make it into Connections Magazine. Although the practical restriction of limited space in a printed medium is one tangible reason, the reality is that most submissions were doomed from the start – much like the above exercise in verbosity. Whether you are seeking publicity as a call center, business, non-profit organization, or vendor, understanding how the system works is the first step towards a successful placement, be it in Connections Magazine or somewhere else.

Target Your Submissions: Submitting content to a periodical is not like shooting a shotgun, where a pattern of pellets disperse in a general area with the hope that enough shot will strike the quarry to take it down. Rather, getting published is more like firing a rifle, where a single, well-intended and thoughtful bullet has a good chance for a successful outcome. True, not every shot will result in a meal, but the chances are much greater than just blasting off a shotgun in all directions.

With the advent of low-cost and easily scalable email, the temptation is great to fire off hundreds of missives at every conceivable angle. Doing so, however, reduces your thoughtfully composed prose to the level of spam, earning it an acrimonious end; a carefully targeted approach is a better way to go.

Know Your Target: My very first article submission, over two decades ago, was accepted and published. This gave me a false sense of success and allowed me to infer that getting published was easy. The reality was that I knew and understood the target publication, Radio Electronics. Not only had I been a subscriber for several years, but I faithfully read it and was intimately familiar with the content they published and the style of articles they preferred.

Communicate with the Publication: My first step was to send a letter to the magazine (there was no ubiquitous email in 1982). I pitched my idea and asked if they were interested. They responded with a form letter and their “writer’s kit.” Basically the kit was guidelines on what they expected, how to submit an article, their time table, and a listing of possible outcomes – which seemed rather pessimistic – but nonetheless provided some important information.

In today’s publishing world, some editors and publishers will respond to email requests of this nature, but it seems that many do not. At best, hope for a brief communication. Today’s editorial staff is being asked to do more, in less time, and with fewer resources. Don’t take it personally if your query is ignored or if you receive a terse, one sentence reply. Make the best of any limited communication and move forward.

Tap into Their Resources: Virtually all periodicals have websites, which often contain useful information for the aspiring writer and hopeful author. Regardless of the level of communication you may – or may not – have with the publication’s staff, check out their website for additional assistance. Connections Magazine, for example, contains guidelines for writing and submitting both articles and press releases. Information includes the preferred length (up to 1,200 words for articles; no more than 200 for press releases), the method of submission (email only, no faxed or mailed submissions), writing style (generally objective third person), and so forth.

Know Your Subject: My first article was simply titled, “All About Pagers.” It was a subject I knew well, working for a paging company (a Radio Common Carrier or RCC) and with several years of experience. One would think that my composition would have flowed easily and quickly. Not so. As I began to write, I quickly realized how much I could not fully explain. Fortunately, I was in a position to obtain the missing pieces, thereby filling in the gaps. The result was an accurate and informative submission that resonated well with the editors.

Writing about things you don’t know or understand is quickly spotted and easily dismissed. Don’t try to do that; leave it for the seasoned, professional reporter.

Follow the Directions: The quickest and easiest way for your press release or article to be ignored or discarded is for you to assume that the rules don’t apply to you. Editors appreciate and more readily use material that complies with their guidelines. They don’t make rules just because they can, but rather to help things go smoothly and make it easier for all parties involved.

If they request your press releases via an email attachment (my preferred method), then, by all means, do it. Other publications avoid attachments and prefer that the text be in the body of the email. I limit news items to 200 words. If longer pieces are submitted, they will most certainly be edited for length. The reality is, when an editor is nearing deadline or pushed for time, content requiring significant reworking or editing will often be delayed or get deleted. Increase your chances of being published by simply following directions.

Don’t Miss Deadlines: Deadlines are given for a reason. Without them, a publication would never make it to the printer! Be aware and follow submission deadlines (ours are published on our website and listed on page seven of each issue). If you promise an article by a certain date, don’t miss it. If you desire your hot news item to be in a specific issue, get it in on time; sooner is better. Weekly papers and especially magazines have a much longer lead time than most people imagine, so be aware of it and adhere to it.

Third Person is Preferred: Writing objectively in the third person gives your piece increased integrity and greater trustworthiness; it is more credible. First-person is never acceptable in news releases as it comes across as self-serving, bragging, or unnecessarily introspective. Always write press releases as an impartial third party. Articles generally work best in this same style. Notable exceptions are first-hand commentaries, how-to pieces, and experiential accounts – such as this column. If you have any doubt about which style to use, don the hat of a reporter and write in the third person.

Proofread Carefully: I continue to be amazed at receiving press releases and articles that contain serious errors. Some submissions have not even been spell-checked! This is a quick way to lose credibility and frustrate an editor. Make their work easier by double checking yours.

It is nearly impossible to successfully proof your own work. After all, you know what you intended to write, so that is how you read it, easily overlooking errors and mistakes. Others have proofread this piece (and I certainly hope that we caught everything); you are well-advised to do the same.

Expect to be Edited: It is tough to pour your heart and soul into a piece only to have someone else change it. Similarly, it is easy to become enamored with what you wrote, desiring it to be published verbatim. This is an unrealistic expectation.

Even the most experienced have their work altered. This can be for many reasons. A common one is length, another is style, and a third is content suitability. Sometimes a piece is given a different slant to make it better fit a publication’s focus or a section is removed because it doesn’t work well or flow with the article.

Although some publications and editors have a reputation for twisting, manipulating, or even corrupting an author’s work, I make a good-faith effort to retain the writer’s intent and to help each one, and their company, come across in a positive way.

Avoid Hyperbole: The more spectacular the language in press releases, the less believable they become. Words such as “leveraged,” “solutions,” “unique,” “revolutionary,” “leading,” and “premier” are overused.  Avoid using them in your copy whenever possible. Exaggerated copy and unsubstantiated claims only serve to push away a cautious reader, not draw them in. Yes, clever text and intriguing wording has its place, but when it surpasses the message, something is wrong and communication is not taking place.

There is no sure-fire way or guaranteed methodology to get your news item or article published, but implementing these ideas will certainly increase the likelihood of that happening – and decrease frustration when it does not.

Peter DeHaan PhD is the publisher and editor-in-chief of Connections Magazine and a passionate wordsmith. Connect with him on his personal blogs, social media sites, and newsletter, all accessible from peterdehaan.com.

[From Connection Magazine Jul/Aug 2005]

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