Mistake No. 51: “Dear Editorial Director…”

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.

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