A Cautionary Word: Always Write with the Reader in Mind
Big mistake: I started writing without the reader in mind.
I was responding to the scandalous analogy a reviewer had made ridiculing my profession. I was incensed. Also, chagrined. I could see there was some truth to the caricatures he used, but I labored for a couple of hours, writing a rebuttal. Pride got the better of me.
Each paragraph was dedicated to showing how what the author classified as a sin was, in fact, a virtue. For example, he characterized freelance writers and editors as “a nightmare,” dismissing us as a bunch of “critics.” I wrote that I am someone who is proud to call herself a freelance writer and editor. I number plenty of freelance writers and editors among my friends. I hardly think that, either individually or together, we are nightmares. And the complaint that we are critics? Look in your own mirror. Every writer, editor, and publisher is a critic. If we did not believe that criticism has value, there would be no point to our work. Why try to persuade? Why cajole? Why encourage? Why not simply accept reality as it is, rather than write or publish anything at all? Even affirmations point to their opposite—the possibility that what was affirmed could be overlooked, denied, or rejected.
I ran out of time and had to attend to other obligations. I put the piece aside.
When I returned to what I had imagined to be an eloquent and elegant essay, I found a screed. Whom did I think I was going to reach with this piece? It wasn’t aimed at the author. It wouldn’t work as a letter to the editor. It wasn’t suitable as a stand-alone article or editorial. It was merely a rant, and a sorry one at that. Because, as I said, I wrote it in response to a provocation—but instead of taking criticism seriously, and responding with the humility a Christian should have, I dodged. I ridiculed. I exaggerated. I minimized. In short, my rejoinder was the perfect example of the sins for which I and my fellow freelancers were put on trial. It was a nightmare. I was a mere critic, carrying on with caricature and complaints, rather than offering constructive comments, counsel, and correction.
As I thought about what I had written, the Lord reminded me of a number of basics I had forgotten. Indignation is not the same thing as inspiration. Before responding to a fool, check the facts. Before showing yourself to be a fool, check your heart. Temper your tantrum and tame your tongue. Remember the reader. Remember your reputation. Remember you can revise, redraft, and rethink.
So here I am, chastened, contrite, with a cautionary word. Think carefully about your communications, and the effect you want them to have. Think about the character of your words, and their context. God has given you the ability and gifts you use to write, edit, and publish—use them well. Use them with care. And may God keep you from making the same mistake I did; may he grant us both grace when we fail, and give us passion to persevere in his service.
Kim Pettit, MTI Board of Directors chair
Whether your team all sits next to each other in one office or you are spread around the world there are multiple tools online to help you better communicate, plan, brainstorm, file share, edit, schedule, and more. Check out these programs (some are free) to see what can help your magazine staff, writers, designers, and volunteers collaborate with efficiency. Click on each type to read about different tools in that category.
The headline caught my attention. A search for the publisher of a controversial pamphlet was underway. The pamphlet had an impact on a particular religious community: it convinced some parents not to vaccinate their children. Their decision became a public health concern when that community faced an outbreak of measles. I wondered if the publisher would face criminal charges, and if those might have been forestalled with a little fact-checking.
At the time I read the headline, I was ghost-writing devotionals based on a sermon. The preacher alluded to some scientific process, but he’d gotten the facts wrong. It was a minor error and easy to fix. The instructions and style guide I received from the commissioning editor did not include anything on fact-checking, but I had done it anyway.
Who is responsible?
Do you fact-check the material you receive? Or do you trust that the authors and preachers you work with get their facts right every time? How do you decide what and how much should be checked? How do you know what is “fake news” and what is a true fact? Even our language has changed to reflect our preoccupation with getting the story right.
Newsweek’s editorial guidelines place the responsibility for fact-checking squarely on the journalist’s shoulders: “You are responsible for the accuracy of your story. Check every single fact that you include: dates, spelling of names, titles, timelines, numbers, and other statistics. Hard-check any superlative—i.e., is this really the first, the worst, the only, the highest?” Other organizations present fact-checking as a shared task.
Why should we care?
In discussing a recent fact-checking scandal involving German magazine Der Spiegel, Southern Baptist leader Al Mohler concluded, “[We] all want to be told the stories we want to be told [but] the truth really matters. A story, of course, doesn’t have to be true to be interesting, but it does have to be true to be true. Christians underline and must affirm that the truth always matters. . . everywhere, anywhere, all the time.”
How do you make sure that what you publish is true?
The Poynter Institute offers a number of resources on the topic, as does the Global Investigative Journalism Network here. The Society of Professional Journalists provides this list. There are many similar compilations on the web. There are even a few inspirational resources, such as MTI board member and trainer Dr. Michael Ray Smith’s book Fake News, Truth-Telling and Charles M. Sheldon’s Model of Accuracy: How a Clergyman Insisted on Accuracy as Job One.
I do not want to duplicate the lists, but I do want to offer my own tips for your consideration:
- Reflect on past mistakes. Pay attention to the critiques you have received and determine what types of errors you, or your authors, are most likely to make.
- Avoid repeating past mistakes. Develop clear guidelines for fact-checking and be sure they are communicated to all involved.
- Maintain a list of vetted resources you recommend your staff use. Review the list as needed.
- Trust that your fact-checking guidelines are followed, but verify this, too. There are a number of ways you might do this: asking authors to provide documentation for the facts they used, asking a third party who knows the subject to comment on a piece, performing random checks, or incorporating some fact-checking into your editing or proofreading processes. Make your double-checking system practical and easy to implement.
- Seek information and input from voices outside your usual circles. Do not let a single search engine’s algorithms determine all you see on the web.
- Aim for accuracy, but recognize that it is human to err. Seek improvement. Reward truth-telling in your organization, even when the truth is not pleasant or welcome.
Is it worth the effort?
I wish there were an easily measured return-on-investment figure you could attach to the task of fact-checking. Like so many other necessary and often invisible tasks, it is difficult to measure how fact-checking contributes to the bottom line. And unlike the case with the pamphlet I mentioned at the start of this article, the errors that slip past us usually don’t have life-or-death consequences. Most of the time, our errors are minor ones, and easily corrected.
No one likes to have someone else point out their mistakes. Fact-checking can be a thankless task! But when what we must do to faithfully serve God in our publications is tedious or troublesome, the Bible gives us wonderful encouragement: “Always give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord, because you know that your labor in the Lord is not in vain” (1 Corinthians 15:58). God sees our efforts—and he loves us, mistakes and all (Romans 5:8). And that is a fact we can rely on.
Kim Pettit, chair, Board of Directors, Magazine Training International
By Ken Gosnell, CEO Experience
Employees enjoy hearing praise from their leaders, and those who are recognized are more likely to be productive and satisfied at work. According to Gallup’s research, “Only 41% of employees strongly agree that they know what their company stands for and what makes it different from competitors.”
A concern that I find leaders and companies often struggle with is how to enable their employees to produce good work. Great companies produce great work. Their leaders select people who focus on making the right actions that will achieve goals and produce results.
American writer and philosopher Elbert Hubbard once wrote, “The best preparation for good work tomorrow is to do good work today.” Every day provides an opportunity to do good work. However, many people waste their days at work producing nothing of value, therefore missing out on opportunities to leave a legacy.
1. Some people think that their work is not important.
When an employee believes this, this is an attitude of avoidance that must be redirected.
Many people get used to doing the same tasks repeatedly. They never look beyond their current reality to see the possibilities of other work they could complete. It is the employee’s responsibility to learn the “why” behind the tasks they are to accomplish.
Has it happened to you?
Have you received an article you assigned to a new writer, plugged a well-turned phrase into an online search engine, and discovered the article was rife with sections lifted from another author’s work? It’s happened to me. More than once.
Jessie wrote a funny book on her struggles with God. It did well, but I knew she needed work. I assumed she could confidently take on a tough assignment outside her area of expertise. I was wrong. She wrote well enough when it came to her own life. She wrote well enough on prayer or devotionals. But the piece I asked for demanded more. I had expected original research and reporting. I never expected plagiarism.
I thought I had not properly communicated my expectations. I outlined my problems with her draft, gave detailed instructions, pointed to relevant sites and sources where she might begin her work, and suggested she try again. The second draft was worse than the first: she rewrote my words and added nothing new.
Pria was in graduate school, pursuing a ministry degree. A mutual friend recommended she contact me so I could edit her dissertation on the spiritual implications of bioengineering. Her first pages were full of jargon, choppy, unclear, and repetitive. Later the words flowed, the syntax was smoother, the vocabulary was more accessible, and the imagery was engaging. At first, I thought Pria had finally warmed to her subject; then I realized this could not possibly explain the marked shift in the quality of her writing. She was passing off others’ writing as her own, instead of giving them credit. She argued her style of presenting the material was in keeping with academic practice in her country. I explained it was not acceptable here, and suggested she speak with her advisor about the matter.
Not just me
The instances I described are not my only encounters with plagiarism. I’ve probably read articles where I completely missed it. I have also seen some translate material into another language and pretend it was their own invention. Not everyone understands what counts as plagiarism or that it is an ethical issue.
Each time I discover plagiarism, especially by Christians, I am shocked. Perhaps I shouldn’t be. A Religion News Service article published late last year discussed instances of plagiarism by various Christian leaders. Additional examples can be found on the Christianity Today topic page on plagiarism.
As an editor, how can you ensure that the articles you publish are not plagiarized? Here are some suggestions:
- Know your writers. Take care that in making assignments; don’t ask for what they are not comfortable with or can’t give.
- Be clear about what you expect to receive. Encourage authors to cite and give proper credit to others as needed.
- Pay attention to odd turns of phrase and the style, quality, and rhythm of the writing.
- Use search engines and other plagiarism detection tools to spot check articles you receive. There are many such tools for educators.
- Compare pieces you receive to recent articles and books on the same topic.
- Develop publishers guidelines for yourself, including definitions of plagiarism, self-plagiarism, preferred reference styles, and procedures to follow in checking for or handling suspected cases of plagiarism.
- Compare notes with other editors and publishers who have faced this problem.
- Pray for the Holy Spirit to guide you and give you discernment. Ask Him to give creativity and perseverance to your writers. Commit your work to Him. Finally, thank Him for His help.
By Kim Pettit, Magazine Training International board chair
I attended a professional conference a few weeks ago, and it was invigorating to learn from experts and peers in the areas of editing, writing, and design. An in-person conference is a great way to boost skills! Magazine Training International offers in-person conferences periodically. The next MTI conference is in French, in Côte d’Ivoire.
How can you keep learning on a continuous basis, even if you can’t attend an in-person conference?
Asking questions is a great way to keep learning new skills and techniques. Questions can be directed to people you know in your field, but don’t overlook the power of on-line questions. Through social media and commenting on blogs, you can ask questions of people you don’t know personally.
Several years ago, I was having lunch with an editor at another organization and we started talking about tools for creating memes. I was a novice at this skill and my first few attempts looked terrible. She mentioned that she liked the tool – PicMonkey (www.picmonkey.com) – which I had never used. After our lunch, I went online and tried it out. I learned a new skill. Since then, I’ve used a combination of PicMonkey and Canva (www.canva.com) for quick images to use on social media. While I may have eventually stumbled onto these tools, being open to asking questions and listening for new ways of working helped me learn.
If you aren’t physically close enough to go to lunch with a colleague, you can ask questions on social media or by commenting on blogs. Follow people in your profession and have them serve as virtual mentors, learning from their experience and interacting with their content.
Online courses and webinars offer inexpensive or even free training that is targeted to particular topics. Magazine Training International offers current courses and a library of past courses. Many other organizations offer such training.
The Poynter Institute has a News University that offers webinars on a variety of topics. Some courses have a fee for the training, but there are usually several free classes in their schedule. Check out the current listing at https://www.poynter.org/newsu/. In April 2019, the course offerings included a free 90-minute course on fact checking. https://www.poynter.org/shop/fact-checking/handson-factchecking/.
Many sites offer free social media training, although the quality of the training varies greatly. As you engage with such free courses, you will notice that some are focused mostly on selling something to you after you have finished the free course. I would suggest caution in paying for such content unless you are sure of the reputation of the source of the training.
Schedule Learning Time
Intentionality is key to continuous learning! Sometimes we learn new skills “accidently” by stumbling onto new information. But developing a lifelong habit of learning means that you are investing regular time in your skills. Whether you schedule learning time once a month, once a quarter, or once a year, put it on your calendar. Develop a list of topics that interest you and would be helpful for your professional growth. Then search out resources and make the time to invest in your growth.
Professionals who have been on the job for years are still learning, because what makes them great is their openness to new ideas, new ways of work, new technologies and new media.
When Michelangelo was 87 years old, he is reported to have said, “Ancora imparo” which means “I’m still learning.” (Fact-checking note: Some scholars dispute whether or not he actually said this.) I would love to be able to say that I’m still learning, for as many years as I have life and breath.
By Carla Foote, Fine Print Editorial
Last week, I met with an aspiring writer. For years, Marie has dreamed of writing fantasy novels for teens and young adults. She shared her ideas with me about a parallel universe where a princess awaits rescue and mythical creatures abound. Marie hopes to use allegories to communicate her faith, imitating great Christian writers she has long admired. Her eyes opened wide as she described the imaginary world she’d built.
We spoke for over an hour. It turns out the lovely realm is only in her head. Marie has no outlines, no completed chapters, and only a few scene descriptions written out.
Marie is a young woman, full of hope. I had no desire to quench her spirit, but I did want her to be realistic about the task at hand. We researched the average length of a book in her genre. Together, we discussed how many words she would have to write each week in order to get a first draft of a novel ready within a year. (To have a draft of 80,000 words, for 50 weeks she’d have to write about 1600 words per week—equivalent to a medium-length magazine article, or twice the length of the average blog post or newspaper column.) The figure is feasible, but requires commitment and, of course, hard work. We spoke of routines she could implement to accomplish her task, resources she could use to equip herself, and communities where she might find support.
I don’t know what the result of our conversation will be, but I was touched by Marie’s passion. She took notes. She asked questions. She was eager and excited, even after all my caveats and demurrals and remonstrations about the nature of writing. “It isn’t easy,” I said. “It may not be rewarding,” I said. “You will probably have to revise your book several times, and throw away far more words than you’ll keep.”
A friend of mine, an editor, had a similar experience. She also met with a young woman last week. That writer brought along a manuscript. She was further along than Marie. But the manuscript was in a rough state. My friend read a chapter or two, noting trite turns of phrase, labored descriptions, non sequiturs, and other flaws. She pondered how to break the news that the manuscript was nowhere near as ready for publication as the writer imagined. Somehow she managed to bring the conversation to an end, without ending the relationship or the writer’s hopes, but spurring her to further action.
Inspiring and challenging writers is a delicate task. I was grateful that my conversation with Marie was far easier than my friend’s conversation. I’m sure a time will come when feedback will be hard to give, and harder still to take. When that day comes, I pray I’ll show the gentleness and grace my editor friend did. And in the meantime, I’ll be hoping that Marie turns her dreams into a marvelous manuscript.
Do you struggle to turn visions for your magazine into a real plan of action? Moving from dreams to reality is often where people get hung up. According to the article “Business Plan Toolbox: Business Planning with Accountability” by Stephie Althouse, most companies face these common obstacles:
- There is a significant skill gap between the company’s core expertise and the ability to convert that expertise into money.
- Many visionary founders find building and running a team challenging.
- The core expertise lives only in the brain/s of one or a few key people.
- High-expertise leaders often prefer to do the work themselves instead of delegating it to others.
- Investment monies are difficult to impossible to get due to lack of scalability.
In her article, she offers solutions to each of the obstacles, including finding accountability to carry them out. Some ways to the create the accountability needed include:
- Involving your team in creating the business plan.
- Treating the plan as a living, breathing document.
- Agree on an accountability SYSTEM with your team and follow through.
- Define “Success Behaviors” that support you and your team in using the accountability system and have a thriving and fulfilling experience in your work (and life) – we will talk about that in the next article.
Continue reading to discover Althouse’s plans for accountability to make your dreams a reality.
The use of quotes can either be deathly dull or breathe life and interest into your article. There are so many things to consider: the interview of your subject, attribution, when a quote is powerful enough to use as the lede or conclusion, which parts of the quote to use, and more.
Below are some resources that will help you with each of these decisions, which will, ultimately, get you to the heart of the story with the use of powerful quotes.
Continue reading for more tips:
- “Conducting Effective interviews” an MTI on-demand webinar with DeWayne Hamby, managing editor of White Wing Messenger
- 15 tips for handling quotes
- “Who said it? Attribution matters” blog post by MTI board member Carla Foote