Writers, Look Beyond the Newsstand

Stack of magazinesMany new and aspiring writers don’t know that there are three categories of magazines: consumer, trade and custom. That means more publications and editors in need of contributors—great! But how do you get started? Let’s look at the different types:

Consumer: These are the magazines already on your radar. They’re the glossy titles that fill newsstands and pile up in doctors’ waiting rooms. You’ll find subcategories like health, women’s, men’s, sports, tech, personal finance, decor (or shelter, in industry-speak), etc. Major publishing companies own several consumer magazines across subcategories. For example, Rogers Media publishes Chatelaine, Flare, Maclean’s, Hello! Canada, MoneySense, Sportsnet and other titles. There are many smaller publishers out there too, with anywhere from one magazine to a dozen. Pay rates range accordingly, from as low as 10 cents a word to $1 a word or more. Check out my tips for pitching consumer mags.

Trade: These magazines serve a profession or an association (in the U.S., they’re often called “association magazines” or “organization magazines”). Once you start looking, you’ll be amazed at the breadth—there are magazines for teachers, veterinary technicians, contractors, hair stylists, accountants, café owners, graphic designers…you get the idea. These publications are rich hunting grounds for writers, especially those with expertise in a certain field. The tricky part is getting your hands on them, since they aren’t available on newsstands. Google, your circle of friends and your city’s library system are good places to get started. Canada’s major media companies publish trade mags in addition to their consumer titles, and there are companies that specialize in trade. Pay rates vary depending on the size of the publisher, and in my experience they’re on par with consumer magazine rates.

Custom: These publications are marketing tools for major brands—retailers, airlines, car makers, universities, etc. They have the look and feel of consumer magazines, and the articles are often general-interest pieces that don’t mention the brand at all. The editorial process is similar to that of consumer and trade mags, except there’s an added layer of approvals from your client’s client, and custom work is generally work for hire, i.e., the magazine buys all rights associated with the articles (though this is increasingly true for other mags, too). Custom mags are both easy and difficult to find. You probably receive some already, and you can find them at some major retailers. Others are only available to a brand’s customers. Several of Canada’s major media companies have a custom division, while other publishers do custom and nothing else. I’ve found the pay rates in this category a bit better on the lower end, starting from 50 cents a word up to $1 a word.

No matter which category you’re targeting, the same tips apply: do your research, pitch short pieces (say, for the front or back of the book) and build a relationship with an editor, working your way up to longer features. It’s not impossible for a new writer to break into a big magazine, but it’s a good idea to set your sights wider, especially while you’re building up your portfolio and improving your craft. The same caveats apply, too: read your contract and understand what you’re agreeing to.

Do you have tips on working with trade or custom magazines?


Holiday cheer for wordy types…and a contest!

Say “You’re awesome!” to your favourite writers and editors with fun, tasty and memorable gifts, and enter to win fabulous prizes (details below).

Futura T-shirt

Words they can wear. You’ll find a huge selection of gifts for word lovers on Etsy, including typography tees like this cheerful “Futura” top from mediumcontrol (about $30 + shipping). It also comes in blue, grey and brown. 


Kona coffee beans





Exotic caffeine. At $39 per pound, the Hawaiian Kona beans imported by Quebec-based Cafés Volcanik are a splurge for that very, very special someone (or, um, yourself), but they also make super-smooth, bitterness-free lattes. Free Canada-wide shipping.

Writers Tears Irish Whiskey


Something to toast the new year. I’m not a whiskey drinker, but I have it on good authority (hi, Danielle!) that Writers Tears Pot Still Blend Irish whiskey ($47.75 at the LCBO) is much desired. Woody at the whiskey company kindly elaborates: “We triple distil our whiskey and do not use any peat in the process so you don’t get that smoky taste. In Writers Tears, there is an element of pot-still whiskey. This is distinctively Irish as it is a style of whiskey that is made in no other country.” Plus, the name alone…

Literary coasters


A sweet spot to park that drink. I featured Out of Print’s bookish T-shirts in my 2012 gift guide. Those are still available, and this year I’m also smitten with the online shop’s coasters. Themes include punked-up authors, library sign-out cards and sci-fi novels ($20 US per set of four + shipping).




A really great pen…
Wonder Pens specializes in writing instruments, including hard-to-find fountain pens, rollerballs, fineliners and more. This shop at 906 Dundas West in Toronto also offers fancy inks and beautiful paper. Shipping across Canada costs a flat rate of $7, or it’s free if you spend $100. 



…and a superb notebook. Paper notebooks still rank high on editors’ and writers’ wish lists. Peruse the colourful selection from Ecojot, which is local (products are made in Canada), eco-friendly (100% post-consumer recycled paper with veg-based inks) and charity-minded (the company donates school supplies to underprivileged kids). Ecojot’s App Ready notebooks work with Android devices and iPhones to digitize handwritten notes and share them via Dropbox, Evernote, Facebook and email. Version two of the ecojotConnect app is in the works – check out the Kickstarter campaign.








Pretty, functional desk stuff. You’ve never seen pens, bookmarks and binder clips so easy on the eyes. Quills, a boutique in Hamilton, Ont., wraps its goods in beautiful chiyogami (handmade, screen-printed Japanese paper). Prices range from $3.50 for a trio of binder clips to $10 for a four-pack of pretty pens or eight magnets.

Health and well-being. This idea came from writer and editor Susan Peters, who suggests yoga classes, massages or a stand-up desk for the achy desk dwellers on your list. 


Magazines, of course! Make someone happy and support Canadian magazines at the same time? Heck, yeah. Buy a gift subscription from the titles listed at Magazines Canada, or pick up a bunch of single issues at the newsstand and tie them up with a ribbon – all done! 



WIN IT: Editfish is giving away a holiday prize pack to one lucky reader! You could win a magnetic bookmark, pen set, binder clip set and magnet set from Quills (retail value $30) plus a spiral-bound App Ready notebook from Ecojot (retail value $14) featuring charming illustrations of Toronto landmarks on the cover (photo above). TO ENTER: Recommend a useful tool, tip or resource for writers and editors in the comments below by Dec. 31, 2014, and your name will go in a random draw.

A crash course on magazine style guides

As a copy editor, I’ve worked with more than a dozen magazines, including consumer, custom, trade and web publications. No matter what category, magazines benefit from a detailed and up-to-date style guide. If you haven’t refreshed yours in a while—or if you don’t have one—this is a great project for the year-end holiday slowdown when you can’t get anyone to answer your emails anyway!

What is a style guide?

It’s a document that outlines the magazine’s “house style”—the preferences in punctuation, grammar, capitalization, word usage and more that editorial staff should follow. Using a style guide improves consistency, saves everyone time and supports your publication’s unique identity and feel. (Note that a style guide isn’t the same thing as writer’s guidelines, which offer broader direction to contributors pitching stories—see EnRoute’s example.)

What makes a good style guide?

I think style guides should offer enough direction without trying to cover everything. The definition of “enough” depends on your magazine; I’ve seen style guides as short as two pages, and some thick enough to require a binder. If you’re building your style guide from scratch, start with the basics that come up frequently, such as punctuation, numbers, capitalization, abbreviations, symbols and place names.

I don’t know anything about this stuff.

You don’t need to invent your own style—look at commonly used reference books such as Canadian Press Stylebook, Canadian Press Caps and Spelling, The Globe and Mail Style Book, Editing Canadian English, The Chicago Manual of Style and, for web stuff, The Yahoo! Style Guide. You could simply adopt one of the first three as your style guide, but you’ll still need to make some decisions, and you’ll want to make at least a few exceptions. Your magazine might even ban certain words and phrases because they’re overused, outdated or offensive—or just because the editor-in-chief can’t stand them. (See examples of words unwelcome at The Washington Post, New York Magazine and SeriousEats.com.)

What’s a lexicon?

Many magazines keep a list of words, on its own or as part of a style guide, to save editors the time and trouble of looking them up—or because the words aren’t in the dictionary. This unique vocabulary could include specialty lingo, brand names and celebrities’ names, for example. I love lexicons (yep, I’m a geek) because they’re like a snapshot of a magazine’s essence—a taste of what makes it special.

Where can I find examples of style guides and lexicons?

Here are just a few: The Economist, Faith Today, Film Matters, National Geographic, Carleton University and The Guardian. The ones from Vice and Buzzfeed are even kind of fun to read. You can also find specialized style guides, like the one from the Council of Science Editors. Check out UXmag.com, Poynter.org and Smashing Magazine for more thoughts on style guides.


Do you have thoughts on magazine style guides?


Fall round-up: events + groups

leavesHello, everyone! It’s been a while, but Editfish is back in action.

I’m kicking off October with a round-up of resources and events, since I keep hearing how much you like these. If you’ve come across something that may be handy to other editors and writers, please share in the comments.

Steven Pinker at the Toronto Reference Library

On the evening of Oct. 24, bestselling author Steven Pinker is talking about his new book, The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century, at the Toronto Reference Library’s Bram and Bluma Appel Salon. The event is free, but you’ll need to reserve a ticket. (Can’t make it? The library often shoots videos – check the website later.)

INSPIRE! Toronto International Book Fair

Toronto is getting a brand-new book fair, coming up Nov. 13 to 16 at the Metro Toronto Convention Centre. The schedule is jam-packed with author appearances, workshops and cultural showcases. Tickets cost a very reasonable $15, with free re-entry; writers’ workshops start at $45 and include admission to the fair.

PWAC Twitter chats

All writers are welcome to take part in a new series of Twitter chats hosted by the Professional Writers Association of Canada. The free chats are planned for the first Thursday of each month at 11 a.m. (starting Oct. 2; follow hashtag #PWACchat). A short podcast or video serves as a starting point for the discussion – this week’s focus is a video by Steve Slaunwhite about copywriting techniques. (Disclosure: I’m the president of PWAC Toronto Chapter.)

Ladies Learning Code

Not just for ladies, this not-for-profit group makes learning to code fun and accessible. Courses are available in several cities across Canada. If you’re looking to build your computer skills (for example, learning HTML or CSS, or how to use Photoshop), check out the schedule.


I just learned about this from another freelancer, writer/photographer Corbin Smith, at PWAC’s recent Culture Days event about freelancing. Hacks/Hackers is an international grassroots journalism organization with a mission to create a network of hacks (journos) and hackers (technologists) to reboot journalism. It hosts meetups, workshops, demo days and more. Canadian chapters include Vancouver, Toronto, Ottawa and Montreal.


What do you do, Allan Britnell?

Like many full-time freelancers, Allan Britnell combines steady gigs with shorter assignments. He’s the managing editor of Renovation Contractor, a bimonthly magazine for contractors and custom homebuilders. He also edits for ON Nature and the Smithsonian’s American Indian. As a writer, he contributes to Fresh Juice, Precedent, Connected and ratesupermarket.ca, and also works with corporate clients. Allan is president of the Canadian Society of Magazine Editors (CSME). When I asked Allan about his eclectic career, he replied, “My tired old joke is that I like to get around.”

Photo of Allan BritnellJaclyn: Tell me about your magazine career.

Allan: I have a B.A. in journalism from Ryerson. I graduated from the four-year program in 1996, with my final two years focused on the magazine stream. I stumbled into freelancing by accident. There was a recession and jobs were scarce, so I started writing for whoever would take me on. (My first paid assignment was a piece on local cemeteries for the Ajax News Advertiser.) I developed a diverse stable of clients, and I really liked the lifestyle of being my own boss, not having to commute, and working on a variety of subjects. Another of my tired old jokes is that my one and only “real” job was a four-year stint as an associate editor at Cottage Life. I did a three-month contract for them and, near the end of it, then-editor David Zimmer offered me a full-time position. It was too good of an opportunity to pass up. I learned a ton, but knew that after a couple of years I’d try my hand at freelancing again. (Of course, they didn’t know that until now…) I left in 2002, and my business has grown ever since.

How long have you been at Renovation Contractor?

We launched the magazine with our May/June 2011 issue. I was hired as managing editor in February of that year. When I started, we had a media kit, a URL and a printer lined up. We built a magazine from scratch in a couple of months. I was recommended to the publisher by a good friend (and career doppelganger), Jay Somerset. In 2013, we were nominated for magazine of the year at the KRW Awards for work we did in 2012, our first full year of publishing. We didn’t win, but it was still a nice pat on the back.

What do you do there?

I discuss story ideas and get input from our editor-and-chief, Jim Caruk, but his main job is building and renovating houses. I take care of the day-to-day stuff: develop the issue themes and story ideas, assign stories to our freelancers and guest columnists, coordinate photo shoots and layout concepts with our art director, Darrell Leighton, and copy edit and proofread all the copy. (Jay Somerset is also a freelance proofreader for us.) I also write most of the copy for our departments, and usually write at least one feature per issue. Renovation Contractor represents about 60% of my time.

What are your favourite aspects of your job?

I love what I do. I truly enjoy researching new topics and still get a kick out of those eureka moments when you come up with a witty turn-of-phrase or transition line. And the editing side means I get to develop story ideas and packages that I would enjoy reading. But most of all, it’s the work-life balance that I love. As I said earlier, I quickly realized that I was well suited for the freelance/work-from-home lifestyle. And now that I’m the father of two young girls, I wouldn’t trade that freedom and flexibility for anything. I walk them to school most mornings, but can still be at my desk by 9 a.m. I’m always first to volunteer to chaperone school events – and am often the only dad who does, so I usually get picked. And for most of our life together, my wife has worked in high-stress corporate jobs, so being home most of the time really helps us cope as a family. Of course, nothing’s perfect. For one, I certainly wouldn’t mind making more money than I do. And every year or two, yet another magazine that I work for disappears, and a couple long-time colleagues announce they’re giving up and taking jobs in PR or some other (better-paying) field.

How do your experiences as a writer inform your work as an editor, and vice versa?

The two roles constantly complement each other. I can’t tell you how many times a line or passage from a piece I’m editing has inspired an idea that I could write for another publication. And as an editor, I know how frustrating it is to have to clean up sloppy writing, so I always proof my copy several times before I hit send. And you can’t underestimate the value of having a variety of tasks to handle. If the creative juices aren’t flowing, I can switch to proofing or something else less mentally taxing. Not that I’m saying proofing is a brainless task, it’s just that I’ve been doing it for so long it’s more of a mechanical exercise.

Tell me about volunteering for CSME.

I’ve been on the board since 2009, and have been president for a little more than two years now. But to be completely honest, the wonderful and hugely talented Jessica Ross should be president. She’s been on the board longer and is endlessly generous with her time and expertise to the entire industry. She was about to have her baby when my predecessor, Bob Sexton, announced he was ready to move in. I was the most senior person left, so they gave me the fancy title.

What role do you think CSME plays in Canadian magazines?

Editing can be a very isolating job, particularly if you’re a freelancer. I joined CSME primarily for the social and networking aspects. But in my years on the board, I think we’ve put on some really interesting and informative career development panels and sessions. But at a recent board meeting, Kat Tancock – another incredibly talented person who’s extremely generous with her time – suggested that we really should take more of a stand on issues facing the industry, and I wholeheartedly agree. Step one towards that is an event we held in November on the future of interning and what recent legal rulings mean for the industry.

What would you like to see in CSME’s future?

We’re a national organization, but most of our members and all of our events are in Toronto. We’ve been taking baby steps to get satellite events going elsewhere. Anicka Quin, editor-in-chief of Western Living, is our one non-Toronto-based board member, and she’s done a lot to raise our profile – and solicit input – from mags in Western Canada.

Do you have advice for people who want to break into magazines?

Rule number one: Don’t miss deadlines. Ever. Rule number two: See rule number one. Also, the Canadian magazine industry is a small one, so if you make an effort to get out to events (shameless plug alert!) such as those put on by CSME, you’ll quickly get to know people and make connections. I’m sure I’m not the only editor who pays closer attention to pitches that come in from people I know than cold calls from complete strangers. And because it’s such a small community, you really can’t afford to go around burning bridges or submitting sub-par work.

Allan Britnell is on LinkedIn.

This interview has been edited for length. 

Research Cheat Sheet: Tips From a Librarian

Photo of Mimi SzetoThis week, we’re lucky to have a guest post by Mimi Szeto, who’s both a journalist and a librarian (so, basically, she’s a research ninja). Check out Mimi’s tips for smarter online searching and free resources.  

Online research is easy or daunting depending on how well you can weave through all the information out there on the web. Here are a few librarian-approved sources and easy-to-do tricks—most of which you can try at home in your pajamas—to save time while digging deep into the virtual stacks.

1. Find out what you have access to

Though not often publicized, and sometimes veiled as “e-resources” or “digital collections,” libraries have growing selections of online goodies that you can access with your library card. Download magazines you want to pitch to, research new story angles and find niche publications for your work by signing up for a Zinio account through your public library (for example, the Toronto Public Library). You get free, unlimited access to the current digital editions of hundreds of magazines, and in some cases, back issues. Need to reference works by Alice Munro or Malcolm Gladwell? Download their ebooks through OverDrive 

2. Tap into databases, high-quality web resources and guides

Maybe your first instinct was to Google your topic. Now you have to back up your research with factual information from authoritative sources. Try searching paid databases and web portals via your library for newspaper articles, journals, consumer reports, statistics, encyclopedias and more. If you’re new to a subject, guides are one of the best starting points—search for “guides to [topic].”

3. Access hard-to-get (for free) research

Science, health and medical journals usually aren’t freely available to the public. Nonetheless, it’s worth a shot to search Google Scholar for full-text articles. If you study or teach at a university, there’s a good chance you have an all-access pass via the library website to subject-specific databases containing journal articles, abstracts and other types of documents. Start with the topic and then dive into the suggested resources to gather what you need.

4. Use social media as a research tool

Even if Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn aren’t your thing, they’re a gold mine when it comes to discovering new businesses and interview sources, and listening in on both expert and non-expert commentary. One neat trick you can do on Facebook is pull up posts, discussions and any other mentions of a particular topic by adding a hashtag to your search term. For instance, typing “#snow” into the search box will bring up public posts and comments from people on your friends list that mention snow. This is particularly useful for newsworthy events.

5. Back up documents you may need later

Web links break all the time. Content is taken down or revised. In some cases, entire websites disappear. Documenting webpages for research purposes is as easy as clicking File>Print>Save as PDF, if you’re using a Mac, or taking a screenshot. Skitch is a free app for Macs, Windows and mobile devices that allows you to annotate screenshots, maps and pictures. Do a web search for screenshot apps and plug-ins that create full-page records, and try a few out to find one that suits your needs. (Worried about copyright infringement? Read about fair dealing in the Copyright Act. In Canada, research, private study, criticism and news reporting are exceptions to copyright infringement.)

Mimi Szeto (@mimiszeto) is a freelance researcher and editor from Toronto who holds a Master of Information Studies degree in Library and Information Science. Formerly an online listings editor at St. Joseph Media for torontolife.com and where.ca, she has coordinated fact-checking projects for torontolife.com and worked in various public, academic and non-traditional libraries in the city. 

Q&A: James McCarten on the new Canadian Press Stylebook

JFM01The 17th edition of The Canadian Press Stylebook, a key reference book for Canadian journalists and students since its debut in 1940, came out a few weeks ago. I chatted with James McCarten, stylebook editor and CP’s Ottawa news editor, about the changes in this edition.



The previous stylebook came out in 2010. What’s new in this edition?

The main centrepiece of the new edition is the social media policy. It’s not the first time we’ve had something on the books, as it were, to help and inform people who work for CP as to how to manage their activity on social media in the context of the news agency and in the context of their daily journalism. But it’s an area that evolves very, very quickly. It wasn’t in the book in a comprehensive way, just mentioned as a great way to gather material, crowdsource grassroots opinion and so forth. [The new policy] coincided with the hiring of Andrew Lundy, our new director of digital. Over several months, we had a committee of reporters and other CP employees discuss what kind of model we’d have and how it should be framed. They were passionate discussions, because people feel quite strongly about social media and what they can do with it. We forged this policy to guide people in how it can be used as a tool, and the importance of using it as a tool both for information gathering and disseminating the work we do, and the pitfalls, the areas where you can get into trouble. Because it was so new, people tended to forget the long-existing policies of objectivity, fairness, accuracy, all the tenets of journalism, apply there too. It is a platform, a place where we’re engaged in discussions and sometimes arguments, and there’s a lot of back and forth. We wanted to ensure we were putting our best face forward representing the company when they were involved in these talks. Also, privacy issues come into play, and accuracy is fundamental. If you’re representing the company on Twitter or Facebook or anywhere else, you have to be in that framework of being a journalist first. … The policy itself is several pages along, with a great amount of detail, and I wanted a concise, condensed version to go in the book.

Stylebook cover 17

What other updates did you make?

Mostly tweaks, which is a fairly typical way to go. It’s the first edition of the stylebook I was involved in as an editor. We’re saving up more changes for down the road. We have a significant anniversary coming up, CP’s 100th anniversary in 2017, and I’m hoping we’ll mark that with comprehensive changes from cover to cover in the next five years or so.

Changes to the online edition happen between books. Does this book crystallize those changes?

It’s always a bit of crystallizing. It wasn’t an overhaul, but filling in a few spots where we don’t have anything in the book and we probably should. Suicide is a good example. It ended up in the section on sensitive subjects, and it will likely be expanded on in later editions. We were silent on that issue until now, and I felt we needed some acknowledgement that this is an area where you need to take your time, think carefully about what you’re doing and the impact it will have on other people, because it is a sensitive subject. Traditionally, in media, it was a verboten subject – the attitude still exists in many newsrooms that if it involves a suicide, you set it side, it’s not something you want to talk about. But that attitude has changed dramatically in recent years, dealing with prominent stories that put suicide at the forefront – First Nations are an example, and cyberbullying and teenage suicide are major issues. And it felt wrong to turn a blind eye to an issue that was dominating so much of the discussion in the national media on a daily basis. So this is us dipping our toe in the water a little bit. … There are lots of experts out there, with different opinions and perspectives on how to approach it. Get advice. Don’t just blunder through a story or dismiss a story out of hand because it touches on this issue. There is very prescriptive advice. If you go to certain mental health agencies or organizations, they often have tips for media, sometimes very heavy-handed, recommending certain language over others, putting certain facts in. We don’t want to go there, we just want to make sure it’s on people’s radar.

There’s new content on dealing with government and corporate officials.

As you know, I’m based in Ottawa now, and it’s been a prominent issue for us up here, very often dealing with government officials or other media relations folks who are less than forthcoming. This is a government that’s made it very clear that it takes a certain approach to the media, and we wanted to give advice on how best to handle situations in which someone who may in fact be being paid to deal with the media isn’t returning calls, or they’re demanding to see questions ahead of time, or refusing to do phone interviews. These are all things we encounter on a regular basis, and we wanted to provides some guidance on that, so that’s in there.

What was updated in the “unnamed sources” section?

It’s quite common among major media outlets, they now have a requirement that if you’re going to quote an anonymous source, you have to explain why, you have to cite the very specific reason why you’re choosing to grant anonymity to a particular person – for example, it’s someone who’s not authorized to speak to the media, or who doesn’t have permission to release certain details, or who’s fearing for their safety. We’re trying to give the reader as much guidance as possible as to why this person has a good reason for choosing not to use their name. The other thing it does, it forces the reporter to take a second look at why it is. There’s a tendency, very much in this day and age, to go to that default position. If somebody doesn’t want their name used because they don’t want to get in trouble, that’s not good enough. Hopefully this policy will get reporters to take a second look…and both parties are forced to think about it, and it discourages the use, the wanton use, of anonymous sources, but still permits it when necessary. There are definitely circumstances where it’s in the public interest for a person to be able to speak out without fear of reprisal. We’ve always tried to find the middle ground and provide flexibility. That section on anonymous sources, there’s a solid two pages now.

How much do controversial news stories inform or drive updates to the stylebook?

It certainly helps to put it on the front burner. When the things we’re dealing with are prominent, it puts them on my radar that much more quickly. An issue like suicide – Rehtaeh Parsons and all the other examples we’ve been wrestling with in recent months – that will bring the issue to my attention more quickly. So I’d say it’s a major driver. The book is a living thing, and we’re trying to keep it up to date and current.

Is there anything else you’d like to add?

There’s a section on using online images. A good example is the bus crash in Ottawa. It doesn’t take long for tribute pages and personal Facebook pages to acknowledge a tragedy or event. We felt we weren’t providing staff enough direct guidance on the use of pictures posted online. Sometimes there’s an attitude that if it’s online, it’s fair game, but that’s not always the case and we wanted to give more guidance.

There’s a part about obscenity. We made the change to the online stylebook years ago, around 2010, but this is the first print edition to reflect that. We needed to give ourselves more flexibility. We serve a multitude of different clients with different expectations and needs. Mainstream media clients, newspapers and the like … if there’s obscenity in the news report and it’s relevant and part of the news, oftentimes you’ll see that in print. But when you start to get into online… we’re serving a lot of corporate clients that have their own attitude towards these things. Maybe they have a family-oriented site. They tend to have a higher bar as to whether obscenity and profanity is permissible. So we’ve had to evolve our approach and provide multiple streams. Sometimes we’ll provide a story edited from that higher bar. And it became a very complicated issue, not easy to navigate. And the advent of the Internet has pushed a lot of language into the mainstream that traditionally wouldn’t be there. When Fucked Up won the Polaris Music Prize, we had an issue there. I think at one point we mentioned them as “a band whose name couldn’t be published in a family newspaper.” But at a certain point, you’re providing a disservice – we can’t name the band that won the Polaris Prize! It gets difficult. So our traditional approach, historically, we didn’t use devices, for example, asterisks instead of certain letters. We don’t specifically recommend that approach, but we’ve amended the policy that we no longer have a prohibition on it. If anything, the revisions in the policy have broadened it to let us use different strategies. And we feel that’s a reflection of what the media world at large needs to do now.

This interview has been edited for length. Images courtesy of James McCarten.

WIN A COPY! James is giving away two copies of The Canadian Press Stylebook. To enter, send an email to jaclynlaw[at]gmail[dot]com with CP STYLEBOOK in the subject line. Please include your mailing address. Deadline for entries is Sunday, Nov. 10. 

To order copies of the book, visit the Canadian Press website.

Read the Editfish Q&A with James McCarten about the 20th edition of The Canadian Press Caps and Spelling Guide.


Insert clever display copy here: 8 nifty tricks for heds and deks

Today I have a treat for you: tips on display writing from Kisha Ferguson, writer, editor and journalism teacher. I’ve been an admirer of Kisha’s since her Outpost Magazine days (she was the founder and editor), and I’m excited to share her advice on Editfish. 

kisha_fergusonIt’s no surprise so many journalists end up being spin doctors, speech writing flaks, or ad copy writers. In order to entice a reader to read, you have to first sell them on what you want them to read. Storytelling comes second. And these days, it’s no longer “Come take my hand, gentle reader,” but rather, “Read this or else.” The visual noise is becoming louder as more and more information competes for our attention, increasing the need for every headline to scream.

There is no denying that writing a he(a)d, de(c)k, teaser, bumper, banner, value-added, kicker, sub-headline, etc., is an art. A great example of this is Twitter. Cramming enough info into 140 characters is an amazing exercise in explanatory brevity, especially when your aim is pushing someone to read an article they can’t see at that exact moment. In other words, getting them to “click on through to the other side.” (More on that later.)

Having gone back and forth over the years between working in magazines and TV news and current affairs, I’ve managed to apply that art to both media. Especially now, as I primarily bang out news copy for a living, viewers “read” TV a lot. Talking heads and voiceovers now compete with screen text, often scrolling, popping up or changing several times within a two-minute item.

I was once told to “Find the meat and sell it,” as a way of coming up with great headlines. Replace “meat” with pathos or drama…but always remember the selling part of it. Below are a few things to keep in mind when you’re waiting for a visit from the clever copy fairy.

1. The best things in life are 3’s.

When in doubt, employ the magic power of “3” to sum up the elements in your story, preferably with alliteration: “Guns, God and Guantanamo” or “Coffee, Capitalism and Culture.” Even better, throw in an ampersand or a plus sign…works especially well on cover copy.

2. I’m OK, you’re (not) OK.

Ask a thought-provoking question. Put the onus on the readers – using “you” – to make them question themselves or their beliefs, or worry about something they never thought to worry about before, thereby giving them almost no choice but to read the next few graphs. This is especially effective in women’s and parenting publications, where inducing fear, a sense that something’s wrong, sells the magazines and the products advertised inside: “Are you getting the most from your 90-minute workout?” “Do you really know the man you’re sleeping with?” “What dangers are in your child’s lunchbox?”

3. You’re a poet and you know it.

Use rhyme to riff on common expressions: “The Great Stall of China” (a story about a three-day traffic jam); “Lush Hour” (about drinking on the tube in London); “Coffee, Tea or D.V.T.” (how people develop blood clots on airplanes).

4. Perturbed lines.

Riff on song titles or lyrics. See graph #3.

5. Love it and list it.

Before the rise of data visualizations, infographics and “charticles,” there was the list – short, punchy bits of info that fall somewhere between copy and display copy. Lately, they seem to occupy more space in front-of-book sections, often replacing articles rather than complementing them.

6. One word to rule them all.

A single word can make a big impact, especially if splashed across a double-page spread, and even more so if you can invoke a sense of doom and gloom: “Aftermath: The Story of…” Or use a fairly banal word, hopefully given a great graphic treatment, followed by an alarming premise: “Water: Why the World Will Soon Run Out of It.”

7. It’s the end of the world as we know it.

You’ll always get someone’s attention if you can somehow use “Armageddon,” particularly when it comes to fairly benign events or weather stories: “Snowmageddon.”

8. Gate-crashing.

Using the “gate” from “Watergate” as a suffix never fails. I now regularly screen All The President’s Men in the journalism classes I teach, after students asked me why they keep seeing “gate” in headlines.


Kisha Ferguson (@kishaferguson) has spent a lifetime putting words in a readable order so they make some kind of sense. As well as editing other people’s words, she also teaches a generation of wannabe journos how to make it in the big, bad media world. She’s currently working on a book and a documentary despite a full-time job delivering bad news by writing and producing TV news and current affairs stories.

Reading list

fall leavesA short list to read as we creep into September and the season of back-breakingly heavy magazines (Vogue is packing 902 pages this year – Anna Wintour’s letter doesn’t appear until page 276).

Did you know that Canada’s magazine industry has a Best Practices Guide? D.B. Scott explains how editors, publishers and writers can benefit from following its principles. The guide was created by the Professional Writers Association of Canada, the Canadian Society of Magazine Editors and Magazines Canada.

New words added to Oxford Dictionaries Online: apols, cakepop, foodbaby, jorts, phablet, selfie, twerk, omnishambles and more. Check out the definitions here. (Thanks for the link, Corinna vanGerwen.)

A new marketing tactic for magazines? Mr. Magazine gets the lowdown on the “Cheeriodical” (I’d rather get one of these than a flower arrangement).

Network before you network: four tips that make use of social media, from Ilise Benun of The Marketing Mix.

Three weeks to go until The Word on the Street in Toronto! On Sunday, Sept. 22, check out what’s going on at the Wordshop Marquee (workshops for writers), Nothing But the Truth Tent (literary non-fiction) and Toronto Star Tent, among others. Visit the site for dates and info for Kitchener, Lethbridge, Saskatoon and Halifax.




15 lessons from a year of freelancing

I meet a lot of talented young writers who are eager to break into magazines, including many who want to be freelancers. I met today’s guest blogger, Vanessa Santilli, in the spring of 2012, just before she made the leap from a staff job. I invited her to share what she’s learned since going solo.

Vanessa Santilli head shot

Vanessa Santilli

One year ago, I quit my stable journalism job to pursue freelance writing full-time. All the new experiences this road-less-travelled has given me made it well worth the risk.

Here’s what I’ve learned from my first year of self-employment.

1. Network like your job depends on it — because it does. In my experience, being a member of a writers’ group, such as the Professional Writers Association of Canada (PWAC), has been immensely helpful in getting face time with editors.

2. Pitching is not personal. It’s business. If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again. And again. And, well, you get the point.

3. Know your worth — and your rights. If you’re not happy with a fee being offered, try to negotiate when possible. If the client isn’t worth the time, don’t be afraid to turn down the assignment. And never sign a contract without reading the fine print.

4. Pick up a side gig to give yourself a source of steady income. It’s also helpful in giving yourself a bit of a schedule and staying connected with the outside world. Shoot for opportunities that will enhance your skill set. For myself, working part-time as production coordinator at a university newspaper has given me the chance to learn more about the advertising side of the business.

5. The corporate writing world is one avenue to earn enough money to pursue “passion projects.”

6. Sticking to set working hours goes a long way towards being productive. I typically work 9 to 5, but start earlier if it’s going to be a particularly busy day. Without fixed hours, it’s easy to get too laid-back.

7. If used correctly, social media is an excellent, cost-effective marketing tool. But it can also be a huge time waster. Log out of social media when you’re not using it for work-related purposes to avoid surfing.

8. Continuing education classes or workshops that are going to enhance your business are good investments. The write-offs they bring don’t hurt either. (Moderation is key.)

9. Keep in touch with a network of other writers so you don’t get lonely — and to stay inspired.

10. Always be on the hunt for new publications and clients. The unlikeliest clients can end up being the best ones. The Canadian Writer’s Market is a great resource, too.

11. Keep a daily freelance log of all the work you’re accomplishing. It will give you an instant lift at the end of the week…or serve as a motivational kick in the butt if you’re not being productive enough.

12. As your office manager, it’s up to you to be on top of the paperwork. Set up a system to ensure that you invoice promptly. And, of course, closely track what has been paid. (I find an Excel spreadsheet is the easiest way to do this.)

13. Give up trying to explain to your relatives that, yes, freelance writing is your real job.

14. Stay positive during slower periods. Never forget your reasons for wanting to freelance in the first place.

15. Freelance writing is really hard work (and not glamorous). But it’s also extremely rewarding to run your own writing business.

Vanessa Santilli (@V_Santilli) is a Toronto-based freelance writer and a former youth editor and reporter for The Catholic Register. She has written for publications such as MoneySense, The Medical Post and Canadian Living, and she is a member of PWAC Toronto Chapter.