In the age of Information Overload, some magazines need to take a look at the amount of information they are providing readers. Sometimes it’s too much, more than the reader wants, needs, or is able to absorb. When this occurs, a magazine can be perceived as part of the overload problem, rather than a solution.
Trimming, tightening, condensing editorial copy is a difficult but necessary task that is best viewed as compressing coal in order to create artificial diamonds.
Here are a dozen quick tips on how to make a better magazine.
1. The reader comes first. In order to please more readers, consult with your audience. Why do they read your magazine? What do they value? What can be eliminated altogether? A short questionnaire or fifty well-aimed phone calls to long-time readers should give you the editorial report card you need.
2. Never work alone. Although no publication is a true democracy, a mission statement cannot be created by fiat. Review it with your staff, publisher, advertising and circulation heads. Compress it into 20 words. Make certain it is clear and motivating to all and that it defines the goals the magazine will be able to achieve.
3. Looks count. Make certain that the magazine conveys the proper editorial tone and is in visual harmony with your overall mission.
4. Plan ahead. Plan your lineups far enough in advance so that you know the exact lengths of the manuscripts and the quality of photos with plenty of time to trim, to revise, to repackage. You need to know what is likely to happen in the next six issues. The upcoming three issues should be planned in detail.
5. Assign word lengths. Good editing is always tightening, trimming. If time or temperament does not allow you to return a story to a writer for tightening, give the manuscript to an in-house editor who can trim it to fit.
6. Avoid lengthy and multi-part features. These are often slow, flabby and out of sync with the new dynamic editorial tempo we try to achieve. A feature should not run longer than four to five pages with photos and sidebars.
7. Think short. Tighten long pieces down to short ones. You should try to have several one- and two-page features for each issue. It is better to have a diverse mix of seven to ten short articles than it is to have a limited mix of three lengthy pieces in an issue.
8. Keep evergreens handy. Try to avoid “stretching” articles to fit additional space when it becomes available. Instead, keep a few timeless features on hand so that they can be dropped in to fill one, two, three or four pages whenever opportunity knocks.
9. Use photo captions to inform. Make certain that photo captions do not merely duplicate information already in the text. In addition to avoiding editorial overlap, you will enhance the information value of each photo.
10. Kill your darlings. Take a look at the weakest photo in a layout. Kill it.
11. Bullets make a hit. Instead of long rambling paragraphs, use bulleted lists to make a series of points succinctly. Lists are easy for the reader to scan and allow her or him to absorb a lot of information quickly.
12. Leave the reader wanting more. Good editing often requires that you don’t overstuff your reader. Leave the reader fulfilled, certainly, but also a bit hungry for more. That’s the feeling that keeps the reader coming back for the next issue.