Write an Operating Manual

In this post, Jim Carper, chief editor of Dairy Foods, tells us why it would be a good idea to start the year off by writing an operating manual for how to operate our respective publications. Doing so will make your publication more effective and reduce the learning curve for those just joining your staff.

For an industry that likes to take notes, we seem to be pretty lax when it comes to documenting our own work.

This post is a plea to create an operating manual that is shared with staff and contributors. I am talking about much more than a style guide. I mean an instruction manual for how to run your magazine.

I wrote such a manual when I started a magazine from scratch 11 years ago. In the past 20 months, I’ve taken over the editorship of two magazines. It would have sped up the learning curve had my predecessors left a plan that included usage notes, contacts and sources, the names of major trade associations, how and when major surveys are undertaken, and other issues large and small that a chief editor deals with.

Here are six chapters your operating manual should include:

  • Magazine structure. From the front cover to the closing page, write out the rationale for each department and feature. What is the reason for each section?  Where does the information come from? What information must a new product announcement include? What are the art requirements and the word counts? For major features (a corporate profile, for example), provide the basic questions a reporter needs to ask. This chapter helps when making assignments to freelancers. New staff will need to know this, too.
  • Usage and style. If you follow AP style, state it here. As any B2B editor knows, however, every industry has unique vocabulary, spelling, acronyms and style. In this chapter, you have to write down what’s peculiar and unique to your industry.
  • Major editorial projects. This includes Top 100 lists, salary surveys and other surveys. List when the survey goes in the mail. Is there an incentive? What is the cut-off date? When are responses tabulated? What is the name of the survey house? Include notes about what went right and what went wrong. What questions  should you ask next year?
  • Contacts and sources. List the major trade associations, relevant publicly held companies and the release dates for their earnings reports, industry trade shows and their dates, major consulting agencies, relevant government agencies and the reports they produce.
  • Freelance contractors. List names, phone numbers, email addresses and rates of reporters, columnists and photographers.
  • Glossary of industry terms. If no dictionary exists, then you have to write your own.

This is a living document. Update it, if needed, after every issue is sent to the printer. Make a hard copy but also share the manual (as a Google document, for example), so others in your office can add to it. Read it, follow it and revise it. This will simplify your life and the lives of editors who follow you.

Do you have any advice on how to create an effective operating manual?

Please share this page with your friends and colleagues.