“Designer, writer, editor – what’s that all about, Henry? Can’t you make your mind up?”
Even if people don’t say it out loud, I can often see it in their faces. And that’s fair enough: most people have a single day job which is simple to describe. They’re a plumber, or an accountant, or a solicitor, or a receptionist, or [insert career of choice here].
It’s just not like that for me. In fact, I do other stuff too, like teaching, but I thought I’d stick to three things as being the maximum most clients can cope with.
But one often sees brief biographies, perhaps on Twitter, where people have had to sum up their lives. “Hi, I’m a wife, mom, FBI agent, cardio trainer, fire juggler and analytical psychologist, taking painting classes in my spare time.” The only difference is, I’m not doing one thing full-time and the others part-time – I really am doing all three things, all the time, and often simultaneously. I am, in fact, able to multi-task. For real.
In fact, the “Designer, writer, editor” thing leaves out the boring bits too: all that administrative stuff which takes up a significant part of any self-employed person’s day, whether they are writing novels or fixing your bathroom.
Let me be honest – I hate the admin! Something happens to my brain when I’m faced by the prospect of doing bookkeeping: it sort of melts a bit, as if I have to temporarily fudge some circuitry to tap into a different me who doesn’t glaze over at the sight of columns of numbers. When I first learned how to use a Mac back in 1991, I got quite excited about Microsoft Excel, but a couple of years of being the primary bookkeeper in a two-man partnership cured me of that. “Show me how to do the fun stuff!”, I insisted to my business partner as soon as I realised the power of the Mac to unleash my creative potential. And, thank goodness, he did.
Creating a Magazine
The point of this somewhat lengthy post is to give you a brief insight into what my daily work involves, and even though I’m really busy, this seemed like a good point to write a post like this as I am working, right now, on the opening processes for creating the next issue of monthly hobby magazine, Miniature Wargames with Battlegames, which goes off to the printers next Friday night.
I returned from holiday recently to find my email inbox rammed full with over 400 emails, and it’s taken me this long just to clear the decks sufficiently to feel like I have the right ‘head space’ to get cracking with the magazine. Anyone involved in any kind of creative field will know what I mean by that: you need to de-clutter your mind and your workspace in order to get ‘into the zone’ – another cliché I know, but it really is like that. I need chunks of at least a couple of hours at a time that are completely distraction-free before I can give of my best.
Making a Start: Get Organized
The procedure always starts with a “Save As…” of the previous issue. That way, I know that all the styles I have created will carry over flawlessly from one issue to the next. It also saves time: even though it would be possible to begin working with a blank template, there are certain elements that remain largely unchanged from issue to issue, such as the front cover framework, page furniture like folios (that’s page numbering for the uninitiated), headings and sub-headings, and a number of ‘anchor’ pieces such as the contents page, editorial page, a diary of events, my Combat Stress Appeal piece, the Recce (review) section and so on.
This copy of the previous issue is saved into a new folder on my hard drive and named, obviously enough, “MWBG XXX.indd” [.indd = InDesign file suffix], where XXX represents the issue number. Within that folder, as well as the primary InDesign file of the magazine (I have worked in Quark in the past, but I’ve been a firm devotee of the Adobe software since InDesign first appeared in late 1999), I also create a folder for each of the articles and sections in the magazine. So, for example, I have a folder into which all the artwork for ads in this issue are placed, another for the Recce section, yet another for each of the regular columns (Forward Observer, Wargames Widow, Fantasy Facts) and then, of course, each of the feature articles. This is not rocket science: every working professional creates a hierarchical file and folder structure of this kind to keep everything properly organised and easy to find.
Into these folders are placed the text documents supplied by contributors for their articles, together with any illustrative matter. The vast majority of people send me MS Word documents, which have the suffix of .doc or, more recently, .docx. A few people send me Mac Pages documents, and a couple seem to like Google Docs, though these are relatively rare. Occasionally someone will send along an .rtf or .txt file and, once in a while, something utterly unreadable will turn up. Return to sender! A text file on its own usually arrives as an attachment to an email. PDF files are a special case: they are fine when advertisers are sending completed artwork for their ads, which tend to contain a combination of text and images, because a PDF can ‘encapsulate’ the fonts used, eliminating potential copyright problems. But PDFs should not be used for simple images, nor, ideally, for text on its own, because extracting that text can be more laborious than necessary. The power of the PDF lies in other uses, such as the final form of an e-book – or, as you’ll see, the final artwork of a magazine.
Illustrative material is more tricky, both in terms of the formats I receive, the quality of the images and the method of delivery. What my contributor guidelines make clear is that my preference is for .jpg and .tif files or, for line work, I can take .ai (Illustrator) and .eps formats. For bitmap images (that’s photos to you), I can accept .bmp, .psd (Photoshop) and camera RAW files from those who know what they’re doing. The problem with .psd files in particular is that if they contain layers, the file sizes can be huge and if any text is involved, they would need to be sent with the font used, which can cause copyright problems.
Two other file formats that I haven’t mentioned are .gif and .png, which are really only intended for online use and can reproduce very badly in print. They date back to the early days of the web and are based on ‘indexed’ colour, which uses a limited colour palette to reduce file size. In the days before broadband internet, this was important – designers like me used to spend ages reducing file sizes to the absolute minimum to ensure rapid download and display in browsers, reducing the colour palette to 64, 32, 16 or even 8 web-safe colours or fewer. Ahhh, those were the days…
One of the problems with images I face, apart from the perennial one of praying for quality pictures to arrive from amateur photographers, is their sheer size. With even many smartphones these days cranking out images of 8 or 10 Megapixels or more, an article with half a dozen or so photos starts to ‘weigh’ quite a lot, and you can find your inbox filling up with monster emails. This is where services such as those provided by DropBox, WeTransfer and Hightail (previously YouSendIt), can prove really useful. Google Drive is another online storage facility, and there are many others. The advantage is that, as well as being free for the basic versions, they are simple and reliable to use. You use the browser interface to indicate which files you want to select, enter the recipient’s email address, add a message if you like and hit “Send”. The recipient, instead of finding an email stuffed with the motherlode of your digital creativity, simply receives a link. They can then click the link and choose where to save the files on their hard drive – and in my case, I want to save them straight to the folders I indicated above.
If you’re interested in finding out more about sending large files, then I suggest you consult the latest services on offer, reviewed here at Cloudwards.net in a very useful and informative article.
The Building Begins
Once all the material I need for the issue has been downloaded and organised, or perhaps retrieved from the ‘slush pile’ (an awful expression, simply meaning the collection of articles I have received that are either awaiting assessment by me, or simply waiting for the right issue in which to publish them), then the building begins in earnest.
First, I clear the ground by going through the template created from the previous issue and carefully deleting everything not needed for this one. I always double-check this process to prevent stray bits hanging over. In InDesign, one trick is to make sure that you view the artwork with ‘frame edges’ showing to ensure that you have deleted every text and image frame, even if it is otherwise invisible. I must ensure that I start with the equivalent of a blank sheet, because otherwise innocent looking text or image frames may, for example, have been given a ‘text runaround’ attribute, which might cause newly-entered text to flow around them in an unexpected fashion.
Editing and Composing
I always give articles their first edit in the format in which they were supplied – so, for example, if someone has send me a Word document, I will open the piece in Word to give it the first spelling and grammar check, as well as ensuring that the thing makes sense and reads well. Yes, I know, surely that’s the job of the contributor, but trust me… That is not, however, the end of the editing for that piece, because it is only a part of the jigsaw. And a magazine is, in essence, a giant jigsaw. The text forms a major part of the puzzle, but the images accompanying text form another, and the final piece is the design template of the magazine itself.
Like newspapers,magazine articles have to fit a certain space. That space is determined by the visual style of the magazine, which has been crafted by the designer. It will have been decided that headings are one size, subheadings another, body text another, and so on. So if a contributor sends something that doesn’t fit the space, there are two choices: 1) return it to the contributor and ask them to rewrite it; or 2) cut it. And frankly, in 99% of cases, there’s no time for option (1), so like any other editor worth their salt, I wield the digital knife. The skill comes in cutting so subtly that often, even the original contributor can’t tell what you have done without a very careful side-by-side scrutiny of the text. The thing that is often more obvious is changing the title. I always find it amusing that people contributing to a magazine they receive every month themselves fail to spot that headings must be reduced to a single- or, occasionally, double-decker headline of perhaps half a dozen words at most, usually two to four. And yet they persist in giving their articles titles that are mini-essays!
As part of the process of pouring content into the space available, I’m also looking at image quality which may – in truth, usually does – need to be improved in Photoshop. I won’t go into that process here, but suffice it to say that I do a lot of sharpening and brightening! People also often forget that a photograph that may look fine on their blog will look terrible when reproduced in print because the resolution is far too low: screen resolution on PCs is usually 72 pixels per inch, whereas print requires 300 dots per inch or thereabouts. Interestingly, many of the new tablets, including the latest iPads, now have screens approaching print resolution, so they give a good indication of how small, or bad, your 72dpi image ‘saved for the web’ might appear in print.
Once I have my text and image components, I then flow the text into the columns (these are simply text boxes aligned to the underlying layout grid, a story for another time), place the pictures alongside the text they illustrate (often mixed in with the text, sometimes on the opposite page – the example shown above uses both methods) together with captions, and then apply the relevant styles to headings, subheadings and so on. The final touches are to do with tidying things up, such as eliminating ‘widows and orphans’ – usually achieved using tracking and kerning, rather than more editing – and adjusting the page furniture if required (for example, I have ‘tabs’ on pages to indicate whether it’s a feature, profile etc).
Extra Images and Advertising
There’s another aspect to the design and illustration in which I tend to play a leading role, and that’s maps. I have developed a particular style over the years that readers seem to like, which is very much directly related to our hobby and the way we create the terrain for our games. If I had a Pound for every time I’ve been asked what the ‘special software’ is that I use… Well, it’s Adobe Photoshop, and no, there are no quick shortcuts! Creating scenario and battle maps is a time-consuming business, but one I find enjoyable and rewarding.
Another role I play is that of photo-researcher. Again, yes, contributors should always provide their own images, or obtain permission to use those they don’t own, but in this situation, almost all the contributors are amateurs with no experience of submitting anything for publication previously. So I spend a fair amount of time hunting around the internet or sending emails to people who I think might be able to provide suitable illustrations for next to no money! Ideally, I’d have someone perform this somewhat laborious task for me, but there’s simply nothing in the budget.
Of course, another key element of the magazine is the advertising. The ad space is currently sold by an agency to companies and individuals, who then supply artwork to the appropriate size for their half page, full page and so on. If they don’t have the wherewithal or skills to provide their own artwork, we can design it for them, and one of our team does most of the ad design. I’ve designed hundreds of ads myself over the years, but it’s pretty intensive and nowadays, I mostly can’t afford the distraction from the main task.
The ad pages are placed throughout the magazine, interspersed with the editorial, at appropriate breaks in the content between one article and the next. It’s really bad practice, to my mind, to have ads plonked in the middle of an article – it breaks the flow for the reader too much. Some magazines have all ads grouped together in one section, perhaps in the middle or at the end. My own magazine Battlegames used to do this; apart from the inside front cover, all ads were at the back, which worked fine, but you have to be sure of both your audience and your advertisers, who normally prefer not to be lumped together with other adverts.
So, as you can see, creating a magazine is very much like creating a jigsaw ‘on the fly’ from various components, and you really need to have your wits about you. In a large publishing house, the jobs of editor and layout artist are taken by different individuals or even entire teams of people. With a small hobby publication like MWBG, however, the publishers need to keep costs firmly under control, so it suits them to have someone like me, with multiple strings to my bow, putting the magazine together, as long as I can cope and quality isn’t compromised. In Atlantic Publishing’s current stable of four magazines, MWBG is the only one produced in this way, so it’s pretty rare!
Writing To Space
But so far, I’ve only mentioned editing and design: what about the writing? Well, in addition to the copy supplied to me by contributors, I always find myself adding captions to photos, and of course I have to write my introductory column every month, but over the years I have also written hundreds of thousands of words in the form of articles, both in the current magazine and both its predecessors, Miniature Wargames and Battlegames. This is effectively a form of journalism, simply exercised in a very niche market. As a result, I have become highly adept at writing not to a word count (though I can do that just fine), but to fill a space. Moreover, I tend to write directly into InDesign, rather than into Word or any other word processing package, which would then have to be imported. I literally look at the space – a column or two, a page or several – and start typing. It’s an act of faith, but it’s never failed yet – I quite quickly get to the point where I know I have to swing towards an ending and stop, leaving room, if appropriate, for some images. And then, of course, I edit myself!
You might be astonished to learn that this is precisely how I created my 520-page monster, The Wargaming Compendium. But it’s true. I feel very at home writing directly into InDesign for non-fiction projects, because I see the whole thing as an integrated piece, with text, images and styling creating a harmonious whole. For some reason, however, I need to see my fiction just as bare text, though I have no doubt that I would approach something like a graphic novel or screenplay completely differently and would probably need visual clues.
Final Important Touches
So, each article in the magazine is pieced together in the way described, and then the entire magazine is pieced together with editorial and advertising interspersed, with the regular columns forming the anchor around which other parts can float. It often happens that before I’m finished, I’ll shift around entire chunks in order to make the final magazine have more ‘bounce’. I’m not sure if anyone else uses this terminology, but any editor would know what I mean – a publication needs to have a certain, indefinable flow that encourages the reader to keep going. It’s also a visual thing: never forget that magazine publishing is highly competitive, and you just have a few seconds to engage the casual browser when they pick it up from the shelf in a high street shop.
Then there’s the cover. Here, it’s a matter of selecting a handful of appropriate headlines and choosing a picture that is pure ‘eye candy’, an arresting image that, you hope, will make someone interested in the hobby (or whatever subject matter your magazine deals with) pick up the magazine. It’s as simple as that. If they pick it up, the likelihood is that they will give the magazine a quick flick-through; and if they do that, you hope that the way you have designed and laid out the interior, and the way you have composed your headlines, will encourage them to start reading. And once they do that, with luck, something magical happens, and for reasons to be explored another time, the reader feels that the magazine ‘belongs’ to them, but they need to go and pay for it! (Oh, and don’t forget to change the barcode every issue…)
Proofing for Perfection
There is another stage before this hopefully perfect publication goes to press. The proofing. I rate myself pretty highly as a proof reader, and have performed this task on countless projects over more than two decades now. But if there’s one thing I do know, particularly when time is short – you must never rely on proofing your own work. I’m fortunate to have a couple of very experienced guys in the background who have performed this task admirably for me over nearly nine years now. They provide the eagle eyes that ALWAYS spot something I have missed and bless them, they do it for little more than my everlasting thanks and some pin money.
The final stage of production is to output the entire magazine to a series of high-resolution PDF files which are then uploaded to the printer’s system. Believe me, this is much better than the old days, when everything had to be loaded onto disks of one kind or another. No doubt a few veterans will smile at the memories of SyQuest and Zip disks, not to mention the various forms of ‘floppy’ that preceded them! Nowadays, with a good broadband connection, an entire issue of MWBG will take less than half an hour to upload. Once it’s been processed by the printer’s system, it presents me with yet another opportunity to proof the publication in the form of a ‘virtual proof’. Gone are the days, sadly, of waiting for a courier to arrive with an armful of ‘wet’ proofs, taken either from the printing press or a special proofing press, after plates had been made – not only did I love the look and smell of them, they were incredibly useful for seeing how the final inking would turn out in terms of density and colour reproduction, and I still maintain that there’s nothing better for spotting errors than a properly printed proof.
Once I’ve given everything a final check, I approve the job by simply clicking a button. That’s it. I celebrate with a cup of tea, I have a couple of days of administration to do, and then it starts all over again…
And at some point, about ten days after uploading those files, a little package arrives with my copies of the real thing. Time, in fact, for another cup of tea.
Thanks for reading this far. I hope you’ve enjoyed my job description and perhaps learned something. Do feel free to ask questions or leave comments below.
I resigned from my post as Editor of Miniature Wargames with Battlegames in September 2016, ending an era of hobby magazine production that had lasted ten years. I am now concentrating my efforts on book production, especially book covers for both fiction and non-fiction, but the principles mentioned in this article remain exactly the same.