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?

3 thoughts on “Write an Operating Manual

  1. A few more items:
    create a file of all the winners of awards your magazine bestows (person of the year, company of the year, etc)
    create a file of background articles specific to the industry you cover. For example, on the furniture magazine, I had articles about how textiles were woven, carpeting terms, how to use lighting, and so on.

  2. Hi Jim:

    Super blog!!! Excellent advice. Since you have invited recommendations, I am inclined to chime in. A while back, I worked on the revision of a client’s editorial guide. It was a 26-pager covering the waterfront in terms of basic editing procedures.

    Three main sections of the guide covered (1) Headline and Caption Writing; (2) Convention Coverage; (3) Assigning freelance stories. Other sub-sections included tips on story organization, news coverage, how to write profiles, how to write longer articles, making reader calls, ten common editing pitfalls, proofreaders’ marks, how to avoid legal snafus and “An Hour-A-Day Guide to Training New Editorial Recruits.”

    The latter document describes a program I used during my pre-consulting days when I was VP editorial at a 20-magazine B2B company. The guide’s premise was that every new staff member — especially a beginner — was entitled to at least one-hour of training daily during his or her first ten days on the job. I actually first used the system when I was editing a small publication with a staff consisting of one other person. It worked for me then and was even more useful later in my career.

    If I were going to produce an operating manual today, I would need two versions — one for print, the other for digital. And I definitely would include a section on complaint-handling in each version.

    It’s probably asking too much to expect today’s editorial staffers to take time out to develop a soup-to-nuts manual. But written reference information is a necessity. So initially, a management-oriented editor’s best bet is to take a piece-work approach. Start with a one- or-two page statement addressing a high priority editing function . . . then go from there.


    Howard R.

  3. Excellent idea. Wish someone had left me one when I took over almost two years ago. I’ll add it to my to-do list ….

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