Of Plans and Prose: Tips for Planning Journalism

Having served on the editorial board of Plan Canada for more than four years now, I've gained a pretty good sense of what makes a solid article on planning practice, and the common pitfalls to which authors often fall victim. As such, I offer below some guidelines that should assist prospective authors interested in submitting to the practitioner literature in producing the most suitable submissions requiring the least amount of revision.

February 4, 2013, 9:08 AM PST

By Michael Dudley

Every issue of Plan Canada magazine -- the official English-language publication of the Canadian Institute of Planners (CIP) -- features a full-page advertisement soliciting submissions to the magazine. These calls are repeated in the news email bulletins, listing specific themes or issues that the editorial board feels are of the greatest relevance and interest. As a result of these reminders, the magazine is able to print an issue highlighting the latest in Canadian planning practice each quarter; what the readership will (hopefully) be quite unaware of is the editorial work and revision that goes into what we publish, and the number of submissions that don't make the cut.

Having served on the editorial board of Plan Canada for more than four years now - two in the capacity of board Chair- I've gained a pretty good sense of what makes a solid article on planning practice, and the common pitfalls to which authors often fall victim. As such, I offer below some guidelines that should assist prospective authors interested in submitting to the practitioner literature in producing the most suitable submissions requiring the least amount of revision.

Practice, Practice Practice

I'm not referring here to your skill-building and discipline as a writer, but rather to the focus of practitioner literature such as Plan Canada, which is to highlight the best in planning practice. In other words, we seek evidence-based articles: real-world examples of the ideas you are interested in exploring, rather than merely "think pieces" or editorials. Planning is not just about outcomes, but is keenly concerned with processes: who was involved, what transactions occurred between stakeholders, how these processes were mediated, what conflicts arose, and how they were resolved. These cases can be either be in the regional or national contexts or international, but should be undertaken with a view to what the magazine's intended readership may learn from them.

Exploring how new ideas can contribute to planning practice and visa-versa is of far greater value to your readers than is hearing why we should care about them -- or worse, be scolded for (in your opinion) not caring enough about them. The reality is that, too often, authors submit what amounts to a "call to action" urging planners to care about and intervene in some issue or another, but with nothing to illustrate what such interventions should look like. Actions and consequences on the ground are key, as illustrated by a well-developed case or two. Which is why...

Local Context Matters

You may be intimately familiar with your community's planning and policy context, but don't assume that your readers will be, even if you are writing about a major centre like Vancouver or Toronto. Please set the stage for your case and your arguments with the relevant local details, including the background on the the issues, previous efforts to address them as well as the planning environment. And part of that setting that context means that you should...

Connect Yourself to the Case

It is helpful to the reader to have an understanding of what role you may have played in the practices under discussion, or what authority you have to write about them. Were you involved? A consultant? Worked for the planning department? State this from the outset if possible, rather than adopting a passive voice that leads the reader to wonder who was responsible for the actions described, and, essentially, what authority you have to comment on them. If you weren't involved directly, then a brief description that situates your interest in studying the case would be useful. These statements can be in the first or third person. That being said, however...  

It's Not About You

It seems a particular temptation for younger writers -- who probably cut their creative teeth in social media where a premium is placed on personal disclosure -- to pepper their work with personal reflections. For almost all purposes however, your readers really don't need to hear about how you feel about the issue, how fascinated you are by it, or what you were thinking throughout the process. Keep focused on the case at hand, not attempts to get readers to see it through your eyes. Related to this is the need to...

Acknowledge Your Precedents

Unless by some extraordinary circumstance you have come up with a unique approach that has occurred to no one else, you should situate the case according to relevant precedents (including literature), and what you, your colleagues and other stakeholders may have learned from them. Cite sources which your reader can then explore and consider on their own. Remember however, that even as you are employing and adapting the ideas of others, you still need to...

Question Your Assumptions

It should go without  saying, but don't assume that your case represents the best or the only approach to the problem at hand. Qualify your conclusions and acknowledge any limitations.  More generally, however, don't assume that your readers will necessarily share your ideological predispositions, or agree with your arguments, especially if you fail to...

Avoid Hyperbole

Because planning relates at a fundamental level with the places we call home, it tends to arouse passionate responses, which can easily cross over into hyperbolic excess. For example, statements to the effect that all suburbs are lifeless, conformist prisons, or that higher densities forebode Stalinist-era state control are to be avoided.

A Note About Peer Review

Those writers working in academic roles may wish to have your work subject to formal peer review, in which your article will be sent out to scholars working in a similar area, to determine if it is suitable for publication, or what changes might be needed. To qualify for peer review, however, your article must make a new contribution to the field: it can't simply be an examination of an issue with an overview of some best practices for addressing that issue, as might be the case in a standard article. Instead, you will need to be engaging in original research and analysis, either through gathering data, synthesizing theory, or interviewing relevant stakeholders.

Finally -- and because almost nobody can successfully edit their own work -- have a colleague read through your article before you submit it, to make sure that it makes sense and that any issues with grammar or syntax are corrected. And to make the editorial board's work a little easier, please give your e-submission a distinctive filename - preferably including your surname. At our own magazine we have a lot of "Plan Canada article.docs" on file!

Keep in mind too that one of the jobs of an editorial board is to work with writers: if your submission doesn't quite meet guidelines initially, or has other problems, it likely won't be rejected out of hand but returned with comments so you can revise it.

With so many exciting trends in planning and the diversity of approaches available, your potential source material is almost limitless; please consider sharing your knowledge and experiences with your peers by submitting an article to the magazine of your choice!

Michael Dudley

With graduate degrees in city planning and library science, Michael Dudley is the Community Outreach Librarian at the University of Winnipeg.

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