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Issue for January 2013

Employ the Gamut

Posted on Wednesday, January 30, 2013 at 10:59 PM

Nouns, verbs, adjectives, adverbs, metaphors, imaginative references, all evoke the senses as fittingly and compellingly as possible.

By Peter P. Jacobi

My focus a couple of months ago was on description, its significance for a piece of writing and its complications for the writer. I return to the subject this month.

And, yes, as I do so, I announce firm adherence to the principle of "show versus tell," that although we often also have to "tell" about a subject by providing its background and explaining its existence or modus operandi, we greatly benefit a story by "show," using narration and description, which, in turn, benefit tremendously from writing that operates on nouns and verbs.

But let's not forget that, as author Brian Cleary says, "Adjectives are words like yellow, sleepy, slumping, somewhat mellow. They give us lots of great description, like tall, left-handed, young Egyptian. They paint a picture using words like friendly dog or baby birds, spotted, nearly rotted fruit, peppered eggs, and leopard suit." Cleary argues charmingly and persuasively in his little book for children, Quirky, Jerky, Extra Perky, More about Adjectives (Millbrook).

So, though in my opinion, nouns and verbs remain at the top of the list of tools for effective description, we shouldn't forget how modifiers like adjectives and adverbs can add to the descriptive confection.

Guiding the Reader

For instance, when Alexander Theroux some years ago wrote "How Curious the Camel" for Reader's Digest, he used them all. "A camel has been described as a horse planned by committee," he said. "It has a comic munch of a face -- loony, serene and disgusted all at once -- with liquid eyes that shine bottle-green at night. Its eyelashes are as long as Ann Sheridan's. Its large nostrils can close against blowing sand. A ruminant, it chews its cud, and its floppy lips, seemingly insensitive to thorny plants, cover teeth long enough to eat an apple through a picket fence. You can almost chin yourself on its bad breath."

The trick, of course, is to harness the verbal tools so that they mesh, so that the descriptive copy works smoothly and vividly, so that the language doesn't jar or seem forced or phony, so that the purpose of your piece is well served. Descriptive writing shouldn't get in the way. It should help guide the reader down the road toward an intended place or thought or moment or point of view. Know clearly what you are describing and why and how best to get the task accomplished. Then do so.

Picturing the Scene

Maybe you want to scene-set, as does Ron Geatz in a Nature Conservancy publication titled What Will Be Your Lasting Legacy, his feature about natives of northern Australia returning to "heal their homelands." Geatz writes: "Standing atop the red cliffs of Fish River Gorge ... it's difficult not to indulge in a fantasy of nature primordial. More than 100 feet below, fish are clearly visible in the crystalline water. Flocks of squawking white cockatoos soar through the riverine forest, and wallabies dart in and out of view. Beyond that: woodlands as far as the eye can see -- and no sign of people." The picture emerges.

Emerging Storylines

Maybe you need to establish circumstances, as did David Grann in a New Yorker article, "The Lost City of Oz," devoted to the search for signs that might explain the disappearance in 1925 of a British explorer, Colonel Percy Harrison Fawcett. "In the summer of 1996," Grann tells us, "rains flooded the Amazon, rendering it virtually impenetrable. Bridges were swept away, and, amid vast stretches of mud, small holes appeared where cobras and armadillos had buried themselves. Then the sun came out and scorched the region. Rivers sank by thirty feet; bogs became meadows; islands turned into hills. Finally, after months of waiting, a team of Brazilian adventurers and scientists headed into the jungle, determined to solve what has been described as 'the greatest exploration mystery of the twentieth century.'" The story emerges.

Making a Point

Maybe it's lighthearted recall you aim for, as in Jesse Kinley's "Whatever Happened to First Class?" for the Travel section of the New York Times: "As a longtime veteran of the coach cabin and all the horrors therein -- the battles for overhead space, the wheelie-bag traffic jams, the knee-numbing legroom -- one can only imagine my thrill when I boarded a recent American Airlines flight from San Jose, Calif., to Dallas. There I was, after all, in the first row. My seat was wide, the armrest was enormous, and the guys behind me were talking, businessman style, about real estate and golf, bankruptcies and bogies. This was the high life, I figured, a conviction that only intensified when the flight attendant approached with a silver tray and addressed me -- unprompted -- as 'Mr. McKinley.' Then he handed me a towel.

"Or sort of," continues McKinley. "Maybe it was more of a wipe? It was basically the size of a cocktail napkin. Or perhaps it was a piece of the pilot's long-lost security blanket. Whatever it was, it was marginally warm, borderline damp, and had the unmistakable, oft-used texture of a bargain washcloth.

"Ah, first class." The point is being made.

Recreating with Description

Maybe it's Bob Considine's classic report in 1938 of the Louis-Schmeling championship boxing match, in which description and narrative naturally merge. A few seconds after Schmeling "landed his only punch of the night," wrote Considine, "Louis caught him with a lethal little left hook that drove him into the ropes so that his right arm was hooked over the top strand, like a drunk hanging to a fence. Louis swarmed over him and hit with everything he had -- until Referee Donovan pushed him away and counted one.

"Schmeling staggered away from the ropes, dazed and sick. He looked drunkenly toward his corner, and before he had turned his head back, Louis was on him again, first with a left and then that awe-provoking right that made a crunching sound when it hit the German's jaw. Max fell down, hurt and giddy, for a count of three.

"He clawed his way up as if the night air were as thick as black water and..." etc. Step by step, moment for moment, the descriptive narrative is re-creating the historic fight.

Employ the Gamut

The examples above differ because of writing styles and because the topics called for difference. But their writers employed the gamut: nouns, verbs, adjectives, adverbs, metaphors, imaginative references, all to evoke the senses as fittingly and compellingly as possible. Not a one probably was easy to write. Description is hard; good description is harder. But the shapers of those passages succeeded. They knew how far to go and how best to convey scene or situation.

You can do so, too.

Peter P. Jacobi is a Professor Emeritus at Indiana University. He is a writing and editing consultant for numerous associations and magazines, speech coach, and workshop leader for various institutions and corporations. He can be reached at 812-334-0063.

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Sending RFPs to Magazine Design Firms

Posted on Wednesday, January 30, 2013 at 10:59 PM

An Editors Only Q&A addressing magazine redesigns.

Q. My magazine hasn't had a redesign for ages. It looks dated. I want to send out a request for proposal (RFP) to design firms to get some quotes. Is there a time-tested form I can use to solicit proposals?

A. Few redesign projects are alike. As a result, what might be a good RFP for one publication could be totally inappropriate for another. But I'd like to recommend a process to follow for achieving the best result from your redesign project.

Aside from a tired look, are there any other problems associated with your current design? Has it been easy to work with issue by issue? Does it address the various situations you encounter given the variety of content you publish? Has it ever caused reader confusion? Make a list of all your design-related concerns.

Are you sure there aren't any other design problems? Have you had your current design evaluated by a professional recently? If not, this may be a good time to do so. This evaluation doesn't have to be a huge project. Send a typical issue to a designer and ask him or her to spend an hour on the phone with you critiquing it and making suggestions. That shouldn't cost too much.

In fact, if you are considering two or three design firms, ask each of them to give you their critique. You'll receive three distinct benefits from that. First, you'll get ideas for your laundry list of what the redesign project should entail. Second, you'll gain some insights into the designers' approaches. And third, you'll get a sense of whether you like working with the individuals involved.

At this point, you should be ready to construct your list of design concerns that must be addressed in the redesign.

Now describe the scope of the project. If yours is a print publication, what options will the designer have for making change? Trim size? Paper stock? Typography? If your publication is digital, what technologies can be employed (Flash, etc.)? Also describe your production workflow, as it may place some constraints on design options.

Then be specific about what you need designs for -- the cover, contents page, editorial, feature articles, departments, etc. Be comprehensive. How many examples of variants do you want for each?

Describe the skill level of the people who will be doing the issue-by-issue layouts. Will examples provide enough guidance, or will you need a specifications book to spell out the ground rules for using the templates? And, of course, indicate the kind of software and equipment that will be used in production. Be sure to determine the candidate designers' level of familiarity with those factors. Familiarity is one thing, but you should be looking for demonstrated proficiency.

What role will the designer play after delivering the design? Will there be training sessions for your production people? Designer critiques of how they're doing with the new design? You may wish to consider contracting out the production work to the design firm depending on your staffing and facilities. But I suggest that be considered as a separate project.

Provide a backgrounder that describes your audience demographics and psychographics. Attach copies of competing publications and website links. Find a way of evaluating whether each candidate designer will readily understand your audience, your market, and your content. John Johanek, a cofounder of Publication Design Inc. (www.publicationdesign.com), once wrote, "A designer's background is more than just job experience. Be sure to find out what his or her personal interests are as well, and check for compatibility."

So you should end up with two sets of specifications: one that includes all the particulars of the job you want design firms to bid on, and another to define what characteristics you are looking for in a designer.

Should you disclose your budget range for the project? Designer Lynn Riley (www.lynnrileydesign.com) recommends doing that. "It helps the candidate to tailor the scope of work to your budget," she points out. Lynn adds, "In other words, designers won't prepare a proposal that goes beyond the scope of what you need and thus charge for those unwanted services."

Keep in mind that a good redesign project involves a period of the designer getting to know your publication, market, and audience, and becoming acquainted with your staff, procedures, and organizational constraints. Then there is also a post-design period for your staff to become comfortable with and proficient at working with the new design. Be as specific as you can about how much time you want the designer to spend in these two periods.

Always keep in mind that there will undoubtedly be a need to refine the design once it is in use to account for unanticipated problems and to make improvements.

Finally, I strongly recommend that you think of the redesign as a means of improving communication with your readers. That should be your goal. Too often magazines approach redesigns as a means of giving the publication a fresh look. Make no mistake, fresh looks are good. But editors and publishers should take into account how the design will interact with the text to enhance the process of communication.

A pre-design focus group can often be a useful tool for getting feedback on how your current design is failing readers. Don't ask the participants to tell you what they want in a new design. That can often yield bad advice. Readers are not usually experts in how to remedy design problems. Let them tell you what they like based on what they see.

A focus group at the back end of the project isn't a bad idea, either. It can be a way of preflight testing prospective design approaches. Give participants concrete examples to react to. If possible, actually test whether the comprehension of the content is better with one design approach vs. another.

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The Fog Index

Posted on Wednesday, January 30, 2013 at 10:59 PM

Assessing the readability of a New York Times excerpt.

This month, we calculate the Fog Index of a national health briefing from the January 25, 2013, print and online editions of the New York Times ("More Evidence of a Severe Flu Season," by Donald G. McNeil Jr.). Here's the text:

"Death rates from flu and pneumonia have soared well above those of the last few years, confirming that this will be a fairly severe flu season, figures released Friday by federal health officials show. At the same time, new infections with influenza continued to fall, suggesting that the season has peaked almost everywhere in the country except in the far West. Because so many of those hospitalized and dying from the flu are geriatric patients, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued guidelines to doctors who care for older patients, suggesting giving high-dose flu shots to the elderly and starting antiflu drugs as soon as an infection is suspected."

--Word count: 110 words
--Average sentence length: 37 words (34, 27, 49)
--Words with 3+ syllables: 11 percent (12/110 words)
--Fog Index: (37+11)*.4 = 19 (no rounding)

The Fog score for this briefing is quite high. The clear culprit here is average sentence length. The 110 words are split into just three sentences, the last of which contains a hefty 49 words. Let's see what we can do to create shorter, easier-to-read sentences.

"Flu and pneumonia death rates have soared well above those of the last few years. Figures released Friday by federal health officials show that this will be a fairly severe flu season. At the same time, new flu cases are still falling. This suggests that the season has peaked almost everywhere in the country but the far west. Because many hospitalized and dying flu patients are elderly, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention suggest that doctors give older patients high-dose flu shots and start antiflu drugs as soon as they suspect infection."

--Word count: 93 words
--Average sentence length: 19 words (15, 17, 10, 16, 37)
--Words with 3+ syllables: 9 percent (9/95 words)
--Fog Index: (19+9)*.4 = 11 (no rounding)

We had to wrestle with this sample a bit to bring its Fog index below 12. A health briefing contains vital information, so it requires a careful edit. We had to trim word count and split up longer sentences without cutting important details. In the end, we were able to cut average sentence length from 37 to 19 words, nearly in half.

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The Problem with Sponsored Content

Posted on Wednesday, January 30, 2013 at 10:59 PM

In the news: The Atlantic comes under fire for a recent sponsored content item.

Earlier this month, The Atlantic ran a piece sponsored by the Church of Scientology. The ensuing controversy has raised an important question for editors: Where should magazines and websites draw the line when it comes to advertorials?

Some magazine professionals are questioning the ethics of advertising content designed to resemble editorial content. Perhaps most concerning about the Atlantic piece isn't the sponsor itself, but the widespread complaint that the publication didn't make it clear enough to readers that this article was a sponsored item. Adding fuel to the fire was Atlantic's heavier-than-usual moderation of reader comments.

Does advertorial content have a place in today's publications? If so, should magazine editors and salespeople collaborate to ensure that sponsored content fits with the brand's identity? Read more about sponsored content and the Atlantic incident here and here.

Also Notable

Learning from E-books

It's hard to dispute that books have made the most successful jump to digital. Some publishers are now getting up to 20 percent of their revenue from e-books. So what can magazine editors learn from their book editing counterparts? For starters, the e-book experience has taught us that reader's aren't necessarily willing to pay for digital bonuses (e.g., video). This has led book publishers away from previous "enhanced e-book" endeavors. Read more here.

Apps and Spin-off Content

The mounting popularity of apps has led magazine editors to divide and repurpose content in new ways. App technology presents editors with a golden opportunity to repurpose content from back issues in a way that makes the information relevant and exciting again. Read more here.

Time Inc. Layoffs

This week, magazine giant Time Inc. announced that it would be eliminating 500 positions worldwide. This amounts to a 6 percent staff cut. In a memo to employees, CEO Laura Lang stated that Time Inc. "must continue to transform our company into one that is leaner, more nimble and more innately multi-platform." Read more about the impending layoffs here and here.

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