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Issue for January 2015

Voyages of Discovery

Posted on Friday, January 30, 2015 at 12:57 PM

Writers as travel guides for their readers.

By Peter P. Jacobi

I recall a trip to New York City a couple of decades ago, this one to serve as judge in that year's National Magazine Awards. My assignment as part of a panel: to select the best magazine overall, for the totality of its editorial quality, among publications with circulation over 500,000. There were five finalists. I no longer remember the five, only one. I no longer remember which magazine was selected as winner, if it was the one I still recall or another.

But my memory clings to Travel + Leisure because of an article in one of the three issues we were each given for judgment. The article was titled "A South Seas Adventure," and it was written by Charles Monaghan. The subject was a far-off destination, New Guinea.

Wrote Monaghan: "Somewhere there is a place that will change my life. Its physical beauty will shock me into seeing my own world in a wholly new way. The lives of the people there will be so sharply different from mine that they will be a mirror to me, and in that mirror I will see all my faults and fears and gather the courage to eradicate them. This place will be so untouched by my civilization that I will be renewed just by coming to know it. To visit it will be a once-in-a-lifetime adventure, a necessary adventure of the soul.

"That longing for such a place," Monaghan continued, "is buried deep in our psyches. It is an idea that surfaces again and again in our literature and myth. And it surely is a part -- a small part, sometimes a great part -- of the impetus that drives us to travel, that makes travel such a poignant and important part of our lives."

Sitting there, among other judges gathered in a great hall of the building that houses the Graduate School of Journalism at Columbia University, and reading of Monaghan's personal journey, I thought that this longing he wrote of surely is a part of the impetus that drives us to read because to read, I believe, is to travel. Writers are, for themselves, travelers. And that means writers are, for the reader, travel guides.

Traveling with Mind and Heart

It's not physical travel we're dealing with, of course, even though the topic might just be that: a trip to New Guinea taken by the writer suggested as a future course of action for the reader. But reading is MIND travel and HEART travel. That's what we're about when we put words on a page.

Begins with the Writer Voyage

What we offer are VOYAGES OF DISCOVERY. The writer, when he or she writes, makes/shapes/forms/creates a voyage of discovery. The reader, when she or he reads, then takes/accepts/experiences a voyage of discovery. There can be no reader voyage without, first that writer voyage.

Make It an Interesting Voyage

The task, a complex one, is for the writer to make a voyage interesting enough, exciting enough, worthwhile enough, entertaining enough, inspiring enough, compelling enough for the reader to follow through and actually take the offered journey. It is our task to find an ever clearer path to the reader's mind and heart. We need to find the right destination and the right path and the right itinerary and the right purpose, so to plan and then prepare and present a travel package hard for the reader to refuse, hard for the busy reader with a life of multiple other options to refuse.

Plan the Voyage

Know what sort of voyage you want to undertake, and know why. Know what it takes to get from here to there, from start to finish; what materials you require, what directions will get you to the desired destination, what obstacles might get in the way, what techniques you can employ to overcome the obstacles and ease the passage, make it a pleasure to undertake.

Take the Voyage Seriously

It's all about decisions and consequent actions, this Voyage of Discovery, this writing project. Stephen King says, "You can approach the act of writing with nervousness, excitement, hopefulness, or even despair.... You can come to the act with your fists clenched and your eyes narrowed, ready to kick ass and take down names.... Come to it any way but lightly.... you must not come lightly to the blank page."

You "must not come lightly to the blank page." From idea generation forward, take your voyage seriously. If you don't, you'll later find that the finished product is not one that the reader will take seriously enough to expend energy or time on.

Make the Voyage Purposeful

There must be reason for what you undertake. There must be purpose. There must be compulsion: something to drive you through all the labor that's to come. Have you figured out your purpose? Is it to educate, to entertain, to make your reader imagine, to make him or her live in the past or hop into the future?

Map Out the Voyage

And after you've determined the purpose of your literary voyage, what do you need then? A map! Without a map, you wander here and there or worse, you travel down a dead end. Beryl Markham, the respected writer of West with the Night and noted pilot, addressed the issue of maps. "A map," she mused, "says to you, 'Read me carefully, follow me closely, doubt me not.' It says, 'I am the earth in the palm of your hand. Without me, you are alone and lost.'"

The pilot requires maps. So do you, the writer. You need one for your Voyage of Discovery. Out of an idea and out of material you have gathered, the collected information, you must shape order. Your article, your story needs structure, an architecture, a sense of direction, a logical progression, a design that brings shape and meaning to facts. This is your map.

Taking the Reader on the Voyage

An idea purposed for the reader, then researched, reported, and molded into meaningful form: these acts on your part precede the actual travel, the actual writing. With the writing, your imagination must take wing; that is where your destination comes into focus and where you provide the satisfying journey, the details that convince the reader he or she has made the right choice to travel along with you.

It matters HOW you write WHAT you write. It matters how you choose the details for what you write. It matters how you sequence the language for whom you have chosen to be your guests on the journey. Know your audience. Know your reader. Try to enter the mind of your reader and into the experiential life of your reader. What will he or she know, not know, care about, not care about, want to find out about, be enticed by, be excited by, be inspired by, be set to dreaming, be set to desiring?

Yes, be set to dreaming, to desiring, to inhabiting, to embracing, to devouring. Writer T. Jefferson Parker says, "Leave your readers with something experienced, not just something read. Give them an emotional reality. Make it impossible for them simply to chuck your book [or article] into the wastebasket when they've finished reading." Make it linger, haunt, last.

Go at the task step by difficult step with enthusiasm, vigor, devotion, and belief. Successful writing does require your enthusiasm for the topic, the vigor in developing it, devotion to its content and message, belief in its importance.

More next time on how to make your Voyage of Discovery the reader's.

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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Jan V. White: d. December 30, 2014

Posted on Friday, January 30, 2015 at 12:55 PM

Legendary magazine designer and frequent Editors Only contributor deceased.

By William Dunkerley

Jan White was not just a magazine designer. He was a passionate evangelist for good design. An underlying message in his commentaries was to encourage us all to make design and text function supportively together.

I met Jan many years ago when he was an impassioned luncheon speaker at a Society of National Association Publications event. I bought his now classic book, Editing by Design. But quickly I found that it was hard to keep it on my office bookshelf. Staff members kept swiping it. The stealth borrowers were from both the editorial and design departments. So when I went to look for the missing book, I never knew where to start looking. Ultimately, the solution I found was to buy my own copy and to keep it at home!

Since 2009, Jan White has been a frequent contributor to Editors Only. As a tribute to his work, we now present a somewhat random collection of his sage advice:

--"Chill out on technological trickery. Return to useful ideas, clearly expressed and presented. Everything else is eyewash."

--"All the techniques of geometrical alignments and spacings make sense by clarifying the elements. Why is that useful? Because people like short bits and resent big ones."

--"First-glance curiosity is vital, because your effort is wasted unless potential readers are interested. So we must use visual salesmanship to play up elements, make them noticeable, and thus user-friendly."

--"Publication-making is a creative cultural boon. It is about doing things that are worth doing for their own sake -- all to increase the sum of human knowledge and understanding. Making flowers bloom."

--"Excellence of content is identical whether it is on slow, boring paper, or in flashy digitized format. The intellectual process we call 'thinking' that works so well on paper is absolutely appropriate when it is converted into electronic formats. It is all the same process."

--"Is our 'dying' profession dying? I submit that it is more alive than ever, because it is as valid and vibrant as ever, because what we do continues to be as useful and important as ever. It is needed."

--"We have the same problem as a fine restaurant, where you don't just expect fresh ingredients deliciously spiced, but they must also be artfully presented on the plate. Presentation isn't a cosmetic luxury, but an integral ingredient of a good dish or a good magazine. However, it can never be more than a supportive ingredient."

--"We have to understand the complexity of the communication process, and simplify the message to make it easy to absorb. Our readers are normally searching only for limited information at any one time."

--"Once you know the point of the message, you can start searching for its cogent image. Forget being 'creative.' You are not looking for a florid visual with which to make a splash -- there are too many meaningless visual splashes all around as it is, and who is swayed by such efflorescence? Instead, you are searching for something that will make the point of the message startling, understandable, memorable, persuasive."

--"Is white space wasted space? Not if we make it work for its living. We must use it as a tool to improve the capacity of the visible page to tell our story both clearer and faster. Used to practical purpose, we don't need to invest vast swaths of emptiness for dramatic contrast. Forget conspicuous consumption. We can hardly afford the luxury of 'a place for the eye to rest.' Probably never will again. Instead, concentrate on servicing the readers. Use deliberately controlled bits of white space as raw material to lead them to what matters and expose the information in clear, fast, and bite-size chunks."

--"One of the myths of publishing is that 'readers' are readers. They start out as viewers. Searchers who flip, scan, hunt and peck, looking for the nuggets they want. In a hurry, saturated with 'information,' and perhaps a bit lazy, they need to be lured into reading. 'Persuaded' might be a better word, because luring implies bamboozling, and duplicity has no place in publishing. The least trace of trickery is self-defeating, because it destroys the potential reader's trust. Persuasion that is credible exposes the valuable content. Making value accessible makes the publication useful and liked. Combining accessibility (i.e., making things easy to find) with speed (i.e., at first glance) makes the publication a useful, dependable tool."

--"Editors honestly have no idea that such a thing as flow even exists. I know whereof I speak, because I've worked with literally thousands of editors in all these too-many years of consulting. Ostensibly, my specialty was designing multipage products (mostly magazines), but that was just labeling to merchandise my living. The real subject was not publication designing but publication making, because it is impossible to separate the intellectual content from its presentation if you hope to make those publications better. What it says and how it says -- content and form -- must work together because they are the sides of the same coin. No, wrong! They are an amalgam of the metals and appear identical in both sides of that same cliché coin."

--"Don't think of pages as static, standalone units. Instead, see your multipage medium the way readers do when they flip pages. Each fresh impression is a link in a chain, and the entire chain is the publication. Back to front, front to back."

--"Good design expresses, reflects, and exposes inner meaning. Helping inner meaning jump off the page is the true value of 'design.' It transmits writers' words, their inherent ideas, and their significance to the reader vividly, strikingly, memorably. If it looks startling and trendy but is essentially meaningless, it is nothing more than phony window-dressing."

--"I've spent half a lifetime deconstructing magazine design to make it less artistic and more functional, cogently based on sensible analysis rather than on personal taste (though that remains a component, of course)."

And we close with Jan's own description of what his work has been about, and which now serves as his own self-authored epitaph: "He [tried] to persuade word people to think visually and visual people to think verbally."

Jan V. White, 1928–2014.

William Dunkerley is principal of William Dunkerley Publishing Consultants, www.publishinghelp.com.

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The Fog Index

Posted on Friday, January 30, 2015 at 12:51 PM

Assessing the readability of a Huffington Post excerpt.

This month, we analyze the Fog Index from a January 28 Huffington Post article ("The Internet of Things and the Race to Singularity" by Daniel Newman). Here's the excerpt:

"With the proliferation of smart devices, we are constantly under technology's gaze. We are looking for benefits and solutions to improve our quality of life and in the process, perhaps giving away too much information. While technology impacts us in all areas of life -- making our work easier and better, helping us manage our homes, or taking care of our health -- it is also exposing us to a huge wave of interconnectedness where we are constantly relinquishing the grip on our lives and handing over the reins to technology. As the Internet becomes more and more knowledgeable about us, it will be more accurate at knowing just about everything about us from our health to our feelings."

--Word count: 117 words
--Average sentence length: 29 words (12, 23, 54, 28 words)
--Words with 3+ syllables: 14 percent (16/117 words)
--Fog Index: (29 +14)*.4 = 17 (no rounding)

We have some work to do here if we want to cut the Fog. Sentence length is very high in this sample, with 117 words split into just four sentences. Let's see if we can cut through the fog and improve readability.

"With the spread of smart devices, we are always under technology's gaze. We are looking for ways to improve our quality of life and in the process may be giving away too much data. Technology affects us in all parts of life by making our work easier and better, helping us manage our homes, or taking care of our health. But it is also exposing us to a huge wave of interconnectedness where we are often handing over control of our lives to technology. As a result, the Internet will learn just about everything about us, from our health to our feelings."

--Word count: 102 words
--Average sentence length: 20 words (12, 22, 26, 24, 18)
--Words with 3+ syllables: 7 percent (7/102 words)
--Fog Index: (20+7)*.4 = 10 (no rounding)

Our Fog Index shrank from 17 to 10 with our edits. The major changes were in the last sentence, which we pared down for readability. We also split the 54-word sentence in two, thus bringing down our sentence length by 9 points. We also eliminated 9 longer words, cutting the percentage in half.

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New Responsibilities for Hearst Editors

Posted on Friday, January 30, 2015 at 12:45 PM

In the news: The basic job description of a magazine editor continues to change.

The fabric of Hearst magazine editors' jobs is changing. According to a January 26 AdAge.com piece, editors are now working with advertisers to create articles and videos. This marks a fundamental shift for Hearst editors, who haven't had much to do with advertisers in the past. The move appears to be a reflection of a wider industry increase in sponsored content.

What's the potential benefit of these new "content studios," which are popping up at more and more publishing houses? Writes Michael Sebastian in the AdAge article, "By providing brands with additional creative services, as well as placements within their streams of editorial content online -- the latter is usually described as a native ad -- publishers are trying to capture advertising money flowing to digital media." Read his complete write-up here.

Also Notable

Magazine Content Now Eligible for the Pulitzer Prize

Last month, the Pulitzer Prize website announced that many print and digital magazines are now in the running. According to the official press release, "The Pulitzer Prizes in journalism, which honor the work of American newspapers and news sites, have expanded eligibility for two prize categories, Investigative Reporting and Feature Writing, to include many online and print magazines." This is a big win for magazine writers, whose hard-hitting longform work was previously ineligible for these coveted prizes. Read the official press release here.

"Netflixing" Magazine Subscriptions

Could a Netflix-like model work for magazine content delivery, or is it, to borrow wording from a recent TheAtlantic.com, an "impossible dream"? In the recent Atlantic piece, Derek Thompson calls into question the idea that Netflixing magazine subscriptions could be a viable model for magazine brands. Magazine app subscribers still constitute a relatively small niche (between 10 and 100 times smaller than the print readership, says Thompson). Therefore, it's difficult to imagine a magazine app Netflix thriving when only a small percentage of subscribers are reading in that format. Read the full analysis here.

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