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Issue for February 2014

The Sentence

Posted on Thursday, February 27, 2014 at 11:52 PM

Four books dedicated to constructing the best sentences.

By Peter P. Jacobi

I now have four books devoted, by title, to the sentence. Three I've mentioned to you in past columns: When Good People Write Bad Sentences: 12 Steps to Better Writing Habits, by Robert Harris (St. Martin's Griffin); It Was the Best of Sentences, It Was the Worst of Sentences: A Writer's Guide to Crafting Killer Sentences, by June Casagrande (Ten Speed Press); and How to Write a Sentence and How to Read One, by Stanley Fish (HarperCollins).

The fourth has just come to my attention. It is titled Building Great Sentences, How to Write the Kinds of Sentences You Love to Read. Brooks Landon is the author; he's professor and former chairman of the English Department at the University of Iowa. Published by The Great Courses.

I don't know if you need all four. Each is of value. All devote attention to kinds of sentences and purposes and structure. You'll also find gobs of examples to point the way. And every author argues that in the sentence, we have the critical foundation for good writing, that if we don't know how to craft this basic unit, we're in trouble.

Here are tidbits from the earlier volumes.

Stop Writing Bad Sentences

From author Harris: "Stop writing weak sentences. Stop writing formal sentences. Stop writing overweight sentences. Stop writing unclear sentences. Stop writing careless sentences. Stop writing unpersuasive sentences. Stop writing incongruous sentences. Stop writing unstructured sentences. Stop writing unsightly sentences." The book digs into how.

Give the Readers What They Want

From author Casagrande: "If you want to master the art of the sentence, you must first accept a somewhat unpleasant truth -- something a lot of writers would rather deny: The Reader is king. You are his servant. You serve the Reader information. You serve the Reader entertainment. You serve the Reader details of your company's recent merger or details of your experiences in drug rehab." The book reinforces the argument.

Content Takes a Backseat

From author Fish: "It doesn't matter what the sentences you practice with say; it doesn't matter what their content is. In fact, the less interesting the sentences are in their own right, the more useful they are as vehicles of instruction because, as you work with them, you will not be tempted to focus on their content and you will be able to pay attention to the structural relationships that make content -- any content -- possible. The conventional wisdom is that content comes first -- "You have to write about something" is the usual commonplace -- but if what you want to do is learn how to compose a sentence, content must take a backseat to a mastery of the forms without which you can't say anything in the first place." The book takes you through the exercise.

Constructing a Sentence

Landon's Building Great Sentences begins with thoughts about sentences from three writers, novelists. Don DeLillo says: "This is what I mean when I call myself a writer. I construct sentences." Thomas Berger says the sentence is "the cell beyond which the life of the book cannot be traced, a novel being a structure of such cells." Michael Cunningham says: "I'm still hoping to write a great sentence. If I do, I'll let you know."

Building a Great Sentence

Landon puts himself right out there amidst those quotes to say where he stands, in the process summarizing what he's going to cover in his treatise on how to construct and deconstruct and reconstruct sentences. They "come in all shapes and sizes," he notes, "and lots of difference things can make them great." He lists: "Great precision and specificity, great dramatic impact, great sound, great ways to which they direct the reader's thinking, great ways in which they reveal the writer's mind at work, great logical progression, great imagery -- and the list goes on and on." It is a good list, I say, rich enough to get one to thinking about the care that must go into the most basic aspect of writing: how to put our words and the meaning of those words together into a unit that, then also, must fit into a series of such units.

Landon covers the territory thoroughly: word sequence, grammar and rhetoric, length, the importance of propositions ("A statement about reality that can be accepted or rejected"), sentence growth, rhythm and syntax, use of delay and surprise and balance of form, and what the shaping of sentences reveals about an author's style.

There's much to be learned from Landon's study of the sentence. The instructive journey he lays before us is both useful and eminently readable. I left the book's pages with much to consider for my teaching and my own writing.

And when I leaf through the pages now, I realize how much I underlined just because of how he verbalized the what. As when he says: "One of the most important goals of our writing is to reveal the nature of the writer's mind at work, a process in which the writer wants readers to value the writer's thoroughness, accuracy, and logic, but also the writer's unique way of looking at and understanding the world."

Sentence Length

As when he preaches for variety of sentence length: "...we need to know how to write effective long sentences so we can throw them in and mix them up with all those short sentences. Let's forget that bit of hoo-ha that says a sentence of over forty words is generally ineffective. I don't know who came up with that magic number, and I can't begin to imagine how it was arrived at, but I can tell you that this advice is completely arbitrary, way too simplistic, and it actually discourages some of the skills an effective writer needs to develop."

As when he ends the book with this sentence: "Start writing, keep writing, and find some way to share the gift of your writing with others!"

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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Editors Have Digital on Their Minds

Posted on Thursday, February 27, 2014 at 11:52 PM

We asked our readers to tell us what they dream of for their publications this year.

By William Dunkerley

A recent survey has told us where editors' thoughts and dreams are. They're mostly on digital.

We set out to see what editors want to accomplish before this year ends. We were looking for trends. The small sample we used isn't capable discerning fine distinctions. That said, the results provide a clear answer:

About three quarters of respondents cite digital goals; one quarter have their sights set on improving content quality.

Making Content Accessible

Half of those with digital goals seem focused on mobile readers. Jonathan Shaw, managing editor of Harvard Magazine, put it very succinctly. He wants to get his venerable publication, founded in 1898, "into the hands of readers on tablets and smartphones."

Jim Vick, staff director at IEEE Spectrum, reports, "We have a substantial digital distribution to students -- over 100,000. The open rate among them is dismal. Part of the problem is how we alert students that their monthly issue is available. They get an email from us. That's not an ideal way to communicate with this age demographic who thinks email is something only their parents still do. We will be experimenting with solutions to solve the problem."

At The Ensign magazine, editor Yvonne Hill says, "My main goal is to upgrade our digital presence, making all our offerings more accessible to tablet and smartphone users."


A number of the mobile-interested editors also speak about apps. For example, Marcelle Soviero, editor-in-chief at Brain, Child magazine, explains, "We launched our app last year, but we are still trying to figure out how best to promote it or bundle it with print subscriptions."

Audience Engagement and Circulation

Smaller percentages editors with digital goals cite two other related concerns: engagement/interactivity and circulation.

John Rizzi at Colorado Avid Golfer wants to generate "greater reader and user involvement through new interactive features." Meanwhile, at InformationWeek Government, editor Wyatt Kash is also looking for online engagement. How would he measure that? "By the number and quality of comments we see associated with each of our stories," he explains.

On circulation development, We magazine's editor-in-chief Heidi Richards wants to double readership of the digital edition to 400,000. But Beren Neale at ImagineFX admits he's "looking to discover the magic formula that halts the reduction of print sales and continues to increase digital!"

Other Goals

Then there are the editors who mention not the "D" word, but various quality concerns. Running Times editor-in-chief Jonathan Beverly says, "Our strength is in the depth of reporting and our knowledge of what is important to our core audience. Our social media efforts to date tend, like most, to emphasize news and quick, fun content. I believe we can continue to be fun and attractive while alerting readers to the availability of more depth and highlighting the editorial content that has continued to prove useful for years but can get overlooked in the rush for something new to attract attention."

And we'll end with the sage advice of legendary designer and communications consultant Jan White:

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

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

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The Fog Index

Posted on Thursday, February 27, 2014 at 11:52 PM

Assessing the readability of a Time.com excerpt.

This month, we analyze the Fog Index from a February 21, 2014, article on Time.com ("The Smartphone App Wars Are Over, and Apple Won" by Harry McCracken). Here's the excerpt:

"It would be nutty, of course, to argue that Android's failure to overcome the iOS software advantage means that Apple has nothing to be paranoid about on the app front. But maybe the big scary threat isn't Android. Maybe it's the same one that eventually made Windows less of an inevitable fact of life on the desktop: As cloud-based services got more and more sophisticated, and the business models behind them improved, the apps available for any particular platform stopped mattering that much. Facebook, after all, is Facebook whether you're using it on a Windows machine, a Mac or a Chromebook."

--Word count: 101 words
--Average sentence length: 20 words (30, 8, 19, 26, 18)
--Words with 3+ syllables: 7 percent (7/101 words)
--Fog Index: (20+7)*.4 = 10 (no rounding)

Our goal is to end up with a Fog score below 12, and this sample fits the bill. We could nitpick to try to get the score even lower, or we could focus on what this excerpt gets right. It's more than just the small percentage of longer words and relatively low sentence length. We all could pare our writing down to the barest essentials. We could express ourselves in abrupt sentences while consciously avoiding "big words," but the writer of this excerpt proves that we don't have to. We can write the occasional 30-word sentence. We can use bigger words when the sentence calls for them. If we've done our job as writers, we can keep our writing readable without giving up our unique style.

What say you, editors? Is there anything you would change about the sample to improve the Fog score?

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Forbes.com on Magazines in 2015

Posted on Thursday, February 27, 2014 at 11:52 PM

In the news: A provocative claim from Forbes.com about the future of "tech dinosaurs."

On Thursday, Forbes.com published its predictions for the tech industry in 2015. Among those "tech dinosaurs that will finally die in 2015" are the print magazine and newspaper industries. Kelli Richards writes, "We all know the newspaper and magazine industries are struggling, but 2014 looks to be the year when we drive the final nail in the coffin and bury these struggling industries for good. After J.K. Rowling authorized the release of the Harry Potter series on Amazon's Kindle, the publishing industry essentially crumbled. Major magazines and newspapers started shutting down, and the only holdouts seemed to be textbook publishers."

It's an incendiary claim sure to stir up a lot of debate. The article is already being linked widely on Twitter. Read it here.

Also Notable

Magazine Cover Design

What are some of the key ingredients in effective magazine design? Recently, Slate.com ran an article from the 99 Percent Invisible design blog entitled "Anatomy of a Magazine Cover." The post breaks down the various components of a cover, from the brand name at the top to cover photo selection. It offers up a wide array of sample covers from Time to Mad magazine. Read it here.

More on Magazine Design

Some print publishers are ignoring the digital hype and investing time and money in elaborate design to engage readers. TheGuardian.com recently rounded up some UK print magazines that are creating beautiful, immersive reading experiences with their designs and layouts. John O'Reilly writes that "these magazines are also a result of the possibilities offered by the new technology that was supposed to kill print culture -- they sell and distribute online, they crowdfund, they invent their own business models on the hoof." Read more here.

Adobe Integrates Two Programs

Publishing on multiple platforms can get expensive, so Adobe is doing its part to streamline costs for magazines. This week, the company launched an initiative to integrate Adobe Digital Publishing Suite and Adobe Experience Manager. This will help magazines to simplify their content creation process so that their digital content is accessible via desktop, tablet, and smartphone. Read more about Adobe's new campaign here.

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