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Issue for February 2016

Learning to Procrastinate

Posted on Sunday, February 28, 2016 at 4:02 PM

How setting aside an assignment and returning to it later can make writing better.

By Peter P. Jacobi

A recent Sunday Review section in The New York Times contained a fascinating essay written by Adam Grant, a professor of management and psychology at the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School. It was titled "Step 1: Procrastinate."

"Normally," the good professor wrote, "I would have finished this column weeks ago. But I kept putting it off because my New Year's resolution is to procrastinate more. I guess I owe you an explanation. Sooner or later.

"We think of procrastination as a curse," he continued. "Over 80 percent of college students are plagued by procrastination, requiring epic all-nighters to finish papers and prepare for tests. Roughly 20 percent of adults report being chronic procrastinators. We can only guess how much higher the estimate would be if more of them got around to filling out the survey."

Author Grant went on to explain that he has been quite the opposite, a "pre-crastinator," someone who always seeks to be the early bird. "I believed that anything worth doing was worth doing early." As an example, he pointed to his dissertation, which he had submitted two years in advance.

Now, Adam Grant pointed out, he was striving to change, for the sake of creativity. "Begrudgingly, I acknowledged that procrastination might help."

Hacking Away at Tight Deadlines

What Professor Grant tells us he's trying to do, I've done. I procrastinate. I usually put off the writing as long as I can and then, in recognition of the commonly believed sentiment that journalism is writing history in a hurry, I race through the writing process, endeavoring and almost always meeting the deadline.

In so doing, I find that I've removed all enjoyment from the process. I simply hack away at the task, fully aware that I have no other choice now but to get it done, and fast. How do I feel when finished? Relieved, sure, but also drained and almost unaware of what I've done. I do read the piece over for final corrections, of course, but that task, too, is hurried, impersonal, unsatisfying. And off I go to whatever task is next on my list.

I know in the practice of journalism, particularly newspaper and radio/TV journalism, that a rush very often is necessary: things happen, we report, we write, what we write is published or broadcast, and hurry goes with the task. Our training allows us to accomplish these tasks quickly; all goes with the job.

Savoring Longer Lead Times

But there are opportunities that come along, even when working for a do-it-quick daily production medium, to take on a now-and-then assignment for which we're given or have given ourselves more time. And certainly for a weekly newsletter or a magazine or a special publication of some sort, we get that chance to slow down.

I urge that you do so. It's good for your mental health. Work so that such slowdowns become part of the job and are built into the schedule. "Our first ideas," argues Adam Grant, "are usually our most conventional. Our minds need time to wander." Think wander time. Think think time. Think added information gathering time. Think imagination time. Think creation time. Think play time with ideas and words.

You'll find that wondrous things can and probably have been accomplished. The prose will have been strengthened. The content will have been deepened. The story will have been made more important, more significant, and the whole will have been made more readable.

Time to Procrastinate

And when all that is done, recognize that the project is not yet complete; there's more work to come. But put your masterwork away for a few days, to distance yourself from what you've so far put together. Go on to other need-to-be-done tasks. And then, those couple of days later, take out the manuscript and savor a careful run-through. You'll find fine points and larger issues and writing that require correction or reconsideration, even reconstruction.

Grant, seeking to procrastinate, put his manuscript away for three weeks. "When I came back to it," he said, "I had enough distance to wonder, 'What kind of idiot wrote this garbage?' and rewrote most of it." Often, however, you'll find yourself well pleased with what you did before, just because you availed yourself of a slowdown and engaged in some deep mental and emotional breathing.

Make the assignment a journey. Appreciate the doing and completing of it. You may even refresh yourself, rather than draining. Ponder and procrastinate. I encourage you: When it's possible, slow down what you're doing. Wander time can result in wonder time.

"This is how it works for me," writes Anne Lamott in her classic Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life. "I sit down in the morning and reread the work I did the day before. And then I wool-gather, staring at the blank page or off into space. I imagine my characters, and let myself daydream about them. A movie begins to play in my head, with emotion pulsing underneath it, and I stare at it in a trancelike state, until words bounce around together and form a sentence."

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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"Headlines" Are Now the Headline

Posted on Sunday, February 28, 2016 at 4:01 PM

Which headline-writing techniques are most effective? Do yours measure up?

By William Dunkerley

"You Can't Win If You Don't Play" is an old ad line for lottery tickets. Now in the editorial game there is an equally commonsense corollary: If readers don't click, they won't see the article.

Click on what? The headline, of course. More and more landing pages for online publications give no more than a headline, perhaps accompanied by a visual element, on which readers can base their decision to read or not read an article. That means there's a lot riding on the effectiveness of your headlines.

Attracting Readers

Headlines have always been important. The late Jan V. White, writing in EO for May 2010, offered advice on essentials for writing better headlines. His number one point was this:

"Curiosity is what pulls the casual reader into your story. The display is your best persuasion tool to get them to want to find out more. (The key words here are "to want to.") It often takes several words to define a complex topic and describe what you need to say so it is the honey that draws the bee. Therefore, make heads as long as they need to be to fascinate. Shorter isn't better, no matter what you have taken for journalistic gospel, or what the designer may maintain. Heads aren't just journalism, they are salesmanship."

Traditionally we editors have had little quantitative feedback on how effective our article titles have been. Surveys usually tap into the popularity of an article as a whole. But the specific contribution of the headline has been something that we could only guess at.

Things have long been different in the field of marketing. A-B tests are often conducted to gauge the relative productiveness of two different headlines. Some studies even get down to measuring the respective effectiveness of various headline-writing approaches.

For instance, in "How to Create Advertising That Sells," ad legend David Ogilvy addressed the specific point of headline length. He wrote:

"How many words in a headline? In headline tests conducted with cooperation from a big department store, it was found that headlines of 10 words or longer sold more goods than short headlines. In terms of recall, headlines between 8-and-10 words are most effective. In mail order advertising, headlines between 6-and-12 words get the most coupon returns. On the average, long headlines sell more merchandise than short ones-headlines like our 'At 60 miles an hour, the loudest noise in this new Rolls-Royce comes from the electric clock.'"

So for a long time our marketing cousins have been more pragmatic about headline writing than most publication editors. They've done a lot of testing and have put together a picture of which headlines work and which ones don't.

Expert advertising copywriter Robert Bly opines:

"Many copywriters fall into the trap of believing that clever wordplay, puns, and 'cute' copy make for a good headline. But think a minute. When you make a purchase, do you want to be amused by the salesclerk? Or do you want to know that you're getting quality merchandise at a reasonable price?

"The answer is clear. When you shop, you want products that satisfy your needs -- and your budget. Good copywriters recognize this fact, and put sales appeal -- not cute, irrelevant gimmicks and wordplay -- in their headlines. They know that when readers browse ad headlines, they want to know: 'What's in it for me?'

"The effective headline tells the reader: 'Hey, stop a minute! This is something that you'll want!'"

Now apply that concept to your own headlines. How do they measure up?

Digital Insights

Digital publishing has now given us insights into what headlines readers click on. But still it's hard to ascertain which qualities of a successful headline, i.e., one with a high click rate, contributed to its success.

If you have the capability of doing an A-B test, you can home in on that. Try one head with half your readers and another with the remainder. That will be an acid test.

Chartbeat is a company that specializes in conducting headline tests. Naturally, it highly recommends the idea of conducting headline tests. But a recent Editor & Publisher article reports on observations of Chris Breaux, Chartbeat's data scientist:

"Headlines that used demonstrative adjectives like 'this,' 'that' and 'those' showed significantly higher click through rates and a higher propensity for outperforming other headlines....

"Another interesting finding was that long headlines consistently received a higher click-through rate than shorter headlines, something that seems counterintuitive in the era of Twitter and divided attention spans. Breaux agrees, and notes that editors may have actually gone too far in pushing headlines so short they lack enough details to draw readers into a story....

"Breaux examined the data and found that headlines that contain direct quotes were 14 percent more likely to win a headline test."

So what do you think? Are you ready to start testing headlines?

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

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"Great article -- especially the Ogilvy references to the merit of using lots of words. In the past I have judged several "Best Headline" categories for the American Society of Magazine Editors AZBEE Awards. The following shortfalls seem to be consistent among contest entries: (1) Headline/deck overlap -- identical message conveyed in both elements. Instead, deck should expand upon rather than duplicate headline wording. (2) Fondness with cute expressions, which in many cases may not register with readers. (3) Biggest shortfall of all -- absence of interesting numbers. (4) Limited length -- contrary to the Ogilvy dictate -- because graphic design only allows room for main headlines with three or four words." --Howard Rauch, Editorial Solutions, www.editsol.com.

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The Fog Index

Posted on Sunday, February 28, 2016 at 3:54 PM

Assessing the readability of an excerpt from TheAtlantic.com.

This month's sample text comes from a February 22 article on TheAtlantic.com ("The Spider That Crawls the Dark Web Looking for Stolen Data" by Kaveh Waddel). Here's the excerpt, with longer words italicized:

"Hackers routinely make off with massive hauls of sensitive data by breaking into databases held by government agencies, retailers, hospitals, banks, and just about every other kind of organization. But most intrusions are discovered by a third party rather than the organization that actually lost the data, according to a 2014 report from Verizon. Some network tools detect intrusions, and scrutinizing detailed logs can reveal unauthorized access, but often, an organization won't realize what happened until after a security researcher or a journalist catches wind of the intrusion. If your TV is stolen, it's hard not to notice its conspicuous absence in the living room; if hackers nab data from a server, however, it's not nearly as obvious."

--Word count: 118 words
--Average sentence length: 30 words (29, 25, 34, 30)
--Words with 3+ syllables: 14 percent (17/118 words)
--Fog Index: (30+14)*.4 = 17 (17.6, no rounding)

We need to slash at least 6 points from the Fog Index to fall within ideal range. Our main problem is sentence length, which averages 30 words. Let's see if our edits will be enough to cut the Fog by over one third.

"Hackers routinely steal massive hauls of sensitive data by breaking into databases held by the government, retailers, hospitals, banks, and just about every other kind of organization. But most breaches are exposed by a third party rather than the organization that actually lost the data, according to a 2014 report from Verizon. Some network tools detect breaches, and scrutinizing detailed logs can reveal unauthorized access. But often an organization won't realize what happened until after a researcher or a journalist catches wind of it. If your TV is stolen, it's hard not to notice its conspicuous absence in the living room. If hackers nab data from a server, however, it's not nearly as blatant."

--Word count: 114 words
--Average sentence length: 19 words (27, 25, 13, 19, 17, 13)
--Words with 3+ syllables: 9 percent (10/114 words)
--Fog Index: (19+8)*.4 = 10 (10.8, no rounding)

Sometimes we can home in on one of the two culprits (sentence length or longer words) to cut the Fog. In this case, though, we had to address both to shave off enough points. Four sentences became six, and the percentage of longer words fell by 5 points. All this was enough to cut the needed 6 points from the original Fog Index.

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2016 American Magazine Media Conference

Posted on Sunday, February 28, 2016 at 3:53 PM

In the news: Earlier this month, magazine executives gathered to discuss the issues of the day.

Alexandra Steigrad of WWD.com asks some important questions in the opener for a February 5 piece: "What is a magazine today? Is it a brand? Is it one element of a multiplatform media company? Or is it a vestige of a struggling print industry that will soon be replaced by digital and social media content?" Magazine executives set out to examine these issues and more at the American Magazine Media Conference earlier this month.

Among those challenges discussed were reaching Millennial readers, the continued merging of editorial and advertorial with native content, seizing on the meteoric rise of social media app Snapchat, and media consolidation. Read more here.

Also Notable

Turning a Magazine into a TV Show

What do you get when you mix a magazine brand with a TV show? There's no punchline here; The New Yorker has done just that with its new Amazon series, The New Yorker Presents. Scott Meslow of TheWeek.com writes describes it as "series that tries for an almost alchemical purity in its efforts to make a video screen feel like a magazine page. The opening credits are an animated riff on the magazine's famous covers. From there, the series immediately cuts to a 'table of contents,' complete with headlines and bylines. It also includes the time at which each particular segment begins, in case you'd like to skip to a specific story like you'd flip to a page in a magazine." Meslow goes on to discuss how the show is part of an industry-wide reimagining of what a magazine is. Read more here.

Yahoo Shutters Multiple Digital Magazines

Yahoo has announced plans to shutter several of its digital publications. According to a February 17 Techcrunch.com piece by Matthew Lynley, the content verticals were underperforming. The closures signal larger potential changes in store for the tech company, which is rumored to be going up for sale. Read more here.

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