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Issue for February 2020

Content That Annoys Readers

Posted on Thursday, February 27, 2020 at 3:03 PM

Is your content aversive to your readers? If you don’t know, perhaps the time has come to ask.

By William Dunkerley

Beware, your content has two sides to it -- one intended, the other unintended.

Creating interesting and engaging content is a pretty universal objective of editors. Providing articles that will attract new readers is important too. Copy that pleases is an easy goal to understand and focus on.

The other side of the coin is copy that annoys readers. We don't set out to do that. But sometimes it happens. What's the result? Some annoyed readers will write to complain. Others just silently don't renew if they get really annoyed or are continually disappointed. Neither is a desired outcome.

Survey Says

Typically when we conduct surveys we test for content that readers value most. Rarely do we ask what annoys them. Therefore, our sense of what readers want is more acute than that of what rubs them the wrong way.

Last month in our sister publication STRAT (a newsletter of print and online publishing strategy), we asked the question "Do Readers Hate Your Ads?" The article addressed the topic of ads that cause an aversive reaction. There are a number of in-vogue advertising practices that elicit negative reactions. The term we coined for this is Aversive Advertising Syndrome (AAS).

In response we heard from noted editorial expert Howard Rauch, president of Editorial Solutions. He commented:

"To a certain extent, this interesting discussion could apply to what we might identify as Aversive Editorial Syndrome (AES). This exists in those cases where advertising hooks dictate editorial content coverage -- often to the degree where topics with clearly high reader takeaway value get lost in the shuffle. I often find AES examples in print and online news sections due to an emphasis on vendor-first news priority."

That provided the stimulus for this article.

Balancing Reader and Advertiser Needs

Rauch’s comment relates to content selection. Many editors experience pressure from their ad departments to carry content that will help them sell ads.

Take for instance a magazine intended for plumbers. There might be a lot of ad money out there from companies that sell new or replacement faucets. Naturally your ad sales team will be interested in capturing a good share of that money. Being able to show a prospective advertiser that your coverage includes lots of articles about faucets might help interest the advertisers in your magazine. It might clinch a sale in the view of the ad guys.

Editors certainly recognize their vested interested in having their publications succeed financially and that ad sales are fundamentally a good thing. But there is a real conflict here. What if faucets are not a high-interest topic for readers? Too much coverage will appear to them as editorial clutter. It is content not in sync with their important interests. Even worse, the undesired content may be edging out what they're really looking for in your publication. All this can be potentially very disappointing and even annoying. Hence AES appears.

Identifying Annoying Content

So what content might be annoying your readers? In the absence of specific research data, we can only speculate. Where to start? Perhaps it can be informative to consider the kinds of things that annoy consumers in general. Best Life magazine did an article on that titled "50 Things You Do Every Day That Annoy Other People." Here are a few of the examples given:

--Looking at your phone when you're talking to someone in person

--Tapping your feet

--Talking at the movies

--Eating loudly

--Typing in all caps

We asked around for some anecdotal evidence of publication content that annoys. Here are the examples we were given:

--Content that is off topic. If you subscribe to a magazine about electrical engineering, too many articles about investment opportunities can be too much.

--Articles that sound like they were written by a PR agency. You can spot them by their overriding promotional tone.

--Product or entertainment review articles that sound like a commercial. Too much hype.

--A lack of clarity when describing a process.

--Explanations about something new that mistakenly presume previous knowledge.

--Articles that present nothing new -- just same old stuff.

--Recommendations that don't pan out and instead turn out to be impractical or misleading.

--Consumer product reviews that feature only high-end products with no budget alternatives.

--Online comments from wackos.

--A pet aversive reaction of my own arose with a local newspaper I used to read. It was prone to running the same story twice in the same edition. It didn't happen every day or even every week, but it was frequently enough to notice that it was a common goof. Most readers probably weren't bothered. But as an editor myself I recognized it as a symptom of sloppy editorial control.

There's another point in that little vignette: What is aversive for one person may not be a problem for others. In a larger sense, what bothers readers in the content theme of one publication may be okay in another.

The solution to Aversive Editorial Syndrome is to find out what potentially irritates your readers. We're always concerned about covering the hot-button issues that concern our readers. Recognition of possible AES should lead us to find out what the hot-button turn-offs are.

Perhaps your next reader survey should include the question "Honestly, what is the top thing about our content that annoys or disappoints you?" The answers may be an eye-opener.

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

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A Guide for Writers

Posted on Thursday, February 27, 2020 at 3:03 PM

How offering formal guidance to your staff and freelancers may improve your publication’s content.

By Denise Gable

How much guidance do you give to those who write for your publication? The articles many of us publish may be written by staff members or by outside authors. Staff writers generally know what kind of article is expected from them. Quite often publications provide outside writers with an outline of the submission process.

Less attention seems to be paid to offering guidance on how to compose an article. How to write an article is left to the writer. The presumption is that a writer should know how to write an article.

That might not be the best assumption in all cases, though. Even experienced writers can become caught up in cranking out copy and lose sight of what rightfully should be a methodical approach toward its creation. Offering formal guidance to staff and outside writers alike could actually improve the quality of the written product that you get.

What to Do?

Many books have been written on how to write articles. Just enter "how to write an article" in Amazon's search bar and you'll find more books than you'd want to count. They cover all kinds of articles for all kinds of purposes. Many, however, are aimed at freelancers, advising them on how to get their articles published.

There is quite a variety of approaches. For instance, titles include everything from “How to Write an Article within 5 to 10 Minutes!” to “Writing Your Journal Article in Twelve Weeks.”

Only some of the books go into helpful detail on the process of writing. One book that does is How to Write Articles for Newspapers and Magazines by Dawn B. Sova. Here is the table of contents from her book:

--Getting Started
--Gathering Information
--Writing the Effective Article Lead
--Building an Effective Foundation
--Creating Invisible Transitions
--Choosing the Right Word(s)
--Description: Creating Images for Readers
--Using Quotations Wisely
--Editing the Article Successfully
--The Final Version

A Detailed Formula

Longtime Editors Only author Peter P. Jacobi cautions us that a methodical process of writing is needed for best results. He warns against a "rush" process just to get the job done.

Jacobi says, "Rush results from one or the other of two emotional approaches to writing. One approach is to avoid writing your story by putting the task off until the last possible moment, which leads to your completing the assignment in a rush to meet the deadline. The other is to get the writing done as quickly as possible because you want to get it out of the way, leading you to rush the task, thereby freeing you to get on to other tasks."

According to Jacobi, this occurs from either momentarily forgetting or momentarily ignoring what one already knows about writing. "It's a process. A process requires time. It requires care and method," he adds.

Jacobi advises that the writing process includes eight steps, "none of which should be overlooked," he admonishes.

The Jacobi Process

Step 1

You need an idea, a subject that you feel needs to be done or that, for a legitimate reason, you want to do. Have an idea clearly in your mind before you move forward. Everything that follows will be easier because the right idea sets the right course.

Step 2

Think carefully about your reader and how, to best serve him or her, you should apply the idea and have it come to fruitful life. Make sure the idea fits the wants and/or needs of your reader.

Step 3
Tie Idea and Reader

Take an additional step; strive to tie idea and reader together, this by fashioning a concept, meaning a more specific subject, an idea narrowed into a circumscribed and focused topic, one you think is tailor-made for that reader of yours.

Step 4
Gather Information

Do your information gathering, your reporting, your researching, your observing, your experiencing, your interviewing. The more thoughtfully and thoroughly you gather, the more useful information you'll have to choose from, thereby potentially giving the reader a better, richer, more complete product.

Step 5

Study the material you've gathered. Determine content. Decide what to use and how to use it. Select in what's interesting and important and will develop the story's purpose. Select out what's not and won't.

Step 6

Design your article-to-be. Give it an architecture, a form, a shape, a structure. Work for sense of direction and informational flow.

Step 7

Only then at that point, write.

Step 8

Test what you've written for correctness, clarity, concision, cohesion, completeness, and communicative comfort. Test it with eyes and ears. Help yourself by reading the copy aloud, that way to better catch what's wrong or weak.

The process consists of eight steps.

--Don't skip.

--Don't shortchange.

What's Next?

If you are already providing writers with detailed guidance, you may be all set. If not, however, it might be time to start. A "Guidance for Writers" sheet may be just what's needed. It can be instructive for the relatively inexperience writer. And it can be a helpful reminder for the old pros: both those on your staff and your outside authors.

Denise Gable is managing editor of Editors Only.

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The Fog Index

Posted on Thursday, February 27, 2020 at 3:03 PM

Assessing the readability of a Wired.com excerpt.

This month’s Fog Index text comes from a February 26 article on Wired.com (“The Next Generation of Batteries Could Be Built by Viruses” by Daniel Oberhaus). Here’s the excerpt , with longer words in italics:

“Nature has found plenty of ways to build useful structures out of inorganic materials without the help of viruses. Belcher’s favorite example is the abalone shell, which is highly structured at the nanoscale, lightweight, and sturdy. Over the process of tens of millions of years, the abalone evolved so that its DNA produces proteins that extract calcium molecules from the mineral-rich aquatic environment and deposit it in ordered layers on its body. The abalone never got around to building batteries, but Belcher realized this same fundamental process could be implemented in viruses to build useful materials for humans.”

--Word count: 98 words
--Average sentence length: 25 words (19, 17, 36, 26)
--Words with 3+ syllables: 18 percent (18/93 words)
--Fog Index (25+18)* .4 = 17 (17.2, no rounding)

The Fog Index of 17 is quite high, a full 6 points above an ideal score. The problem is twofold: there’s a high number of longer words, and we have 98 words split into just 4 sentences. Let’s see if we can rework the text to cut through some of the Fog.

“Nature has found plenty of ways to build useful structures out of inorganic substances without the help of viruses. Belcher’s favorite example is the abalone The sea snail’s shell is highly structured at the nanoscale, lightweight, and sturdy. Over tens of millions of years, the abalone evolved so that its DNA produces proteins that extract calcium molecules from the mineral-rich marine environment. Then they deposit them in ordered layers on its body. The abalone never got around to building batteries, but Belcher realized this same basic process could be applied to viruses to build useful resources for humans.”

--Word count: 95 words
--Average sentence length: 16 words (19, 6, 13, 24, 10, 26)
--Words with 3+ syllables: 13 percent (13/98 words)
--Fog Index (16+13)* .4 = 11 (11.6, no rounding)

We had our work cut out for us. The text presents important scientific facts that are tough to edit. Some longer words aren’t easily swapped or edited out because they encapsulate key ideas. But we were able to split up two of the longer sentences to bring down the sentence length by 9 points, which went a long way in cutting through the Fog.

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Updates on California’s Freelancer Law

Posted on Thursday, February 27, 2020 at 3:02 PM

In the news: Under fire, California is looking to revise its new independent contractor law to accommodate freelance journalists.

Last month’s changes to California’s freelancing law reverberated throughout the publishing industry. Freelancers who created more than 35 “submissions” per year faced unemployment and/or diminished gig prospects as the media companies they worked for scrambled to comply. Several freelancer organizations sued the state of California in an attempt to overturn parts of the law particularly damaging to the gig workers they represent.

Earlier this month, Kerry Flynn of CNN Business reported that California assembly member Lorena Gonzalez announced plans to lift the 35-submission cap to alleviate the burden on journalists and photographers. Read more here.

Also Notable

Female Reporters and Editors Band Together to Change Leave Policy

Recently, Mel Grau of Poynter.org told the story of six reporters and editors at the Boston Globe who banded together in 2017 to change the company’s family leave policy. “The women weren’t work wives or best friends,” writes Grau. “They were just colleagues who felt strongly that for newsrooms to survive and thrive, they needed to create an environment where women could advance in leadership.” Two years later, in 2019, their efforts finally paid off and the company overhauled its family leave policy. Read the full story here.

Paywalls: Evolving Strategies

These days, readers are running into new magazine and newspaper paywalls all the time. This week, Beth Braverman of Foliomag.com rounds up some of the more recent examples. This month, Women’s Wear Daily, the New Republic, and Fortune have started paywalling their online content. While Fortune will continue to offer some free content, the magazine will offer a lot of its content at three different subscription levels, Braverman reports. She also notes that the New Republic’s paywall is metered and that Women’s Wear Daily will take the “dynamic paywall” approach. Read more here.

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