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Issue for March 2011

Endings To Remember

Posted on Tuesday, March 29, 2011 at 2:07 PM

Conclusions are just as important as the leads.

By Peter P. Jacobi

We haven't dealt with endings for a while. They're important, unless you're writing a news story in inverted pyramid structure and that sort of meanders away, your having stacked the critical information up high and then the rest of the material in descending order of value.

Endings wind up. They may also sum up or leave tantalizing questions for the reader to ponder. They may engender future action on the part of the reader, or so is the hope of the writer. They may simply be stop-action material, needed because the writer has to call a halt somewhere in the proceedings, even though the life or the event or the situation pursued in the story rolls right along without stopping.

A quote, an observation, dialogue, an anecdote, a descriptive vignette, an informational repeat, or a coalescing point may serve as means to an end. Your task is to determine the appropriate means, depending on the tenor of the story, its purported purpose for a chosen audience, and what you have provided in content and attitude during the unfolding of the story.

In other words, the end should suit what came before. It should not be a mere tag or verbal toy but a meaningful conclusion. It should be a natural part of the story's weave.

Ending with a Quote

Take this summarizing quote in a USA Today article, "Ideas pour in to help BP handle Gulf oil spill." Writer Brian Winter, after covering the flood of suggestions that concerned folks have sent in for BP to consider, tell us: "The offers of help don't always center on cutting edge technology. Sister Jenna Mahraj, director of the Brahma Kumaris, a spiritual organization with roots in India, is calling on her supporters to hold a minute of silence every hour to 'express our well wishes toward the Gulf. The power of pure thinking can accomplish many things,' she said. 'And every little bit helps.'"

The quote draws the story to a satisfactory conclusion.

The Ending Ends the Article, but not the Story

Shawn LaFraniere's in-depth story for The New York Times, "Hidden Misery: A Glimpse into North Korea, Tales of Hardship and the Toll of a Failed Policy," emphasizes the isolation of that nation's people. As the article unfolds, we discover that some citizens are beginning to break their silence in questioning the country's long standing regime and leader Kim Jong-Il. One woman recalls her sister's most recent visit and whispered comment, "People follow him because of fear, not because of love."

LaFraniere then writes: "Since the currency devaluation, she and others say, people are noticeably bolder with such comments. "Now, if you go to the market, people will say anything,' the construction worker said. 'They will say the government is a thief - even in broad daylight.'

"His wife was not among them. For weeks after the devaluation, he said, she lay on a living-room floor mat, immobilized by depression. 'I had no strength to say anything to her,' he said.

"Finally, he told her to get up. It was time to start over."

The ending sheds light through a family's experience and its aftermath, which is still ongoing.

Leave the Reader with Something to Think About

Time magazine's cover package, "The Problem with Football - Our favorite sport is too dangerous. How to make the game safer," ranges across the medical and psychological waterfront. The coverage ends with a second story authored by Buzz Bissinger, creator of the TV series Friday Night Lights. He concludes with this admonishing paragraph:

"There should be an ambulance at every high school game. There should be trainers. But don't bet on it, as school districts cry a lack of money. Kids will continue to suffer serious head injuries. Kids will continue to become paralyzed because they never learned how to properly tackle, with their heads up. The game's violence will continue because that's exactly why we like it, our gladiatorial lust still intact 16 centuries after the Romans. The bigger the hit, the greater the roar."

We're given something to think about and, perhaps, also a push to take action.

Descriptive Narrative

Virginia Morell's study for National Geographic of New Guinea's bower birds, "Build It, and they will come," finishes up with a mating situation, with a male the naturalists have named Donald hoping that a female they call Mary, or perhaps another bird, will come to him. Donald is waiting at his tower.

Says one of the scientists: "I'd guess that wasn't her first visit at Donald's. And I'd bet she'll be back." Writer Morell follows with: "Perhaps Donald thinks so, too. Or perhaps he hopes another Mary will come. Either way, he doesn't dither but gets to work again. He tucks his party crest away and putters around the base of his tower, carrying off bits of broken moss and twigs. He rearranges the nuts and straightens up his beetle pile. As a last touch, he adjusts the garlands of caterpillar feces. He steps back and eyes the whole structure, deciding, it seems, that the tower is ready for another visitation. Then Donald jumps back on his perch and starts the song again. Rat-a-tat-tat, he calls. Rat-a-tat-tat."

A descriptive narrative has served to bring this story to a close.

Choose what works for you and your story.

Which leads me to a final point: Leads have reasons for being, the big one being to cause the reader to enter the story. Endings should cause that reader to remember the reading.

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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Posted in Writing (RSS)

The 4 Cs of Effective Writing

Posted on Tuesday, March 29, 2011 at 2:07 PM

Direct marketing writer offers tips that can be adapted by editors.

By Robert W. Bly

I confess: I love copywriting formulas! Why? For two reasons.

First, the best formulas are simple, easy to remember, and rapidly mastered. Knowing them can enable you to create copy that's twice as effective -- in half the time.

Second, the reason they became formulas in the first place is that they work.

Old-timers like me know there are literally dozens of time-tested copywriting formulas. Yet most of today's newbie copywriters have only heard of that handful, and have mastered even fewer.

Why is that bad? Because if you don't know all the formulas, you could unnecessarily be wasting your time reinventing the wheel each time you write. You also could be writing inferior copy that diminishes your impact.

I'd like to share a copywriting formula I use -- one of my own invention. I call it the "secret of the four Cs." It says that every good piece of copy is: clear, concise, compelling, and credible. Let's take a look at each element of the four Cs formula in a bit more detail.


What you write must be clear. Not just to you or to your colleagues or bosses, but also to your ultimate audience, the readers.

Ralph Waldo Emerson defines clarity in this way: "It is not enough to write so that you can be understood. You must write so that you can not be misunderstood."

The typical advice given to writing classes about clarity is to use small words, short sentences, and short paragraphs. This is sensible advice. Breaking up long text into sensibly organized sections, each with their own headings, also helps.

But clear writing stems primarily from clear thinking, and the converse also is true. If you don't really understand what you are talking about, your writing will be weak, rambling, and obtuse. On the other hand, when you understand your subject matter, know your audience, and have a useful and important idea you want to convey, the clarity of your writing inevitably reflects your well-thought-out idea.


Now, you may be thinking that "concise" might apply to other types of writing, but not to yours, because your audience favors long copy.

But concise and brief are not synonyms. "Brief" means "short." If you want to be brief, you simply cut words until you reduce the composition to the word count desired.

"Concise" means telling the complete story in the fewest possible words. In my direct response work, copy is long because, to make a sale or generate a qualified lead, we often have to convey a lot of information. But in good direct response copy, we convey that information in the fewest possible words --- no rambling, no redundancy, no needless repetition, no using three words when one will do.


It is not enough that copy is easy to read. It must be so interesting, engaging, and informative that the reader cannot put it down -- or at a minimum, feels compelled to skim the text to glean the important points.

A major reason so much copy is not compelling is it is written about things that interest the writer, not the reader. In marketing, the marketer is interested in his product, his organization, and, in particular, his "messaging" -- key points he wants to get across to the reader.

Unfortunately, the reader is not interested in any of these things. The reader is more interested in the reader -- his problems, needs, fears, concerns, worries, challenges, and desires.

As copywriter Don Hauptmann often said, the more your copy focuses on the prospect instead of the product, the more compelling it will be. The product is only relevant in so far as it addresses one of the reader's core concerns or desires.


Copywriter Herschel Gordon Lewis has noted that we live in an age of skepticism: Simply put, prospects are disinclined to believe what you say precisely because you are trying to sell them something.

Fortunately, there are a number of useful tools for building your credibility and overcoming reader skepticism.

One way to do this is by publishing a lot of content. Prospects are distrustful of advertising, but somewhat more trusting of information sources such as websites, white papers, and magazine articles.

[Editor's Note: Unlike marketers, as a publication editor your copy is usually accorded a presumption of credibility that others must work hard to achieve. Your challenge is not to achieve credibility, but to avoid losing it. That loss can happen through practices such as publishing articles that court advertiser favor rather than satisfy reader needs, offering advocacy (sometimes paid advocacy) in the guise of journalism, or otherwise abrogating your responsibility to serve reader needs and interests.]

Bob Bly is a freelance copywriter and the author of more than 75 books, including The White Paper Marketing Handbook (Rancom). You can find him on the Web at www.bly.com, email him at rwbly@bly.com, or phone 201-385-1220. He also writes for Target Marketing Magazine, where the original version of this article appeared.

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Posted in Writing (RSS)

Common Spelling and Grammar Issues

Posted on Tuesday, March 29, 2011 at 2:07 PM

Are these culprits killing your writing?

Occasionally, a spelling, typographical, or grammatical error creeps into a published article. It happens despite our best editorial efforts. But when we are unaware of certain rules of grammatical engagement, our writing becomes habitually sloppy -- and we are unequipped to track down the offenders and fix them. Let's discuss a few common issues.

The "Plural Apostrophe"

All too often, writers use apostrophes to make certain words plural. With some rare exceptions (e.g., the Chicago and AP style guides recommend, to varying degrees, inserting an apostrophe to make single letters plural to avoid confusion -- like "straight A's"), this should not happen.

How often have you seen something like this in print: "The family had three TV's in the house" or "There were eight RN's working in the emergency room last night"? Apostrophes don't make names, acronyms, or other words plural, so the correct plural acronyms are "TVs" and "RNs."


-The last two CEOs were Wharton School graduates.


-The Kline's vacation with us every summer.

Id est vs. exempli gratia

Sometimes, even the most seasoned writers confuse these two expressions, which are abbreviated as "i.e." and "e.g." Their English definitions reveal their purposes in a sentence: "i.e." (id est) means "that is," and "e.g." (exempli gratia) means "for example."


-The smallest U.S. state (i.e., Rhode Island) is approximately 1/425th the size of the largest (i.e., Alaska).
-Many words break the "i before e, except after c" rule -- e.g., weird, feign, science, etc.


-The happiest place on earth, e.g., Disneyworld, is located in Florida.
-Many stores sell men's ties -- i.e., Macy's, Target, J.C. Penney, and others.

Make sure to follow both abbreviations with a comma.

Dangling Participles

In our November 2010 issue, we discussed the common misuse of participial phrases by both seasoned and amateur writers. This construction leaves the door wide open for dangling participles, so it is important to avoid infesting our writing with these syntactic pests.


-After studying for three hours, he felt confident that he would ace the test.
-Jaded by past betrayals, she was skeptical of most people.


-While waiting for the bus, the car swerved to miss her.
-Hoping to start a new life overseas, his flight to London left in two weeks.

As you can see in the incorrect examples, the participial verbs don't link up with the subjects of the main clauses. The car is not waiting for the bus, and his flight is not hoping to start a new life overseas.

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Posted in Grammar (RSS)

Byline Inequality?

Posted on Tuesday, March 29, 2011 at 2:07 PM

In the news: Is there a significant gap between the number of male and female bylines in magazines?

The publishing industry is taking great leaps forward as it adopts tablet and smartphone technology. But, according to some editors, it is still decades behind in terms of gender equality, and there is research to support this. Recently, Vida, an organization for women in the literary arts, published a series of pie charts showing the discrepancy between male and female bylines in various magazines in 2010. Harper's published articles by 25 women and 94 men. The New Yorker published articles by 163 women and 449 men.

So why the discrepancy? Some writers and editors claim this inequality plagues the entire magazine industry. The available numbers do little to disprove this. So are editorial managers giving preference to male writers? Are fewer females submitting work? A recent New York Magazine article online explores the implications of the recent findings. Read more.

Also notable:

Mounting E-book Popularity

One might argue that the book industry has made the most successful transition to digital publishing thus far. Some predict that, inside of five years, e-books will overtake print book sales. With sales skyrocketing (164 percent growth last year) and portable digital readers flying off shelves, it would appear that there's no turning back for books. But not so fast. Print books still account for a majority of book sales, and adoption of digital technology is an expensive undertaking for publishers. Read more.

Surveys on the Skids?

Joan Lewis, a research executive at Procter & Gamble, has predicted that, by 2020, social media will be the research tool of choice instead of traditional surveys. Because social media is interactive, she foresees a shift away from more rigid research methods like the survey. Read more.

Magazine Redesigns in the News

Both Newsweek and The New York Times Magazine have undergone editorial redesigns. Read writer and editor Andrew Losowsky's take here.

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Posted in News (RSS)

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