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Issue for March 2014

Unraveling Magazine-Making Essentials

Posted on Monday, March 31, 2014 at 10:42 AM

Tips on simplifying your content for today's audience.

By Jan V. White

All of us professional wordsmiths and visualizers are justifiably proud of what we do. Some of us even get awards. I submit with deepest respect that that is all very nice, but it is a side issue. Good writing is great, but so what? Exciting graphics is fun, but so what? We aren't dream factories!

The sad reality is that our product only exists to be sold. To be sold it must be wanted. No, not just wanted, but needed. Therefore, we must turn around our thinking. We have to stop fashioning our product as though it were a wonderful object that we present to them, hoping it'll find favor. Instead, we must know our investors' purposes and needs so that we can cobble a product that they deem worth buying. What we call "value" and think to be terrific, they judge as "return on investment." Furthermore, it had better jump out at you and bite you on the nose, or else!

A magazine is a complicated product. If they don't notice their ROI at first glance, they'll skip it. We must think always about them, never only just about us. Alas and welladay, the good old pre-TV days when Time, Life, Look, and SatEvePost were indispensable artforms are long gone! (Yes, they were considered to be artforms.) Now we have to be drably utilitarian. Be realistic and SIMPLIFY!

The Clearer and Faster, the Better

--Know the reason-for-publishing (for them, not for you).
--In display, promise (tout) personal benefit.
--Get on with it. Cut verbose introductions, backgrounds, duplications.
--Less is more: when in doubt, leave it out.
--Scrap wordy words, crop pix to expose the point.

The Function of Editing Is to Edit

--Remember that it's for them, so think speed, directness, immediacy, clarity.
--Don't waste space on anything that is not essential.
--Ask "So what?" in heads. If "So nothing," redefine point of the piece.
--You can't write too short!
--Explain vividly. Fuse, blend words with images and presentation.

Use Techniques That Work

--Interpret and expose first-glance value of the message clearly.
--Don't lay out to impress or startle, but tabulate for easy overview.
--Expose value of each element in generous magic white space.
--Construct pages out of bite-size chunks.
--Let the story's content speak for itself. Gussying up isn't needed.

Make the Most of the Object

--Control the whole instead of its bits and pieces.
--Combine stories into a deliberate processional sequence.
--Handle each unit as a single component of a consistent visual whole.
--Display pictures across page-tops and on outsides of pages.
--Align sideways from page to tie pages together.

Jan V. White is author of the classic Editing by Design, Third Edition (Allworth Press, available on Amazon). Eight of his other books are now in the public domain and available for free at http://openlibrary.org/books. He may be reached at janvw2@aol.com.

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Be Generous with Detail

Posted on Monday, March 31, 2014 at 10:42 AM

Present information that you've gathered to stimulate reader interest.

By Peter P. Jacobi

Successful paragraphs/passages/segments/parcels in articles require heavy-duty work. To write them so that potential readers care enough to actually read what you've prepared demands prior thought and preparation. It calls for information gathering. It begs for details.

I've chosen several excerpts for you to peruse, so to arouse consideration about what, besides good writing, it took to realize them.

Dateline: Moore, Oklahoma

From The New York Times, May 27, 2013, a story by Michael Shear:

"...Mr. Obama took a brief walk through the remains of what once was a thriving suburb south of Oklahoma City. American flags, flapping in the stiff winds of the warm spring day, were among the rubble.

"But the piles also contained reminders of the lives torn apart by winds that topped 200 miles per hour as the twister cut a roughly 20-mile path of destruction through town.

"There were 2012 yearbooks from the Plaza Towers School and a workbook titled 'Jamal's Surprise.' There were several waterlogged encyclopedias and a pink baby doll stroller. In another pile was a purple plastic toy camcorder and a child's pink parka. Every few feet, crumpled cars blocked the way, and twisted metal littered yards that once had lawns. The only trees remaining had no bark and no leaves."

The writer spotted particulars in the rubble that made devastation specific, that addressed lives interrupted and possibly lost, that spelled tragedy, that carefully put the President into another consoler-in-chief moment. To pass along such an experience, a reporter must search for the details that travel readily and clearly from a distant scene to the printed page and the reader's eyes, mind, and heart. Shear did so, not by overplaying his hand as collector of facts but by selecting from his notes sufficient details to frame a circumscribed picture of human grief, one scoped large enough for a far-off reader to grasp and understand what had happened in Moore but not so large as to emotionally overwhelm him or her. The power of details.

Family Time

A column in National Geographic Traveler, prepared for the June/July 2013 issue by Laura Willard, is a short one about "Kids Go 'Round the World in Balboa Park." She recommends:

"1. Jump on a century-old carousel, with original European hand-carved animals, for a five-minute whirl. 2. See how your face changes as you age, and peer through a microscope at real human cells at the Reuben H. Fleet Science Center.... 8. Enjoy a free concert from one of the largest outdoor pipe organs in the world at the Spreckels Organ Pavilion on Sundays."

Willard's list of ten activities that a family can enjoy at inviting Balboa Park has been thoughtfully collected and then ever-so-briefly but specifically offered to the magazine's travel-enthused readers. If San Diego is a possible destination, those readers who choose to go there now have ten things to do while spending time with family (or alone) in that famous preserve. The writing took very little time, I'd guess, but the information took care and time to gather. Without that information, of course, there is no column worth reading. The power of details.

Dateline: Dhaka, Bangaladesh

From USA Today, May 17–19, 2013, a story by Calum MacLeod focused first on 20-year-old Sheuli Akhter, a garment worker:

"Her mother, Ranjana, was found recently sobbing near the rubble of the Rana Plaza factory where her daughter worked, days after the eight-story complex collapsed and killed 1,127 people. Viewing dozens of corpses a day, Ranjana ... still hoped her daughter had somehow survived and would join her for the 10-hour bus journey back to their village.

"The victims retrieved daily from the debris were crushed and unrecognizable in the South Asian heat.

"'I am looking for her body, but they are all decomposed now. It's getting harder to identify,' says Ranjama, tears falling from her eyes."

MacLeod located a mother still seeking but coming to realize that her daughter is among the victims. He used that mother-daughter tragedy as a humanizing detail to get at the message he sought to impart to his readers, which comes in the paragraph that followed:

"The scale of the mismanagement and breadth of the human tragedies in Bangladesh powerfully illustrated to the world in an instant what years of abuse, inhumane conditions and unthinkable danger could not: The workers in Third World countries take enormous risks and desperate measures to earn a living in Bangladeshi-owned companies that produce clothing for Western retailers.

"At the end of this global production line stand millions of American shoppers whose favorite companies and brands ... use Bangladesh as a launching pad for the goods consumers crave."

The human detail tells, shows, and sells the point that the reporter is striving to make: we're helping to sustain a system that causes the sort of tragedy we're suddenly sad about, so what are we -- individually and collectively -- ready to do, if anything, to bring about change? The power of detail.

Return Engagement

The New Yorker's eminent music critic, Alex Ross, wrote in the June 10, 2013, issue of the magazine about the return-from-injury appearance of conductor James Levine with the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra. Here is his opening paragraph:

"At the beginning of the Prelude to Wagner's 'Lohengrin,' an A-major triad, evoking the Holy Grail, swells gently in the violins, oboes, and flutes, with four solo violinists playing silvery harmonics. For the orchestra, it is a scarily exposed moment: the violins must maintain purity of intonation in a high register, while the winds must materialize before the audience's ears, with no audible splutter of attack. The musicians of the Metropolitan Opera, performing the Prelude at the outset of a concert on May 19th at Carnegie Hall, had no trouble meeting those requirements. But the sonority had an uncommon aura -- something of the magical quality that Charles Baudelaire, in his 1861 essay on Wagner, described as a 'wide diffusion of light,' an 'immensity with no other décor but itself.' Moreover, the chord seemed to be in motion, like a crystal turning in space as light shone through it. Wagner, whose 200th birthday arrived three days later, could not have asked for a lovelier gift, in whatever region of the hereafter he may be found."

Ross ascribed that moment in performance to conductor Levine, back after a two-year absence. "Perhaps," he noted, "the musicians would have sounded the same if another conductor had been on the podium, but I doubt that the playing would have had such extreme concentration, such meditative intensity."

This critic, of course, brings to all his assignments ears attuned to every note, bar, accent, solo responsibility, and ensemble development. That's an inherent and trained part of talent he contributes to his job of evaluating music, and he can follow through, fortunately, with intelligent writing that makes the case. But look at the knowledge that peeks through, thanks to material he chose to construct his paragraph and what follows: of score, of instrumental capabilities, of Wagner, of "Lohengrin," of James Levine, of the Met Orchestra. Some of that knowledge has become a given for Ross; he has it at his beck and call. But his research must have included going back to the score and also hunting up historic details about Wagner and "Lohengrin" (the Baudelaire quote, for instance). Ross obviously knew what he needed to prove his argument. The power of detail.

I have at least five more examples that I wanted to use in this month's column, but I've run out of space. Detail is a subject worth recycling. I will again. In the meantime, don't stint on detail. Be generous. Don't overwhelm, but be generous. Be wisely selective, but be generous.

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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The Fog Index

Posted on Monday, March 31, 2014 at 10:42 AM

Assessing the readability of a Wired.com excerpt.

This month, we calculate the Fog score of an excerpt from a March 27 Wired.com article ("With Office for iPad, Microsoft Kills Its Old Ideology" by Ryan Tate). Here's the text:

"Now Microsoft finds itself backed into a corner. By trying to use its apps to protect its operating system, it destroyed the relevance of both. In the world of mobile devices -- a category that already overshadows PCs -- Microsoft's selling virtually no operating systems even as Office has been withheld from the only app markets that matter, those run by Apple and Google. Officially speaking, Microsoft claims it held back Office for iPad not for strategic reasons but to make it work better, to integrate better with Microsoft's developer interfaces and web services."

--Word count: 91 words
--Average sentence length: 23 words (8, 17, 36, 30)
--Words with 3+ syllables: 12 percent (11/91 words)
--Fog Index: (23+12)*.4 = 14 (no rounding)

This excerpt is in good shape, but the Fog Index is on the high side. We need to get it below 12 for prime readability. Let's see what we can do:

"Now Microsoft finds itself backed into a corner. By protecting its operating system with its apps, it destroyed the relevance of both. Mobile devices already overshadow PCs. Microsoft's selling virtually no operating systems, even as Office has been withheld from the only app markets that matter, Apple and Google. Microsoft claims it held back Office for iPad not for strategic reasons but to make it work better with Microsoft's developer interfaces and web services."

--Word count: 74 words
--Average sentence length: 15 words (8, 14, 5, 22, 25)
--Words with 3+ syllables: 11 percent (8/74 words)
--Fog Index: (15+11)*.4 = 10 (no rounding)

We were able to pare down the word count considerably in this sample (from 91 to 74 words). This helped to bring down the average sentence length and to delete some longer words. Our edits brought the Fog score down by nearly a third.

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Women's Magazines in the Digital World

Posted on Monday, March 31, 2014 at 10:42 AM

In the news: Poynter.org examines the evolution of digital women's magazines.

Last week, Poynter.org ran a piece about Brooke Erin Duffy's 2013 book, Remake, Remodel: Women's Magazines in the Digital Age. A lot has evolved in women's magazine publishing over the past few decades, and Duffy highlights some of the challenges that this particular category faces in the digital marketplace.

Perhaps the biggest change is an influx of male editors into women's titles. While print magazine articles are still written primarily by women, Duffy worries that the same may not be true on the digital side. Moreover, the readers themselves are taking a more active role in content creation by blogging about and sharing magazine content. Further complicating matters is a recent uptick in native advertising, whose format tends to mimic editorial. Read more about Duffy's book here.

Also Notable

Spotify for Magazines

Netflix has changed the way we watch movies, and Spotify is changing the way we listen to music. Digital magazines are also looking to extend their reach, and the Readly app, now available in the UK, may be the publishing industry's answer to Netflix and Spotify. For a flat monthly fee of £9.99, users gain access to over 100 current magazine issues (and a year's worth of back issues). Read more about the app here.

Newsweek Print Magazine Returns

Newsweek is back in print thanks to IBT Media. The print run will be quiet small (70,000 copies), and issues will go for $7.95 apiece. The website will also meter its content and put up a paywall after a certain number of article views, even if users try to bypass the system by deleting cookies. Read more about the rehabbed Newsweek brand here and here.

2014 National Magazine Awards

ASME has announced its nominees for the 2014 National Magazine Awards. Up for Magazine of the Year are The Atlantic, Bon Appetit, Esquire, Fast Company, and New York Magazine. Read the complete list of nominees here.

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