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Issue for March 2016

Publisher's Note

Posted on Thursday, March 31, 2016 at 9:39 PM


Large-scale IT system damage has prevented sending you a complete and timely issue. We apologize for this inconvenience and expect to be back to normal service by the time of the next issue. Thank you for understanding.

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Writing Advice from Different Mediums

Posted on Thursday, March 31, 2016 at 9:38 PM

They may be from different mediums, but they contain ideas and methods galore while providing reading enjoyment.

By Peter P. Jacobi

The two books I'm writing about this month may not be in the direct line of thought for you. Nevertheless, I recommend them highly

The first book has been around for a while, since 1994: Anne Lamott's Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life (Anchor Books).

The second is new with a publication date of 2015: Cynthia Barnett's Rain: A Natural and Cultural History (Crown).

The first is a delightful memoir into which the author has placed a whole lot of advice about writing, gobs of it. And the learning parts are fun to read because the writer is so good at writing and because she immerses the lessons in personal experiences that you'll recognize from your own life, experiences that will make you laugh or nod in familiarity. The book is a comfortable and also exciting look at the writer's own professional path toward craft and creating wonder.

The second is the result of an author's must-do attitude and her ability to do it gloriously well. To do what so well? In-depth research, that's what. She had an immense body of information on her subject before she took on the prospect of writing, which must have been a truly difficult task. When one talks about how "you can never do too much research," you may, on reading this volume, come to believe that you can -- that is, until you realize what she has accomplished because of her voluminous information gathering. The book is a factual wonder.

Take It Bird by Bird

"Good writing," says Anne Lamott, "is about telling the truth. We are a species that needs and wants to understand who we are." To contribute truth, she argues, takes determination and time. Writing doesn't happen fast. Rewriting doesn't happen fast. Deciding what's needed to even engage in writing doesn't happen fast. You need to be willing to give a writing project time.

Lamott notes that her students find the time factor, the willing-to-devote time and energy portion of research and then of writing, is the first stumbling block in a writer's or would-be writer's path. It needs removal. She supplies a supportive anecdote:

"Thirty years ago, my older brother, who was ten years old at the time, was trying to get a report on birds written that he'd had three months to write, which was due the next day. We were out at our family cabin in Bolinas, and he was at the kitchen table close to tears, surrounded by binder paper and pencils and unopened books on birds, immobilized by the hugeness of the task ahead. Then my father sat down beside him, put his arm around my brother's shoulder, and said, 'Bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird.'"

From that comment by a supportive parent, author Lamott got her memoir's title and her approach to writing. It's about giving all to the process, about doing one's best, with a willingness to push through difficulties toward clarity of thought and verbalization. The task, she explains, is not about perfectionism. That's "the voice of the oppressor," she explains. "It will keep you cramped and insane your whole life, and it is the main obstacle between you and a shitty first draft." Better to have a mess around you, she argues, and to know how to work yourself out of it. That's part of learning who you are and why you write.

"To be a good writer," Lamott sums up, "you not only have to write a great deal, but you have to care. You do not have to have a complicated moral philosophy. But a writer always tries, I think, to be a part of the solution, to understand a little about life and to pass this on.... In order to be a writer, you have to learn to be reverent. If not, why are you writing? Why are you here? ... Think of reverence as awe, as presence in an openness to the world."

"We write to expose the unexposed," Lamott declares. "If there is one door in the castle you have been told not to go through, you must. Otherwise, you'll just be rearranging furniture in rooms you've already been in. Most human beings are dedicated to keeping that one door shut. But the writer's job is to see what's behind it, to see the bleak unspeakable stuff, and to turn the unspeakable into words -- not just into any words but, if we can, into rhythm and blues."

In-Depth Research, Writing, and Structure

Cynthia Barnett, author of Rain, calls herself an environmental journalist, and she certainly emerges as one when one reads Rain, her devotion for and deep penetration into the subject. She opens, surprisingly, with Ray Bradbury and his The Martian Chronicles, in which that renowned science fiction writer insists that rain on Mars is gentle and welcome and blue and, by bringing oxygen to the planet, has caused trees to sprout there.

Science fiction purists often rebelled at Bradbury's notion, but -- as Cynthia Barnett explains -- Bradbury "didn't care to conform to the scientific views of the day. On any planet, he was much more interested in the human story. He created a rain-soaked Venus, too, but not because scientists then considered it a galactic swamp. Bradbury just loved rain. It fit his melancholy like a favorite wool sweater. As a boy, he had loved the summer rains of Illinois, and those that fell during family vacations in Wisconsin. Hawking newspapers on a Los Angeles street corner as a teen, Bradbury never minded a late-afternoon deluge. And in his eighty years of writing every day, raindrops tap-tap-tapped from the typewriter keys into many a short story and every book."

From a fictional starting point, Barnett spins her book about a subject as un-fictional as they come. But actually, every item included in her magnificent essay -- be it scientific, historic, literary, cultural, political, economic, geologic, natural, or whatever else -- fits. That's because between research and writing, she dealt carefully with structure. She developed a plan into which she carefully placed what she had gathered.

Barnett's poetic approach to the table of contents starts to give you an idea of how she thought and how she works. There are five sections: Elemental Rain, Chance of Rain, American Rain, Capturing the Rain, and Mercurial Rain. Elemental Rain is covered in three chapters: Cloudy with a Chance of Civilization; Drought, Deluge, and Deviltry; and Praying for Rain. Chance of Rain presents the next two chapters: The Weather Watchers and The Articles of Rain. American Rain works through another three chapters: Founding Forecaster, Rain Follows the Plow, and The Rainmakers. Into Capturing the Rain, Barnett puts Writers on the Storm, The Scent of Rain, and City Rains. And Mercurial Rain brings us Strange Rain and The Forecast Calls for Change. An Epilogue is titled Waiting for Rain.

In every section and portion, Barnett feeds us fascination. For instance, in the Drought, Deluge, and Deviltry chapter, you'll find these lines: "In fourteenth-century letters and chronicles, tales of the disease then called 'the great mortality' or 'pestilence,' later christened the Black Death, always seemed to begin with strange rain. A musician in the papal court of Avignon wrote home to Flanders in 1348 that when the great mortality began: 'On the first day it rained frogs, serpents, lizards, scorpions and many venomous beasts of that sort. On the second day, thunder was heard and lightning flashes mixed with hailstones of marvelous size fell upon the land, which killed almost all men, from the greatest to the least. On the third day, there fell fire together with stinking smoke from the heavens, which consumed all the rest of men and beasts, and burned up all the cities and castles of those parts."

Barnett follows the musician's tale with reality: "In fact, real rain foreshadowed the Black Death much as it had the Great Famine." She gives us a long-term weather report addressing weather and economic conditions at the time. And then she tells us the bubonic plague "came riding into Europe not on slithering serpents but on a tiny insect, the flea, which came riding on a rat, which came riding on Mongol supply trains traveling from southern China across Eurasia. The bacterium, Yersinia pestis, lives on wild rodents and spreads among them via fleas, which sometimes jump to humans." Disastrous disease conditions can follow and have.

Crawford's research took her to faraway parts of the world, so the book offers much description and narrative. It really is a good read. That's because between research and writing, she dealt carefully with structure. Our medium and hers differ, but, believe me, you can gain ideas and methods galore, all while you entertain yourself with an environmental journalist's terrific book.

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 Thursday, March 31, 2016 at 9:36 PM

Assessing the readability of a NYTimes.com excerpt.

This month's Fog Index excerpt comes from a March 29 NYTimes.com article ("Apple's New Challenge: Learning How the U.S. Cracked Its iPhone" by Katie Benner, John Markoff, and Nicole Perlroth). Here's the text we'll be analyzing:

"Making matters trickier, Apple's security operation has been in flux. The operation was reorganized late last year. A manager who had been responsible for handling most of the government's data extraction requests left the team to work in a different part of the company, according to four current and former Apple employees, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly about the changes. Other employees, among them one whose tasks included trying to hack Apple's own products, left the company over the last few months, they said, while new people have joined."

--Word count: 99 words
--Average sentence length: 25 words (10, 7, 53, 29)
--Words with 3+ syllables: 16 percent (16/99 words)
--Fog Index: (25+16)*.4 = 16 (16.4, no rounding)

We have some work to do here to shave five points off the Fog Index. One quarter of the sampled words fall into the "longer" grouping, and the third sentence accounts for over half the total word count. Let's see if we can push some of the Fog out to sea:

"Making matters trickier, Apple's security operation has been in flux since it was reorganized last year. A manager who had handled most of the government's data requests left the team to work elsewhere in Apple. Four current and former Apple staffers spoke about this on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak about the changes. Other staffers, among them one whose tasks included hacking Apple's own products, left over the last few months, they said. In the meantime new people have joined."

--Word count: 86 words
--Average sentence length: 17 words (16, 19, 24, 20, 7)
--Words with 3+ syllables: 8 percent (7/86 words)
--Fog Index: (17+9)*.4 = 10 (14.0, no rounding)

Our most important task was breaking up the hefty 53-word sentence from the original. We also split up the last sentence, which was on the longer side. We also made a conscious effort to reduce the number of longer words, which paid off. We were able to reduce the percentage of longer words by half.

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Multiplatform Content Strategy

Posted on Thursday, March 31, 2016 at 9:36 PM

In the news: Asking readers not just to read, but to watch and listen as well.

"A publication is meant to be read," writes Lydia Kaldas, the Economist's SVP of strategy and channel relationships, in a March 28 Foliomag.com piece. But today's magazine content is no longer limited to just the written word; more and more, magazine brands are incorporating video, audio (e.g., podcasts), and other app content into their content stream. This has led to what Kaldas dubs the "'read, watch, listen'" content strategy.

Today's magazine publishers must cater to three different types of consumers: readers (of the written word, whether in print or digital format), listeners (to podcasts and other audio offerings), and watchers (of video content). Also important, says Kaldas, are technology partnerships to improve a magazine's reach. Read more of her discussion here.

Also Notable

Digital Newspaper Apocalypse?

A Bloomberg.com headline this week reads, "Newspapers Gobble Each Other Up to Survive Digital Apocalypse" (Gerry Smith, March 29). A tagline below reads, "More than $800 million in deals seen last year, most since '08." Smith likens the current crop of newspaper publishing mergers and acquisitions to "feasting on each other for survival." The headline paints a bleak picture as print circulation and ad revenue continue to drop, but newspaper brands are exploring niche websites and new revenue streams that are helping turn things around. Read more here.

2016 ASNE Awards

This week the American Society of News Editors (ASNE) announced its 2016 journalism awards. According to the website, "The ASNE Awards honor the best in print, digital and video content in nine categories." Among the winners were Alissa Rubin of the New York Times (Batten Medal) for her coverage of women in Afghanistan and the staff of the Baltimore Sun (Breaking News Writing Award) for its coverage of the Freddie Gray story. Read the complete list of winners and finalists here.

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