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Issue for April 2011

How to Hire Good Editors

Posted on Wednesday, April 27, 2011 at 10:16 AM

The advertising upswing has created a need for additional content. Editorial staffs are growing once again. But hiring mistakes can really slow you down and sap productivity.

By Allan Polak

As our economy gets back on track, page counts are rising and editors are staffing up. It is crucial to hire the right people. A great hire can take your publication to new levels of success, while a bad hire can drag down your productivity, demand a great deal of time and attention of you, and have a nasty ripple effect on your editorial team -- not to mention your readers!

Yet much hiring is done haphazardly with a lot of guesswork, bias, and "feel." Unfortunately, that approach is not at all predictive of future job performance and success. To hire the best, consider these 6 tips in making your selection:

1. Skills matter. Ask questions and talk to references to learn what the candidate has actually done. What has she done well? What has she struggled with? Realize that some skills are highly "transferrable." Even if the candidate has not performed a job or task that is exactly the same as what you need in the job you are hiring for, her basic skill set might still be a good match for your open position. For example, if you need someone who will be highly organized and deadline-compliant, ask about past experiences that demanded that skill, such as volunteer activities, juggling life's demands, or aspects of a prior job.

2. Experience can be overrated. Experience matters, of course, but many hiring managers place too much emphasis on this factor. They may believe that if someone has, for example, 10 years' experience doing an editorial job similar to the one you are hiring for, then that the job candidate will automatically do the job well. Are those 10 years of experience with seven different companies? Why might that be? Did the person learn the job in the first year and approach it without creativity and energy for the next nine? What does that tell you? Is the person just interested in doing the same kind of work in the same way? With all the technological changes that are confronting editors in the digital age, that might not be a very successful work ethic.

3. Learning is a predictor. A powerful predictor of success in many jobs is how eager a learner someone is inclined to be. Especially eager learners will be more likely take direction well, more apt to notice ways to improve processes or address reader needs, and a more willing colleague and collaborator with other editors. Ask the potential hire the most exciting thing he has learned in the past year or two. Assess how relevant that is to the position you are seeking to fill. Ask the candidate what he wants to learn during his first 3-6 months on the job and why. There is powerful predictive data in these explorations.

4. Emotional intelligence matters. Almost all editorial jobs involve people interacting with other people, be they colleagues, authors, or readers. Being smart is important in order to learn things, master information, and perform key tasks and responsibilities. But if you have two or three candidates with similar IQs, then the real predictor and separator may well be their EQ, or emotional intelligence. EQ is an important predictor of how well someone will handle stress, deal with demanding readers and prima donna writers, comply with tight deadlines, and cope with the boss and other aspects of a job.

5. Core motivations are critical. Everybody is motivated. The big question: To do what? Even someone you perceive as quite lazy is motivated -- to keep life simple and to avoid expending much energy. You want to hire someone who is naturally motivated to do the kind of work your open position requires. That person will bring more energy to the effort, will be willing to work through barriers and challenges, and be much more likely to go the extra mile when necessary. Don't make the mistake of thinking that you can hire somebody who is very smart, or a person with whom you have a "good connection or sense of chemistry," and expect you can motivate the individual to enjoy things or do things that are of little interest to him or her. People succeed at what they like to do, not at what you want them to like to do.

6. Traits are in the wiring. Smart, motivated people can learn skills, but traits are what make people unique. They are aspects of one's overall makeup and really don't change much in a lifetime -- except, sometimes, in response to very powerful life events. For example, having "thin skin" or "thick skin" when criticized is a trait. A candidate with thick skin will be able to handle direct, even harsh, interpersonal experiences or criticism much better than someone with thin skin. The latter may carry the pain of that experience around with him for weeks, months, or even years. It will color his expectations of and interactions with the person involved for a long time.

Alan Polak is president of ALP Consulting Resources, a firm specializing in executive coaching and development, organizational and team performance enhancement, and strategic leadership and communications. Reach him at www.ALPConsultingResources.com.

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"Shouldn't a skills test be part of this process, along with checking references intelligently?" --Ruth E. Thaler-Carter, www.WriterRuth.com. 4-28-2011

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Your Blood, Sweat And Tears

Posted on Wednesday, April 27, 2011 at 10:16 AM

If you wish your reader to remember - it takes F-L-E-S-H.

By Peter P. Jacobi

In a recent speech before a conference of writers, I dealt with responsibilities faced by those who would be serious about their profession.

Here are major points I included, a portion of them this month, the rest next.

The recently-named Poet Laureate of the United States, W.S. Merwin, ends a poem with these words: "I have only what I remember."

"I have only what I remember."

There's your challenge as writer: to cause your reader to remember. It's as simple as that and as perplexingly, confoundedly difficult.

Most of you realize by now that inspiration rarely comes as a thunderbolt, that it tends to come slowly, quietly, oft-times hesitantly. The process of writing amounts to a struggle. It is an illusion -- as John Kenneth Galbraith once put it -- "that on some golden mornings, [writers] are touched by the wand, are on intimate terms with poetry and cosmic truth." He warned us not to wait for such moments. They're not likely to arrive.

To speak in triplets: writing demands blood, sweat, and tears. It wrestles you morning, noon, and night. And it takes -- if, indeed, you wish your reader to remember -- flesh, mind, and spirit.

Let's take each word -- flesh, mind, spirit -- and for each letter in it put forth another word chosen to provide you with a lesson to remember so that, in the end, your reader will remember.


"F" stands for FOCUS

We're back into basic territory now, but this is where writers so often get off track. Before you set a word to paper, determine what it is you want to do and how and for whom. Translate a subject into an idea. Determine content needed and an approach that's appropriate. Determine limits of coverage and slant. Determine where you want to start and where to wind it up.

Focus is a critically important issue. What are you trying to write and for whom and in what manner? Is it entertainment you're after and/or education, literary value, uplift, or the arousal of some other sort of emotion?

"L" is for LANGUAGE

Oh, my, but there's a howdy-do!

Mark Twain touched on the difficulty: "The difference between the almost-right word and the right word is really a large matter. It's the difference between the lighting bug and the lightning."

Gustave Flaubert asked of us: "When you pass a grocer sitting in his doorway, a porter smoking a pipe, or a cab stand, show me that grocer and that porter…in such a way that I could never mistake them for any other grocer or porter, and by a single word give me to understand wherein the cab horse differs from fifty others before or behind it."

You can make the search agonizing and, granted, it often is. But there can be the joy of adventure in the process of determining language. Be joyful, while also being diligent and careful.

"E" I've reserved for EMPHASIS

That means determining what in your story you highlight, accentuate, give priority, stress, apply weight to, offer more space, decide requires telescoping. What elements deserve heightened and/or broadened attention, so to make clear to the reader that those elements are what matter and need be paid attention to? In what does the essence of your idea throb? How can you best cast the light on what will be central to your written project?

Emphasis, of course, begets de-emphasis, give and take, ebb and flow, playing down as well as up, knowing what can be slimmed informationally, even shunned, if it's tangential or beside the point - thereby leaving sufficient space for what counts, thereby creating a purposeful narrative or exposition.

Know also what can be left out altogether, cast away, lest you come to hide the prize from your reader: that which you really want him or her to remember.

"S" stands for SUBSTANCE

The meat, the potatoes and pastas, the greens, the fruits, the mass that matters, the informational assets in your project -- verification for the reader that you've cared enough to give your very best, proof you understand that regardless of how fluently and floridly and fabulously you write, the how of that talent turns insufficient for reader satisfaction if the what is insufficient. Facts must go with fancy.

"'The cat sat on the mat' is not the beginning of a story," advised John Le Carre. "'The cat sat on the dog's mat' is."

It is all in the details. Substance rules. Specificity rules. Generalities defeat your hardest, sincerest efforts. Abstraction disappoints.

And from whence comes specificity? Research, observation, verbal acuity, and thoughtful processing of gathered material. Hey, how can I - through my copy - make my reader see or hear or feel or in some way experience what I mean my reader to?

Heed the sage James Kilpatrick: "The first secret of good writing: We must look intently, and hear intently, and taste intently.... We must look at everything very hard. Is it the task at hand to describe a snowfall? Very well. We begin by observing that the snow is white. Is it as white as bond paper? White as whipped cream? Is the snow daisy white, or egg-white white, or whitewash white? Let us look very hard. We will see that snow comes in different textures. The light snow that looks like powdered sugar is not the heavy snow that clings like wet cotton. When we write matter-of-factly that 'Last night it snowed and this morning the fields were white,' we have not looked intently. Out of this intensity of observation we derive two important gains. We learn to write precisely, and we fill our storehouse with the images that one day we will fashion into similes and metaphors."


That results from the right material chosen for the right idea and for the right reason and for the right audience. Honesty in the use of language versus airs. Honesty in approach to subject, being respectful of it, serving it rather than cow-towing to the dictates of common preferences or market pressures.

To be honest in your writing means being true to yourself, your personality, your belief system, to what you think the material and topic require. I don't know what else to say on this, except that you will not feel good about yourself or your writing if you're not faithful to your principles.

So, we finish with FLESH, ours given, ours taken.

Next issue: words suggested by MIND and SPIRIT. In the meantime, think about what those words might be.

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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Write Stronger Headlines Now

Posted on Wednesday, April 27, 2011 at 10:16 AM

Don't let weak headlines bury valuable editorial content. This month, we round up tips from several magazine writers and editors.

By Meredith L. Dias

Headline writing has taken on new dimensions as digital and mobile publishing have gained momentum. In many cases, editors must write headlines that pop not only on the printed page, but also in search engines and on social media websites.

We live in an age of information overload, so editors of both print and digital content must up the ante with their headlines to attract reader attention.

If you are publishing digitally and/or online, you are fighting against a formidable floodtide of links -- in search engines, on Twitter, on Facebook, and on social bookmarking sites like Digg and Stumbleupon.

Want to lure readers to your content? Be prepared to fight for the spotlight. Your headline must do more than drive traffic to your content; it must compel readers to share the link with their social networks.

Do you think more readers would feel compelled to click "Lindsay Lohan Behind Bars for Shoplifting" or "Young Celebrity Incarcerated"? The former specifies the culprit and her crime; the latter is too ambiguous to inspire much reader curiosity or urgency. Consider "Strong Seismic Waves Ravage Japanese Landscape" and "Devastating 8.9 Earthquake Hits Japan." Which do you think best conveys the message?

Writers and editors must consider several online angles when crafting their headlines. As Leo Babauta writes on FreelanceSwitch.com, headlines must stand out on an RSS feed, grab reader attention when linked on other websites and blogs, and command clicks on crowded social bookmarking sites. How does one accomplish this? Babauta offers up a list of twenty vital components of attention-grabbing titles. Among them: curiosity, controversy, and succinctness.

Brian Clark on Copyblogger.com discusses five areas where magazine headlines fail. Readers tend to skip headlines lacking simplicity and apparent benefit to them. It is important, therefore, to write headlines that tell readers exactly what is in it for them in as few words as possible. The headline must convey an article's essence while creating enough urgency to keep them turning the pages or prompt clickthroughs.

Magazine editor and designer Annie Suh suggests the following exercise to sharpen headline writing skills: Have a colleague cover up all the headlines in a magazine issue, and then compose headlines based on the content and tone. Compare these headlines to the originals. This will help illuminate weaknesses in technique.

You've likely heard tips like these ad nauseam over the years, but they are always worth repeating. Even if your budget is tight and your resources limited, a strong headline can help content go viral. Some of the most popular YouTube videos have been home videos, but their titles continue to draw in viewers by the millions (or, in the rare case of "Charlie bit my finger - again!", hundreds of millions).

In other words, you don't need a huge budget or fancy content management systems to make waves with your articles. Sometimes, all that stands between you and an influx of new readers/subscribers is the right headline.

Meredith Dias is senior editor of Editors Only and STRAT.

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"While this article focused on writing headlines for magazines, I noticed that the examples seemed to focus more fast-breaking news stories (e.g., 'Lindsay Lohan Jailed'), which unfortunately, are more the domain of newspapers and blogs -- and not that useful as examples for magazine headline writing (at least not for the type of magazine that I tend to read).

"For example, the magazine I work on is a monthly, and with copy written at least 3 weeks ahead of the publication date, so that most of our stories offer either a 'second-day angle,' or else are written with an attempt to shed light on where the story might be going six months out. In other words, it's not likely that soneone's finger is getting bitten off.

"Of course, that doesn't mean that headline writing is any less important, but it does put a different spin on things. To bring that closer to home, my magazine covers electric utilities and national energy policy, exploring long-term issues dealing with wholesale power markets, power plant heat rates, financial transmission rights, hedging contracts, congestion load pockets, and whether wind-generated power is bac for grid reliability by by causing frequency deviations. The typical article is 3,000 to 4,000 words, so it's not likely that a reader will pass the link along on an I-Phone, no matter how engaging the headline.

"However, I can say that I was very impressed with the headline -- 'Green Giant' -- that was selected for a recent New Yorker article about development of renewable energy in China. It said everything it needed to say." --Bruce Radford, Public Utilities Fortnightly magazine.

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The Paywalled Times

Posted on Wednesday, April 27, 2011 at 10:16 AM

How has the New York Times fared since putting up its controversial pay wall?

Is the perceived value of editorial content finally on the rise? The New York Times hopes so. Last month, its hotly anticipated and debated paywall went live. Now, frequent visitors must subscribe if they want to read more than twenty articles per month. Since the paywall went up, the Times has reported over 100,000 new digital subscriptions. Print subscriptions are also reportedly up.

It's too early to tell just how successful the paywall will be, but a six-digit leap in digital subscriptions is certainly encouraging. All eyes will be on the Times over the next several months as it answers the question: Are today's digital readers, weaned for years on free content, willing to pony up for editorial content? Read more.

Also notable:

AdWeek Redesign

AdWeek has undergone a massive print and digital redesign and editorial repositioning. For once, the story of the day is not a massive staff cut, but instead the addition of twenty new staffers. Editorial director Michael Wolff hopes to improve upon the already successful publication and incorporate more breaking news into its editorial content. Read more.

Photo Misuse

Vegan magazine VegNews has come under fire for editing meat products out of stock food photographs. Other magazines have ended up in the hot seat for airbrushing or digitally liposucting cover models, and now VegNews faces similar scrutiny for its digital alteration of images. The magazine issued a statement, citing difficult financial times as its reason for resorting to non-vegan stock photography. Read more.

Editorial Staff Recruitment--on Twitter?

Twitter may sometimes be a hotbed of narcissistic rambling (i.e., status updates about bathroom trips and dinner menus), but it can sometimes be a cyber-land of opportunity. ESPN magazine's relocation to the company's Connecticut headquarters has created quite a few job openings, and magazine professionals have not been shy about Tweeting newly crowned editor-in-chief Chad Millman about job opportunities. Millman appears to be receptive to this twenty-first-century recruiting approach. Read more.

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