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Issue for April 2012

Voice Makes It Interesting

Posted on Sunday, April 29, 2012 at 10:07 PM

Releasing the "you" in your writing.

By Peter P. Jacobi

For some months, I've thought it is about time to focus on the subject of voice, a matter I haven't directly addressed for quite a while. And then, a book came to my attention that seemed to say to me: "Yes, do it. Tackle voice."

The book is called One Word, Contemporary Writers on the Words They Love or Loathe. Molly McQuade, a generously published writer of prose and poetry, put the book together for Sarabande Books, an outfit headquartered in Louisville. I find it a fascinating collection that includes the choices of 66 authors. The words selected stretch from the indefinite article "a" through most of the alphabet, ending with "wrong."

Language Reflects Your Voice

Novelist and short story crafter Marilyn Krysl chose the word filthy. Here's part of her argument:

"'These are filthy,' my mother said in 1946.

"She tossed my father's bloody slaughterhouse clothes into the wash. We lived in prairie country where earth -- its soil, which I thought of as dirt -- was the dominant fact. Filthy: the word meant really dirty, soiling something my mother would have to scrub by hand, and hard. I went outside to my chipped basin in which I mixed dirt with water, and made mud figures, one female, one male: Adam and Eve. I made mud pies to feed them, whispering the word filthy, feeling with my mouth the fricative f, the long purl of the l, the quick stop of the y. 'Filthy,' I crooned over my mud, this goopy, good, filthy malleability.

"I knew mud made things filthy, but I did not experience mud as dirty. Mud had texture I liked to feel with my hands. Mud, made of water and dirt, the world's basic ingredients. Even people were made from it. 'For dust thou art,' my grandmother's Bible said, 'and unto dust thou shalt return.' Everything was made of filthy mud, and so could not be bad. 'Wonderful mud,' I crooned, good, filthy mud."

The very choice of the word "filthy" reflects voice. Krysl's approach to the subject of "filthy" reflects voice. Her use of language reflects voice.

Voice means releasing the you in your writing. Voice means locating and making use of and encouraging and honoring your individuality by allowing it to invade your work. Know that because it is you who are wading into the thickets of a new assignment, you have the opportunity to invest it with what only you can bring to the task: your mind (how you think and imagine), your heart (the belief system that guides you, the views that motivate you), your background (from which and where you sprang, who raised you and how), your experiences (what life has taught you), your personality (the sum of the aforementioned and how they've come together in one body and mind and soul). The mix is you alone, the product of the soil, the earth, the garden that has been your existence.

Consequently, the flower that is your talent will differ from that of others. This is significant, if you let yourself be you when you plan, prepare, and put to words an assignment. The essay on filthy contains the content it has and reads the way it does because Marilyn Krysl authored it. Were any other writer to have chosen the same word, the exposition built around it would, most likely, have been far different.

A Historic, Detailed Voice

Poet and editor Dan Machlin chose "invisible," and says of it, in part: "Rarely do you come across a word with such inherent nostalgia -- a word with untold mystery and magic. Invisible is a traveler. It harkens us back, with its shimmering meaning, to the different eras of its use. It carries the weight of intellectual longing -- Plato's invisible world of forms outside the cave of our sensual existence. And it recounts the origins of visibility itself: the Gnostic Apocryphon of John, which tells of the incomprehensible spirit who preceded the material universe, who was somehow visible to himself in his surrounding light, but invisible to all others."

Machlin takes a more scholarly route than did Krysl, a route historic, larger-scaled, detailed, heady.

Very Brusque Voice

Brock Clarke, novelist and teacher, in no-nonsense fashion casts contempt upon the word very. He asks: "Is there a weaker, sadder, more futile word in the English language than very? Is there another word as fully guaranteed to prove the opposite of what its speaker or writer intends it to prove? Is there another word that so clearly states, on the speaker's or writer's behalf, 'I'm not going to even try to find the right word,' or 'No matter how hard I try, I'm not going to find the right word?' Is there a less specific, less helpful, less necessary, less potent word in our vocabulary? There is not."

That's brusque and stinging, a "So there!" handling of the word. And, a reminder, not so incidentally, that we should be careful about using that word, very careful.

Wistful, Personal Voice

Nonfiction writer Mimi Schwartz selected forget. She begins almost wistfully: "True, you don't want to forget the teapot on the stove, the one that never seems to whistle reliably as water boils to nothing. Or the oatmeal that crusts into permanency if you forget it's cooking while you take a bath."

Her exposition ends in personal grief: "Forget your mother's last year and the fury of your 'Mom' or "Mother' that proved you were no longer the good daughter. Because she was no longer the mother with the bright smile framed on her dresser, confident and stylish in her red satin dress with hair so thick and black. And so reasonable then, before her eyes and memory failed, before her hair became wisps of gray and she stopped listening to good advice..."

Voice Makes Your Copy Interesting

Ardor and baffle, colander and eek, fiasco and ickybicky, lilac and negligee, quipu and solmizate, thermostat and wool are among the other words in One Word. You'll find the list interesting (another of the chosen). And you'll be reminded throughout that voice is important. It makes copy interesting.

Use it.

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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Goodbye, Table of Contents

Posted on Sunday, April 29, 2012 at 10:07 PM

Hello to à la carte magazine content?

By Meredith L. Dias

Could the concept of a magazine be evolving? Traditionally, magazines have consisted of content selected by editors, but today's digital publishing platforms make it easier than ever for readers to customize their experience. Could tomorrow's magazine content be sold à la carte like songs on iTunes? What would this mean for the concept of the single issue?

The iTune-ization of Magazines

Some industry insiders consider conventional magazines to be an outmoded form of content delivery. Years ago, iTunes marginalized the album by making individual songs the unit of sale. Now, some say that magazines are at a similar crossroads. Will single issues remain profitable in the digital realm, or will readers start paying only for the content they want?

Last month, Forbes.com ran a piece ("Steve Jobs' Ghost: Hi-Res iPad Will Undermine the Magazine Model") exploring these very questions. The article likened the magazine industry's approach to digital editions to the music industry's erstwhile "album-oriented approach." While magazine editors are still operating under the single-issue model, "readers have called [magazines] loosely associated bundles of content, only a fraction of which they will actually read."

Readers vs. Editors?

Is this true? Are today's readers really at odds with the editors who select and arrange traditional magazine content? If we take the above quote out of context, we might be inclined to think so. Before you overhaul your entire editorial department in response, though, keep in mind that the article doesn't specify which readers have been so dismissive of single issues. Is this a vocal minority or a sweeping majority? Is it something one person said or indicative of a wider shift in reader preferences?

In truth, readers still appreciate quality editorial products -- so much so that the annual Webby Awards have a category for exemplary editorial content. So even if the medium changes, even if single issues go by the wayside in the future, readers will still look to editors to put up quality à la carte items.

The Prospect of Single Articles

The idea of à la carte magazine content is seductive from both a reader and editorial perspective. But, as William Dunkerley (editor of this newsletter and publisher of our sister newsletter, STRAT) pointed out in last month's STRAT issue, there's an important difference between a song on iTunes and a magazine article on a similar purchasing platform: "When a consumer buys a song," he wrote, "it's unlikely the song is intended for single use. It's a keeper. A magazine article is more likely to function like a disposable." So, in an iTune-ized magazine world, editorial quality would just as important as ever. While editors wouldn't necessarily be uniting content under the banner of a single issue, they would need to maintain high standards to drive readers to their articles on a continual basis in the single-article marketplace.

But before we consider this model seriously, we must first dispel some of the hype surrounding digital publishing. Whether or not the market eventually sways toward single-article units, we must not forget the current market, where print and digital issues alike are still performing well. There is still, in other words, plenty of reader demand for unified editorial content (i.e., single issues). While some vocal readers may be expressing a desire for à la carte options, we can't let those readers speak for everyone until we've done the necessary research and surveying.

Imagining a Single-Article World

Let's consider how the editorial profession might change if the industry ever abandoned the "issue" model. We can start with the obvious: If content were served up bit by bit, the editorial calendar might encompass an entire month rather than cluster around a given print deadline. If a hot topic arose, editors could develop an article, get it into the marketplace, and start raking in revenue from it. No longer would one problematic article hold up an entire issue. This model would also make it easier than ever to add or drop an article at the last minute.

Design and layout might also change. The workload would shift from laying out an entire issue at once to working on an article-by-article basis. What challenges might this piecemeal publishing present? Would it be simpler or more complex than the traditional model for the layout artists and designers?

Headlines would become more important than ever under this hypothetical model. If the marketplace were like iTunes, content would likely be listed by magazine brand and by article title. So, while brand identity would continue to be vital, snappy headlines might spark impulse article purchases from readers who might not otherwise have engaged with a given magazine.

Keeping It in Perspective

We've explored a hypothetical model this month. There's plenty of smoke to suggest a future shift in reader preferences, but for the time being, we can only speculate about the "iTunes-ization" of magazine content. It's a compelling model, but the traditional magazine is hardly dead.

While magazine editors must always have their eye on blossoming reader trends, they should never act prematurely and adopt untested models because of hype or fear-mongering. As always, they should engage with their audience via social media and surveys to determine whether their magazines continue to fulfill reader needs.

Only when the findings indicate that readers are unfulfilled and/or unsubscribing should editors consider an overhaul.

Meredith Dias is senior editor of Editors Only.

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The Fog Index

Posted on Sunday, April 29, 2012 at 10:07 PM

Assessing the Fog index of a Time.com article.

This month, we assess a sample from Time.com ("Would Apple Create a Smartwatch? If So, When?" by Tim Bajarin):

"While Apple may not be first in a new product category, their approach to making products better and then using their design and marketing prowess to take very strong positions in these markets is at the heart of the way the company works. Today, smartwatches tied to smartphones are in their very early stages -- and they show promise. But don't expect Apple to respond in kind just because the competition in this space is heating up. Instead, look for Apple to monitor these early smartwatch trailblazers and once they believe they can create something that is very sleek and elegant, then -- and only then -- would they bring out an iWatch."

Word count:
--Average sentence length: 28 words (43, 15, 18, 34)
--Words with 3+ syllables: 9 percent (7/110 words)
--Fog Index: (28+9)*.4 = 14 (no rounding)

The Fog index is on the high side for this sample. The culprit appears to be sentence length: The sample weighs in at a hefty 110 words, but it consists of just four sentences. Let's see if we can split up some sentences to bring our score below 12.

"While Apple may not be first in a new product category, they use design and marketing to take strong positions in these markets. This is the heart of how the company works. Today, smartwatches tied to smartphones are in their very early stages -- and they show promise. But don't expect Apple to respond in kind just because the competition is heating up. Instead, look for Apple to monitor these early smartwatch models. Once they believe they can create something sleek and elegant, then -- and only then -- will they bring out an iWatch."

Word count: 95
--Average sentence length: 16 words (23, 9, 16, 15, 10, 22)
--Words with 3+ syllables: 6 percent (6/95 words)
--Fog Index: (16+6)*.4 = 8 (no rounding)

By splitting up some longer sentences into shorter ones, we were able to cut the fog score by six points. Also note that we've removed two instances of "very," a word explored by Peter Jacobi in his Editors Only column this month. We didn't need to do much to clear up the Fog thanks to the low percentage of longer words.

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Women's Magazine Content and YouTube

Posted on Sunday, April 29, 2012 at 10:07 PM

In the news: Video magazine content is making a splash on YouTube.

A recent Mashable.com article asks a compelling question in its headline: "Could YouTube Replace Women's Magazines?" The article discusses the possibility that, in the future, women's magazine content will be geared less toward traditional articles and more toward video and social media content. Recently, YouTube budgeted $10 million for a YouTube channel for Hearst's most popular women's magazines, including Cosmopolitan and Marie Claire. Video content includes series geared toward plus-size women, health and beauty tutorials, and real-life makeovers.

Reader reception has been generally positive; however, some users take issue with the all-at-once release of video content for the month. This, they complain, clutters up their YouTube subscription feeds.

Read more about Hearst's video channels here.

Also notable

Forbes.com and Audience

Forbes.com has spent much of the past year revamping its editorial management structure and workflow in response to new technology and reader demands. Their current crop of writers, or "content creators," numbers 1,000. These creators create their own headlines and monitor their own content with minimal oversight, a concept that chief product officer Lewis DVorkin calls the "New Newsroom." "Editorial excellence," he writes, "remains at the core of what Forbes is all about." Read more here.

Pay-Per-View Magazine Content

More and more publishers are adopting view incentives for writers and editors. Under this performance-based compensation model, writers and editors are rewarded for popular articles based on metrics such as page views. Read more about this compensation model here.

iPad Magazine Revenues

Magazine and newspaper content appears to be doing well on the iPad. According to research analytics firm Distimo, iPad magazine and newspaper editions are taking in $70,000 per day. Cnet.com reports that "revenue from [magazine and newspaper] apps comes largely at the hand of in-app purchasing." In other words, readers are willing and ready to pay for editorial content on tablet devices. Read more about iPad content here.

Editorial Content and the Webby Awards

Magazines are featured in dozens of categories in this year's Webby Awards. Up for "Best Writing (Editorial)" this year are The New Yorker, The Daily Beast, and The Atlantic. The New Yorker, Vanity Fair, WIRED, National Geographic, and The Atlantic are vying in the best magazine of the year category. Read more here.

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