« March 2013 | Home | May 2013 »

Issue for April 2013

Ten Tips to Write Better

Posted on Monday, April 29, 2013 at 11:46 PM

"Sweet tips for creating nonfiction confections."

By Peter P. Jacobi

Candace Fleming was a faculty colleague at a recent writers' workshop. She is the award-winning and very successful author of -- among other books -- biographies written for young readers on the Lincolns, P.T. Barnum, Eleanor Roosevelt, and Amelia Earhart.

During a lecture titled "Sweet Tips for Creating Nonfiction Confections," she promoted a set of ten points designed to help writers do better work. As I listened, those points seemed as potentially useful for you as for those at the workshop. So I asked if I could share her advice with you. Candace Fleming told me, "Do it." She told me that with a smile, as if she not only meant it but wished it.

This is my follow-through, and I quote her wherever I can, based on the notes I took.

Tip One

"I think about a perfect, imaginary reader and ask myself questions about him, what he will want or need to know. That guides my research."

Tip Two

"Your idea is vital. Point to something larger. Facts are neutral; they have no meaning. You must form the meaning, which develops naturally out of research.... With the vital idea set, all your research and ultimate coverage choices must follow in support."

Tip Three

"Question your material. Don't accept the standard version of things. Check facts out. Did it really happen that way? Be curious. Ask questions.... When working on 'The Lincolns,' I realized that details were missing on where Mary was throughout the hours after the shooting. I found them, including her frantic, pitiful question, 'Where is my husband?' She had been left behind when Lincoln was moved from the theater.... Seek the story behind the story."

Tip Four

"Allow your story's structure to grow out of research. Be creative, but don't impose. Form must be natural to the material.... Take select parts and arrange them so they have meaning.... For my biography of Ben Franklin, I decided it made more sense to divide the coverage by subjects, by the various aspects of his life rather than chronologically. I wrote it like an almanac."

Tip Five

"Think in scenes. Block them as in the theater. Each scene has a purpose. Each scene involves a change. Each scene moves the story forward. Remember that the first scene is the flashlight that shines into the rest of the story, and the last one is determined by how and where you think the story should end.... Between the scenes, you create links." The scenes, said Fleming, are the "show" aspects of your piece. The links constitute "tell," the explanatory bridges necessary to take your article from scene to scene and, thereby, create flow. "Try to use the five senses. Develop the dimensions of time and place. Use detail carefully."

Tip Six

"Those links I mentioned, they're digressions from the narrative, of course, but they're important. These bridges provide the context for your story." Ask yourself, she suggested: Are you getting your reader comfortably to the next scene? Does he or she know what's necessary to understand the scene that follows?

Tip Seven

"Write with your inner ear. Try to write without looking at your source notes. Know what you have gathered well enough to write your first draft from within. Then, you can go back to your sources and check for accuracy and whether you've used all the desirable details."

Tip Eight

"Rewrite. Rewrite. Rewrite." And as you do, she urged, consider pace and flow.

Tip Nine

"Don't forget about visual elements. What pictures can you locate and collect to highlight your story?" As researcher, said Fleming, you know better than most anyone where good illustrations to enrich your story can be found. "It's a great way to help your editor and to convince your editor that you've done everything possible to make your published story the best it can be."

Tip Ten

"Double-check every sentence. Leave nothing to chance."

Bonus Tip

Author Fleming then, on the spur of the moment, added an eleventh tip. "There is no simple secret for any of this," she said. "But to me, feelings are very important. Make the reader feel something."

Beneficial advice. An expert's advice. Welcome it. 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.

Add your comment.

Posted in (RSS)

Discharge Summary vs. Tips and Instructions

Posted on Monday, April 29, 2013 at 11:45 PM

The importance of what it says and how it says it.

By Jan V. White

First they carved up and rebuilt my knee. Then they rehabbed me, and now they were sending me home. Of course I was happy, but I woozy and fuzzy in the mind and a bit terrified. Then, paperwork signed, pushing the chair, the nice nurse slipped a letter in the plastic belongings bag.

In that mental and emotional state, I was just a drugged guy who was scared and pooped. The last thing I felt like was reading. No thinking, let alone technical terms. I glanced at the headline: "Discharge Summary." OMG! What sort of fluid would I discharge and where?

Later, when I came to after a good snooze, I found what was actually a very useful list of practical suggestions that nurses had prepared for what to do next. Unfortunately, it only works if and when you are fully compos mentis, ready for concentrated study and translation into normal people's English that most patients find daunting. It is not for you and me as little individuals. It is typical semi-abstract global tone. The language is medspeak; its writing is officialese. The thing is like a frightening report with all those bullets. It looks as grey and foggy as the minds are at that worrying time. Moreover, its unfriendly appearance asks to be put aside for "later," and what inevitably happens to whatever is to be studied "later"? Mind you, it isn't all that bad. It is just such a regrettably mediocre waste.

Here is what the nurse gave me. It is the "before" of the "after." You have to read both to make the comparison. It is a blend of what it says and how it says it and why it makes better sense, what the intentions are and what the actual wording is, what its whole purpose is, whom it is for, and how it works when you see what you have at last pulled out of your plastic bag of laundry and other stuff.

This Is Before...

This Is After...


Remember your targets are not at their best, and they are disinterested, anyway.

What are the changes in the text to contact and help them more effectively?

1: "Tips and Instructions" is useful to the target, so it catches them.
"Discharge Summary" is just a theoretical identifier.

2: "Now ... later ... at home ... soon ... always" is an immediately understandable structure.

3: You need merely read the "now" bit and skip the reader-friendly rest.

4: Logical groups of meaning are signaled visually by separation.

5: Regular/vs/bold for emphasis of meanings both individually and in groups.

6: Short, self-contained sentences, intimate wording.

7: No bullets -- those meaningless, off-putting clichés.

8: Flush-left alignment to create the neat left-hand edge of the texts.

9: Left-hand text edge allows heads to "hang" outside for maximal noticeability.

All the techniques of geometrical alignments and spacings make sense by clarifying the elements. Why is that useful? Because people like short bits and resent big ones. So here is a good example of such an organized set of deliberately short bits. It is the antithesis of an essay format. That is usually the start of anything: a "report". Then the essay is disintegrated into various elements, a bunch of bullets are inserted, and your "list" is done. No, it ain't.

All right, non-visual editors: What about those big, black, bold blobs of paralellipipidons. Those solid squares are not decorative superficial embellishments that disturb the clarity of your thoughts?

10: The black squares reinforce the blackness of the heads that look weak without it.

11: The black squares add sparkle that creates first-glance curiosity.

First-glance curiosity is vital, because your effort is wasted unless potential readers are interested. So we must use visual salesmanship to play up elements, make them noticeable, and thus user-friendly. Specially for old ones with lousy knees.

Jan White lectures worldwide on the relationship of editing to design. He tries to persuade word people to think visually and visual people to think verbally. He is the author of Editing by Design, 3rd ed., and a dozen books on publishing techniques. Contact him at janvw2@aol.com.

Add your comment.

Posted in (RSS)

The Fog Index

Posted on Monday, April 29, 2013 at 11:44 PM

Assessing the readability of a NYTimes.com excerpt.

This month, we calculate the Fog Index in an April 27, 2013, article on NYTimes.com ("How Big Data Is Playing Recruiter for Specialized Workers" by Matt Richtel). Here's the excerpt:

"David Lewin, a professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, and an expert in management of human resources, said that asking what someone could do was an important question, but so was asking whether the person could accomplish it with other people. Of all the efforts to predict whether someone will perform well in an organization, the most proven method, Dr. Lewin said, is a referral from someone already working there. Current employees know the culture, he said, and have their reputations and their work environment on the line. A recent study from the Yale School of Management that uses Big Data offers a refinement to the notion, finding that employee referrals are a great way to find good hires but that the method tends to work much better if the employee making the referral is highly productive."

--Word count: 139 words
--Average sentence length: 35 words (43, 29, 18, 49)
--Words with 3+ syllables: 12 percent (16/139 words)
--Fog Index: (35+12)*.4 = 18 (no rounding)

Here is our attempt to cut the Fog:

"UCLA professor David Lewin, an expert in human resource management, said that asking what someone could do was important. So was asking whether the person could do it with other people. Of all the efforts to predict whether someone will perform well in an organization, the most proven method, Dr. Lewin said, is a referral from someone who works there. Current employees know the culture, he said. Their reputations and their work environment are on the line. A recent Yale School of Management study that uses Big Data offers a refinement to the notion, finding that employee referrals are a great way to find good hires. But that method tends to work much better if the employee making the referral is highly productive."

--Word count: 124 words
--Average sentence length: 18 words (19, 12, 29, 7, 10, 29, 18)
--Words with 3+ syllables: 10 percent (13/124 words)
--Fog Index: (18+10)*.4 = 11 (no rounding)

We didn't want to reinvent the wheel here. The average sentence length was high, but we didn't want to ruin the cadence by splitting up too many sentences. We made some minor tweaks to reduce the percentage of longer words by 2 percent. We also split up a few sentences in places we thought logical to bring down the Fog score. Ultimately, we were able to reduce the piece by 7 points without making any major changes.

Add your comment.


"Said that" ... "Dr. Lewin said" ... "he said" ... hmm, looks like they should have let the good dr. speak for himself via some direct quotations; would be much easier to read. --Dan Walsh, editor-in-chief, Mobile Beat

Posted in (RSS)

Magazine Content at the Movies?

Posted on Monday, April 29, 2013 at 11:43 PM

In the news: Magazine publisher Condé Nast is making a play for the silver screen.

Recently, Condé Nast announced plans to create various Web series bearing its magazines brand names. Now, the publishing giant's entertainment division has set its sights on television and Hollywood. It's another step in the evolution of the magazines' editorial content delivery.

Current plans are to repurpose existing content for TV and the movies. Dawn Ostroff, president of the entertainment division, envisions a future where "the platforms are all going to blur." This will likely require restructuring of writer contracts to allow Condé Nast to option their content. Read more here and here.

Also Notable:

Creating a Strong Digital Publishing Platform

Chief product officer Lewis DVorkin of Forbes Media recently discussed some of the changes Forbes has made in response to the changing digital times. His Forbes.com article features eight of the most important changes. Among them: employing staff and writers "who write about what they know with an authenticity that more traditional editing hierarchies frown upon" and "a cost efficient, flexible editing structure that recognizes print and digital skills are different." Read the complete article here.

Launching a Magazine in 2013

In a recent Folio.com piece, Mary Long discussed some of the vital components of a successful magazine launch in today's marketplace. She discusses the importance of timing, the content itself, integrated marketing campaigns, and on-site presence at industry events. Read her discussion here.

ESPN The Magazine and Sponsored Content

ESPN The Magazine has joined the growing crop of publications experimenting with sponsored content. The sports magazine has teamed up with Coors to create a feature called "Cold Hard Facts." The magazine will maintain control of the content. The move adds fuel to the ongoing debate about the vanishing line between advertising and editorial content. Read more here.

Posted in (RSS)

« March 2013 | Top | May 2013 »