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Issue for April 2014

Something Old, Something New...

Posted on Tuesday, April 29, 2014 at 4:14 PM

Useful advice from a variety of sources: an old book, a newer one, and a few writers.

By Peter P. Jacobi

Something Old

The old book: Line by Line: How to Edit Your Own Writing, The one book that shows you how to make what you say as good as what you mean (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt), by Claire Kehrwald Cook. The author worked long and successfully as editor and editorial director for the Modern Language Association. She knows the craft and generously shares it in this book.

Cook's purpose for writing Line by Line is stated in the opening paragraph of the opening chapter: "Authors whose writing has been professionally edited often marvel at the improvement, apparently regarding a blue pencil as some sort of magic wand. But those of us in the business of wielding that pencil know that most of the wonders we work are the routine adjustments of trained specialists. This book aims at demystifying the copy-editing process, at showing writers how to polish their own prose."

Chapter titles suggest wide and thorough coverage, and deliver: "Loose, Baggy Sentences," "Faulty Connections," "Ill-matched Partners," "Mismanaged Numbers and References," and "Problems with Punctuation." Cook adds two extended appendices: "The Parts of a Sentence" and "A Glossary of Questionable Usage."

Early in her chapter on sentences, for instance, she offers a profile of a wordy one. "You can almost detect a wordy sentence," she says, "by looking at it -- at least if you can recognize weak verbs, ponderous nouns, and strings of prepositional phrases. Each of these features typifies prolixity, and they often occur in combination." Such pronouncements throughout the book are helpfully followed with supporting advice and evidentiary samples.

Tackling "Faulty Connections," Cook analyzes how a sentence can fall apart if its elements are out of order. "To get your meaning across," she explains, "you not only have to choose the right words, you have to put them in the right order. Words in disarray produce only nonsense." In support, she covers modifiers, various types of phrases (verbal, appositive, contrasting, prepositional), clauses, and aspects of structure. You'll benefit from in-depth coverage chapter after chapter. The lessons are many. This is a no-nonsense book. You don't read it for pleasure; you read it to be taught or reminded.

Something Newer

The newer book: The Dictionary of Worthless Words, 3,000 Words to Stop Using Now (Marion Street Press), by Dave Dowling, who earlier authored The Wrong Word Dictionary.

Here, alphabetically, are 250 pages of words Dowling suggests you should shun, from "abdicate" ("Abandon, renounce, or resign are simpler word choices") to "zoom up" ("Zoom in and zoom out make sense, but zoom up is not logical") Follow the dictionary's advice, and you'll question writing "do a draft of" rather than "draft" and "most recent" rather than "latest" or "newest." "Physical appearance" is redundant. "It goes without saying" is "overkill. If 'it goes without saying,' why say it?" And why, we're asked, use "essential" with words like condition, core, necessity, and prerequisite? "Essential" becomes "a needless modifier."

This dictionary tells us that although "down" can be a well-chosen word, it should not be affixed as a "needless ending preposition," such as with a host of verbs like burn, crouch, fall, plummet, shut, swoop, and winnow. Similarly "up" adds nothing to verbs from add to write.

As for "very," says Dowling, it is a "much overused intensifier that can be deleted and often replaced with a synonym." His list of replacement covers two pages, all of which reminds me of advice from Mark Twain: "Substitute 'damn' every time you're inclined to write 'very.' Your editor will delete it, and the writing will be just as it should be."

Something Borrowed ... from the Writers

Kurt Vonnegut, journalist-turned-novelist of importance: "Find a subject you care about and which you in your heart feel others should care about. It is this genuine caring, and not your games with language, which will be the most compelling and seductive element in your style. I am not urging you to write a novel, by the way -- although I would not be sorry if you wrote one, provided you genuinely cared about something. A petition to the mayor about a pothole in front of your house or a love letter to the girl next door will do."

C.S. Lewis, distinguished Irish author of books on matters of faith and fantasy: "Don't say it was delightful; make us say delightful when we've read the description. You see, all those words (horrifying, wonderful, hideous, exquisite) are like saying to your reader: Please, will you do the job for me?"

Elmore Leonard, notable creator of mysteries and thrillers: "If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it."

Bill Wasik, nonfiction author and senior editor of Wired: "Hone your outline and then cling to it as a lifeline. You can adjust it in mid-stream, but don't try to just write your way into a better structure: think about the right structure and then write to it."

Scott Adams, cartoonist of Dilbert and author of business-themed books: "I went from being a bad writer to a good writer after taking a one-day course in 'business writing' ... Business writing is about clarity and persuasion. The main technique is keeping things simple. Simple writing is persuasive. A good argument in five sentences will sway more people than a brilliant argument in a hundred sentences. Don't fight it."

Hilary Mantel, prize-winning British memoirist, essayist, and historical novelist: "If you get stuck, get away from your desk. Take a walk, take a bath, go to sleep, make a pie, draw, listen to music, meditate, exercise; whatever you do, don't just stick there scowling at the problem. But don't make telephone calls or go to a party; if you do, other people's words will pour in where your lost words should be. Open a gap for them, create a space. Be patient."

Tracy Kidder, Pulitzer Prize winner for nonfiction, and Richard Todd, executive editor of The Atlantic: "The reader wants to see you not trying to impress, but trying to get somewhere." And, "Try to attune yourself to the sound of your own writing. If you can't imagine yourself saying something aloud, then you probably shouldn't write it." And, "Use words wantonly and you disappear before your own eyes. Use them well and you create yourself."

Joyce Carol Oates, acclaimed novelist and short story writer: "Be your own editor/critic. Sympathetic but merciless!"

Stephen King, famed purveyor of horror, suspense, and science-fiction tales: "You can't please all of the readers all of the time; you can't please even some of the readers all of the time, but you really ought to try to please at least some of the readers some of the time."

There's practical wisdom for you in each of the above. Take heed.

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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Who's Reading Digital Magazines?

Posted on Tuesday, April 29, 2014 at 4:00 PM

Not editors. A survey reveals only a minority are digital subscribers themselves.

By William Dunkerley

We did a quick survey about reading habits and practices of editors vis-a-vis digital magazines. The results show: editors are digital pushers, not users. What this means is that we are doing more digital publishing than digital reading.

That's an interesting dichotomy to ponder as you plan the digital future of your publication. If we are not eager adopters of digital magazines, what makes us think our readers will be?

The Push for Digital

A lot of the push for migrating from print to digital is based on financial arguments. Many magazines never recovered from ad losses incurred in the Great Recession. Attempts to reinvigorate print ad content may have failed. That's prompted hopes for digital revenues to make up the shortfall.

A lot of statistics bandied about suggest that print is indeed dying and that digital is the key to survival for magazines. We examined this issue in our sister publication STRAT in October 2013 in an article titled "The False Allure of Going All Digital." We found evidence that interest in digital advertising greatly exceeds that of print advertising. See Figure 1.

Figure 1: Interest in digital advertising far exceeds that with print. The graph exemplifies this in relative terms. (Source: Google Trends)

Some ad industry publications harp on the meteoric growth in digital advertising. But they often quote figures in terms of percentages, not dollars. When you look at the dollars, you see a different picture: for now, and even projecting into the future, the actual revenue from digital advertising is a relatively small percentage. See Figure 2.

Figure 2: For most print publishers, digital revenues are still a very small part of the revenue pie. By 2016 digital is expected to double, but that still leaves it well below print circulation and advertising in size. (Source: Veronis Suhler Stevenson Communications Industry Forecast, 26th edition)

The First Survey

As editors, our fortunes are tied closely to success in ad sales. More ads, more editorial pages and greater budgets.

So we surveyed a sample of Editors Only readers to see how many are engaged in producing digital magazines. This was just a quick survey, and we don't claim a high degree of accuracy. But it should be accurate enough to give us insights into the current situation.

The results?

We found that a resounding 85 percent of editors are involved in producing digital magazines. Almost all of them are doing print magazines too. For example, Nancy Doucette, managing editor of Rough Notes magazine, explains: "The publication I work for is a trade publication. It is a print publication. We also have on our website a digital version of that same print publication." Our survey didn't ask whether or not participants' digital magazines are replica editions, but half of the respondents volunteered that they are. That means that if we had included that question in the survey, the percentage of replica editions reported would likely be significantly higher.

The Second Survey

Then we did another survey of EO readers. For this one we drew a separate sample that did not include participants in the first survey. This time we asked whether the editors themselves are subscribers to any digital magazines. We found that only one-third are. What's more, less than half of those digital subscribers spend more than a single minute reading the issues they subscribe to.

Karen Hildebrand, VP-editorial at Dance magazine, says, "I receive digital editions of a few magazines as part of a print edition package. Honestly, I rarely read the digital editions. I simply forget about them."

A number of respondents reported that they read the digital editions of their competitors. Mike McNulty, editor of Wire & Cable Technology International, explains, "I don't subscribe to any outside digital magazines; but I read my own digital edition, as well as that of my competitors."

Our Methodology and Results

A note on our survey methodology: Why did we do two separate surveys instead of asking all the questions in a single survey? It's because we anticipated that after reporting engagement in the publication of a digital edition, respondents might be reluctant to admit to not subscribing to any outside digital publications themselves.

That suspicion was born out in the results. Even though we kept the questions separate, there appears to have been reluctance to report not subscribing to outside digital magazines. How do we know that? The response rate in the survey about subscriptions was about half that of the other survey.

If we had asked the same question in both surveys, one would expect the response rates to be approximately the same. The vast difference in response rates indicates a reluctance to answer the question about subscriptions. The response rate would likely been even lower if we had asked both questions together.

This all suggests that the actual percentage of editors who subscribe to outside digital magazines is actually less than the one-third that our survey indicates.

So, in conclusion, we ask the question again, "If we are not eager adopters of digital magazines, what makes us think our readers will be?"

William Dunkerley is principal of William Dunkerley Publishing Consultants, www.publishinghelp.com.

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The Fog Index

Posted on Tuesday, April 29, 2014 at 3:58 PM

Assessing the readability of a Wired.com excerpt.

This month, we calculate the Fog Index of an April 28 Wired.com excerpt (from "The New Disruptive Business Normal: How to Innovate from the Inside Out" by Andi Gutmans, Zend Technologies). Let's look at the passage:

"As an ever-increasing number of businesses must transition quickly to software and online services, software is the disruption epicenter. From a competitive standpoint, a company must be able to create software, deliver it and continue innovating on it. And this innovation must occur frequently and rapidly. In fact, software must become a core competency for enterprises. In addition, innovative technologies including mobile, social, cloud and big data are fueling software-led market disruption. Forward-looking companies are putting these supporting technology disruptors to work for them, in turn, to achieve 'disruptive' business results."

--Word count: 91 words
--Average sentence length: 15 words (19, 19, 8, 10, 16, 19)
--Words with 3+ syllables: 22 percent (20/91 words)
--Fog Index: (15+22)*.4 = 14 (no rounding)

This piece reads quite smoothly. The author does a good job of controlling sentence length. The Fog Index is a bit high, though, and the clear culprit is longer words. A whopping 22 percent of the words (excluding those with -es, -ed, and -ing endings) qualifies as 3+ syllables under the Gunning Fog model. Let's see if we can bring our Fog score below 12.

"With more businesses shifting to software and online services, software is the disruption epicenter. To remain competitive, a company must be able to create software, supply it, and update it often. In fact, software must become a core competency for businesses. In addition, newer technologies including mobile, social, cloud, and big data are fueling software-led market disruption. Forward-looking companies are putting these supporting technology disruptors to work for them, in turn, to achieve 'disruptive' business results."

--Word count: 76 words
--Average sentence length: 15 words (14, 14, 10, 16, 19)
--Words with 3+ syllables: 14 percent (11/76 words)
--Fog Index: (15+14)*.4 = 11 (no rounding)

With some minor tweaks and word substitutions, we came in just under the wire at 11.6 (11 with no rounding). This was a challenging sample to edit because we needed to cut longer words in an excerpt dense with tech terms. Our Fog score would have been even lower if we hadn't trimmed 15 words from the original sample.

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Internships under Scrutiny

Posted on Tuesday, April 29, 2014 at 3:56 PM

In the news: Unpaid magazine internships are in the hot seat.

Magazine internships have popped up frequently in the headlines this month. Here in the US, the Harvard Crimson asks whether or not unpaid internships are a "priceless experience" and discusses some of the lifestyle challenges unpaid interns face (e.g., summer living arrangements on no pay). Meanwhile, a lawsuit leveled by two interns against publishing giant Condé Nast for below-minimum-wage pay was settled out of court earlier this month. (Condé Nast ended its internship program in October 2013, not long after this lawsuit was filed.)

Elsewhere, Canada is cracking down on unpaid internships and other unfair labor practices, citing the country's Employment Standards Act. As a result, two top Canadian magazines (Toronto Life and The Walrus) have shuttered their internship programs.

Read more about the current state of magazine internships here and here.

Also Notable

AP Style Change: State Names

A recent AP style change, which will go into effect May 1, has sparked some debate on social media. Starting this week, AP writers must spell out state names in stories, a move that promotes consistency in the treatment of state names between international and domestic stories. Datelines, however, will still use state abbreviations. For more on this style change and the text of the revised Stylebook Online entry, click here.

Crossover Magazine Content

The magazine industry is trying its hand at crossover content between sister magazines. This month, Food Network and HGTV magazines will join forces to provide coordinated content on throwing a spring party. According to NYTimes.com, there will be "coordinated front covers and three-page gatefolds, or cover foldouts; a video clip, which can be watched through YouTube or the Blippar and Digimarc Discover apps; and articles that share the idea of throwing a colorful spring party. Pure Leaf tea has partnered up with the magazines to provide advertorial content. If successful, this undertaking may pave the way for future crossovers and inspire other magazines to do the same. Read more about the crossover here.

Unsolicited Magazines

These days, a lot of people are opening their mailboxes to find magazines to which they haven't subscribed. In a recent Forbes.com piece, contributor Caroline Mayer discusses some of the aggressive tactics magazine publishers are trying to court new subscribers, including unsolicited print subscriptions. Read her analysis of the issue and tips for avoiding unwanted magazines here.

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