« March 2015 | Home | May 2015 »

Issue for April 2015

Creative Nonfiction Is Not All About Make-Believe

Posted on Wednesday, April 29, 2015 at 4:46 PM

A publication that offers lessons about writing and process and depth of coverage.

By Peter P. Jacobi

"The time I remember is when I'm about 8 years old," writes Victoria Blake in a recent issue of Creative Nonfiction. "My mother is serving pork chops 1950s style -- bone in, with a little bit of applesauce. In my family, I'm known as a 'picky eater.' For example, I eat only the very outside of the meat because the bone terrifies me. There's a chalky spot in the center which -- I know now but didn't know then -- is marrow.

"The bone is unyielding and hard," Blake continues, "under the tines of my fork -- a hardness that, in an instant, conjures the image of a whole skeleton, then an animal walking, an animal eating, an animal living. And that's when my mother says it: "You should know where your food comes from, Tory. If you don't eat it, you won't get any dessert."

A Different Approach to Solve Issues

Creative Nonfiction may not be a publication you turn to with regularity; indeed, you may not refer to it at all. "Creative," after all, suggests using your imagination, stretching reality, perhaps making things up, and not sticking to the facts as good journalists are pledged to do.

But believe you me, Creative Nonfiction is not about make-believe. There are lessons to be learned from this publication, lessons about writing and process and depth of coverage and offering readers a product that attracts, that provokes attention. If very well planned and executed, it can be another weapon in your arsenal for use in that constant struggle to give your readers the best. I'm not suggesting you make Creative Nonfiction central on your reading list, but benefits can be gained: from stories by the likes of Victoria Blake (and, yes, I'll get back to her shortly), in essays that explore issues of professional consequence for us, in columns like "Writer at Work" that show us how our creative nonfiction colleagues approach and solve issues.

Interviews and Passion

In one "Writer at Work" column, for instance, written by Kase Johnstun, a teacher at Kansas State University, the discourse moves in the direction of interviewing and how an interviewer's passion might lead to bias, "either on the part of the interviewer, who might inadvertently lead the interviewee with his or her own emotional connection, or on the part of the interviewee, who might try to feed the interviewer the answers he or she wants, hoping to create the best story -- not always the true story."

Johnstun then turns to Mike Magnuson, an author currently working on a nonfiction book about political struggles in Wisconsin. He's all for using passion. "If you don't have a deep connection with a person you're interviewing for a piece and for the subject matter of a piece," he argues, "you need to develop one in a hurry. Without passion, without intensity, without putting everything on the line, every time, you will never make art. Art is key to the process, and the best thing about this, really, is that if we'd happen to interview somebody famous, someone we have admired for a long time, we are under no obligation to be objective. Why would we be? We're making art, and we're using art to prove a point.... I don't know about you, but I'm not keeping my emotions away from all that."

That's not an acceptable answer for all of us and leads us into the very nature of art, but what Magnuson preaches should, in my view, certainly be part of the discussion.

Depth of Coverage

Now let's get back to Victoria Blake. From what I've quoted to you so far and from the title of her article, "From Pig to Pork Chop," you can get a clear notion of what's to come: coverage and writing that begs no compromise.

"That pork chop," Blake shares, "started where all pork chops start: in the pig barn. There is only one smell in a pig barn, and it's not a good one. From a distance, the smell is sweet, not as grassy as in a cow pasture, not as tangy as near a horse barn. But inside the pig nursery, where 50 or so healthy, hot pigs chug along like diesel trucks struggling up a climb, the smell cloys and sticks in the nostrils and the throat. Covering my nose doesn't do any good. The smell remains hours after I've left the farm."

We meet the "largest grower of natural pork in Oregon's Willamette Valley." We watch her snuggle a week-old piglet in the barn, "one of many structures strung along a central concrete path that leads the pigs from farrow to finish, or from the nursery to the rusted blue Chevy that will drive them to slaughter. A day after slaughter, they get loaded into a truck and driven to meat coolers in hundreds of restaurants along the I-5 corridor, from the Columbia River to Eugene. They get rubbed and cured and smoked and fried and ground and, finally, often with a bit of sauce, eaten."

Blake "will follow them the whole way, my mother's 'you should know where your food comes from' rattling around in my brain." Her writer's journey takes about six months. Blake's coverage is honest and intense, detailed and uncompromising: about shocks to stun the animals and "put them down," about carcasses hung on hooks, about carcasses bathed, about how every part of the pig is put to use. ("If we could figure out how to eat the squeal, we would," an employee says.)

As Blake leaves the plant, she expresses the wish "I was still a smoker so I'd have something to replace the kill room smell that's crawling down the back of my throat." Later, author Blake will go along as the meat is distributed and, then, prepared for consumption in a restaurant. I'll spare you from more of what's likely to destroy your taste for pork (or any other meat).

"After the meal at Simpatica," writes Blake, "I go home, wash the kitchen smells off me and crawl into bed. I wake up with a fuzz on my tongue and no taste at all for pork. I have a freezer full of sausages and bacon from Sweet Briar, but in the freezer they will stay."

Bacon, however, on the following Sunday, entices. "I take my first bite," she writes, "and then I take another."

The copy is compelling. This is first-rate journalism, creative nonfiction, work that brings us close to the subject and causes reaction. Creative Nonfiction offers samples issue after issue. You can learn from the examples supplied.

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.


"As a 30-year veteran journalist (first in print, then blogging, now Web TV) I can report that it's ALL about creativity. The only thing you don't make up are the facts you're reporting, and the facts don't make a good story. What makes a good story is how you tell them, which is also the creative part." --C.G. Masi

Posted in (RSS)

Pros and Cons of Reader-Generated Content

Posted on Wednesday, April 29, 2015 at 4:44 PM

Should you put user-generated content to work in your publication?

By William Dunkerley

The idea of getting content from readers has a lot of appeal to many editors. It has two main things going for it: First it can be relatively inexpensive and readily available. There is plenty of content awaiting almost any editor on the plethora of social media sites. The second thing is the idea of increased reader involvement. Many readers will feel closer to a publication if they sometimes see their input in print or online.

User-Generated Content

Reader-generated content is actually a subset of the broader term "user-generated content," often referred to simply as UGC. The concept first burst onto the scene at the end of 2006, according to Google Trends. Now a Google search on the term returns over 8 million hits.

The trend by commercial companies to make greater use of content marketing is probably propelling interest. Last year Digiday proclaimed that UGC "makes a brand more approachable." As non-publishers increasingly try their hand at using content as a draw in their marketing, UGC pops up as an attractive approach.

A Not-so-New Trend

When you think of it though, magazines have been using UGC since long before the dawn of the digital age. Isn't a letters to the editor page UGC? Aren't op-eds? I've seen magazines that run long, regular columns that consist largely of reports from readers. That's UGC too. Some publications carry articles that are largely written by readers and then edited by the professional editorial staff. So these are some time-tested applications of beneficial UGC.

Most of the above variants of UGC are incorporated in digital publications as well. Online publishing has also ushered in reader comment sections at the end of each article. I've seen some online articles attract hundreds of comments.

The Risks of UGC

Unfortunately, though, you can find a lot of lively discussions out there where the comments have devolved to the level of moronic street talk. It can't do your publication much good when you offer proof that so many of your readers are nincompoops. That makes a strong case for moderating reader comment features.

One frequent criticism of UGC in publications is that it often lacks the gravitas and expertise that readers expect from credentialed authors. But that concern can be contained by limiting the percentage of your publication that is devoted to UGC.

The Allure of Editorial Convenience

Our recent two-part series titled "Is Wikipedia a Reliable Source?" turned up something interesting (see those articles here and here). We had surveyed editors on whether they allow quoting from Wikipedia or referencing its content. Few admit that Wiki content is as good as any other source. Far more say it depends.

But a striking finding from our mini survey is that so many editors use Wikipedia in their own work. It's not considered an ultimate source. Editors treat whatever they see in Wikipedia with a good measure of skepticism. Nonetheless, quite a few editors consider Wiki to be a real convenience, even if its accuracy is dubious. It's a convenient starting point.

What this means is the editors, certainly a critical group of information seekers, are willing to trade off reliability for convenience. That being so, wouldn't this same principle apply to many of our readers?

Convenience, breadth, and accessibility of information shouldn't be ignored when planning your editorial approach.

Should Your Publication Offer UGC?

Is this something worth developing for your publication? I'm talking about a UGC section or pockets of UGC disbursed throughout the issue. The pro is the opportunity you provide to readers for added convenience, breadth, and accessibility. If readers would appreciate that, why not give it to them?

The con, of course, is that we're talking about content that may not meet your usual standards.

But the survey of editors suggests that this may not be perceived by readers as the turnoff you might imagine. And especially if you label UGC as UGC, and perhaps add a "Caveat lector" ("Let the reader beware") tagline, what risk is there in testing UGC to see how your readers might react?

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

Add your comment.


"I'll add my two-cents worth (because that's an accurate assessment of UGC's value) to this excellent article. We've always encouraged UGC as a way to boost readership. The "social media" phenomenon, which seems to have started with "forums" attached to blogs, and degenerated from there, is an example of UGC gone wild. Before technology turned them into "social media," we called them either "bull sessions" or "hen parties," depending on circumstances. They were entertaining, and sometimes informative, but nobody in their right minds imagined them to be 'journalism.'" --C.G. Masi

Posted in (RSS)

The Fog Index

Posted on Wednesday, April 29, 2015 at 4:42 PM

This month: An excerpt from Huffington Post.

Let's assess the Fog Index of a sample from an April 27 Huffington Post article ("Mobile Is a Lifestyle, Not a Technology" by Daniel Newman). Here's the text:

"Business has always been focused on generating revenue, but no longer is making money the only goal. Blindly following successful business models doesn't cut it anymore. Following the well-beaten path to success is a thing of past, as we see innovation cutting new pathways for us. Businesses that are broadening their focus to maximize their employees' potential and productivity, as well as building and embracing a culture of innovation and change, will find themselves well-suited to this new work world. Mobility opens doors to flexibility and the freedom to do more. When employees are not tethered to their desks, when they are treated like trusted adults instead of clock punchers, they tend to be more passionate about their work and more dedicated to your brand and business."

--Word count: 127 words
--Average sentence length: 21 words (17, 9, 20, 34, 11, 36)
--Words with 3+ syllables: 11 percent (14/127 words)
--Fog Index: (21+11)*.4 = 12 (no rounding)

Business writing can get unwieldy in a hurry. This excerpt does a nice job of keeping jargon-induced fog to a minimum. We only need to cut a point to fall within ideal range. Let's see what we can do:

"Business has always been focused on making money, but no longer is that the only goal. Blindly following proven business models doesn't cut it anymore. Following the well-beaten path to success is a thing of past, as we see innovation cutting new pathways for us. Businesses that maximize employee potential and output, as well as build and embrace a culture of innovation and change, will find themselves well-suited to this new work world. Mobility opens doors to flexibility and the freedom to do more. When employees are not tethered to their desks, when they are treated like trusted adults instead of clock punchers, they tend to be more passionate about their work and more devoted to your brand and business."

--Word count: 120 words
--Average sentence length: 20 words (16, 9, 20, 28, 11, 36)
--Words with 3+ syllables: 7 percent (9/121 words)
--Fog Index: (20+7)*.4 = 10 (no rounding)

We made very few changes to the original sample, but we made those changes count. In cutting 5 longer words and trimming total word count slightly, we were able to cut 2 points from the Fog Score (from 12.8 to 10.8, to be exact). There wasn't much to be done here -- just a light editorial touch to bring the Fog below 12.

Add your comment.

Posted in (RSS)

Revised ASME Guidelines

Posted on Wednesday, April 29, 2015 at 4:40 PM

In the news: Updated guidelines from the American Society of Magazine Editors.

Earlier this month, ASME updated its editorial guidelines to reflect changing attitudes toward sponsored content. According to Folio: writer Michael Rondon, the new guidelines forgo "specific procedural restrictions on advertiser-editor relationships in favor of a set of broader principles." Editors no longer face "prohibitions on cover advertising and editorial input in creating sponsored content."

What does ASME itself have to say? The revised guidelines posted on April 15 emphasize that editors must always serve readers first and should take care not to be unduly influenced by advertisers. Ultimately, the association has one vital piece of advice as editors go out into the sponsored-content wild: "Don't deceive the reader." Read Folio:'s roundup here and the new guidelines themselves here.

Also Notable

Magazines and Social Media

The Magazine Media Industry has just released its social media statistics for the first quarter. The quarterly report follows over 200 magazine brands on multiple social networking sites to measure audience growth. Leading the pack in likes/followers were National Geographic, ESPN The Magazine, and Time. Read more here.

"Buzzfeeding" B2B Content

Can B2B publications tap into Buzzfeed and Upworthy content strategies to attract a larger audience? Perhaps, according to Jon Hughes in a two-part Folio: piece ("4 Tips for 'Buzzfeeding' Your B2B Editorial Strategy"). "When it comes to [B2B] editorial content, we don't get to be silly," he writes in Part 2. "But that doesn't mean we have to be dry, boring and ignorant of use cases that may not be strictly professional in nature." Read both parts here and here.

Print Magazines in 2014

How did print magazine titles fare last year? Last week, Library Journal summarized the highlights from last year, which saw nearly 200 new titles and nearly 100 closures. Among its favorite new magazines of 2014 were Bella Grace, C|NET, and Craft Beer & Brewing. Read more here.

Add your comment.

Posted in (RSS)

« March 2015 | Top | May 2015 »