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Issue for May 2012

Stop Thinking as an Editor ...

Posted on Wednesday, May 30, 2012 at 10:09 AM

...start thinking as a reader.

By Jan V. White

Words are what you think with. Everything you value is verbal. Of course it is. You can take it for granted that your story starts with a headline of some kind because you are trained to think that way. For you, the words are what matters and if you have a picture or diagram or visual of some kind, it is merely a secondary "illustrative" element. It may well enrich your story, but words always come first, because our culture assumes the primacy of the Word. (See Genesis 1.1.)

You are absolutely right -- in the context of a self-contained "story," letter, report, essay, poem, article, whatever. With deepest professional empathy and sympathy, I submit to you that you're getting it bass-ackwards if that verbal effort you are concerned with is merely a segment of a concatenation of such pieces such as a magazine.

Trouble is that doing a superb writing job ain't nuthin' if you forget that you gotta sell the durned thing to the durned reader. Like it or not, selling your story is vital in our regrettably non-intellectual world.

Not worth mentioning?

This selling-process is so simple and obvious that it is never even mentioned in polite editorial society. Here's how it works:

1. The somewhat interested looker is flipping pages, glancing and searching for interesting stuff. Hurry! 2. All those grey words, words, words and even their interrupting boldfaced display. They demand cogitation, thinking. Hey, that's work. The reader will skip it. 3. Picture! Immediate emotional reaction, curiosity, finding answers, getting involved. Sure! Is this a bit oversimplified? Are there indeed stories that people want to read as text? Well, of course there are. Nevertheless, the undisputed fact is that readers look at pictures first.

Therefore, it follows that the pictures should come first in the vital attention-getting sequence of a story. Any story that has pictures. Yes!


Let me illustrate my point with two simple examples, one before, one after.


The editor's habitual presentation:

1. hed
2. txt
3. cut
4. cutline or legend

How am I supposed to know?

This following bit of text is "dummy type," but there might be something in there worth bothering to read. Heads are often assumed to be irresistible as a question. Maybe. Here I used a question because I want to compare this "before" to the "after" that follows. Yes, the vast majority of potential readers start at the top of the page, normally with a provocative headline first. A beguiling first sentence draws the reader into the story, then the rest of the guff follows below it. Then, way down below, comes a photo as a sort of added footnote. Why a "footnote"? Because it is at the bottom, and therefore it is in an unimportant place. Any stuff at the top is important, but stuff below it is less important. Stuff at the very bottom is the least important and a pathetic footnote. Yet the legend (or cutline), the most important wording on the page because it answers the question that the photo has raised, is downplayed down there. What a waste. What is the result of the piece? Just the normal report-like story, just like any other wordy essay. Yes, with a bit of a visual surprise down below, because the photo is supposed to make you smile. (In truth, it makes me depressed because I look so old, but ignore that.) The article depends 100 percent on the excitement of the questioning words at the top.

Who he? Some guy. Who cares? Not important. Forget it.


The canny editor's presentation:

1. cut
2. cutline or legend (optional?)
3. hed
4. txt

How am I supposed to know?

That's the guy who was credited to have invented that great new doohickey -- didn't he? This is a much more magnetic presentation, because the headline is also the caption to the photo. The two elements work together so that one plus one equals three. That gets you fast, immediate explanation, which will draw attention to your story. How? First comes the puzzling image that creates the reaction of curiosity. That curiosity is encouraged by the questioning image itself. The second of the one-two punch is the questioning headline explaining it (while it also acts as a sort of tickler-file). It acts as a cutline because the two elements (i.e., the picture and its headline) are a melded unit of thinking. The third element that flows out of the whole story is the irresistible answer to all that questioning, i.e., the article itself that you are reading right now, despite the fact that I've repeated the thinking because I want to make this dummy type a bit longer. The first sentence could start flowing out of the questions in some way, as perhaps, "Well, he says he doesn't know, but he has a pretty good idea ... blah blah blah.


Here's the Point...

... put cut at top instead!

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.

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Three Necessities!

Posted on Wednesday, May 30, 2012 at 10:08 AM

Exploit your individuality, prove your competence, and provide atmosphere.

By Peter P. Jacobi

We need to remind ourselves once in a while that writing is not only an exercise in self-expression. Ultimately and more importantly, it is a gift to readers. They complete our creative act. What do we need to do to make them consenting readers, more freely willing to enter into the literary substance we provide?

Here's a call for voice, style, and tone.

They must be more than vaporous presences that flit about as you verbalize your material, more than shadows that lurk at the boundaries of your labors. Their presence must dominate. They are musts in the fabric of your content.

Voice: Necessity Number 1

Voice means the release of you in your writing. It means the release of your (or your writer's) individuality, that which separates your (or your writer's) work from that of others. I may have quoted Andre Gide, the French man of letters, previously, but even if so, his words are worth sharing again:

"What another would have done as well as you, do not do it. What another would have said as well as you, do not say it; written as well, do not write it. Be faithful to that which exists nowhere but in yourself -- and thereby make yourself indispensable."

When considering voice, I think about honesty and perspective and urgency. I think about approach and vision and personality. I think about Mozart and Beethoven: no matter whether it's a concerto of theirs or sonata or symphony, choral piece or opera, no matter whether the substance is sad or happy, weighty or light, the music is recognizably Mozart's or Beethoven's. So it is with a distinctive painter: a Rembrandt, a Cassatt, a Chagall. So it is with Shakespeare, Emily Dickinson, or Toni Morrison.

As the philosopher R. Buckminster Fuller preached, "Never forget that you are one of a kind. Never forget that if there weren't any need for you in all your uniqueness to be on this earth, you wouldn't be here in the first place."

Joyce Carol Oates speaks of "a rhythm, a unique music, a precise way of seeing and hearing that will give the writer access to the world he is trying to create."

Jorge Luis Borges explains voice as "unobtrusive skill," not allowing the reader to be "aware of a sense of effort," writing that seems "inevitable as well as easy."

And speaking of voice, if your article features a major character, then not only should the whole of your piece have your own creative stamp, but you must strive to capture the voice, the distinctive personality, the special nature of that character as well.

Style: Necessity Number 2

As for style, let me say first that an effective voice employs an effective style. But style involves word choice and sentence structure, flow and continuity, grammar and punctuation and spelling -- the basics of good writing. Style calls for unity of copy and coherence as well as matters of emphasis such as pace, proportion, and climax. Style demands clarity.

For language maven Roger Rosenblatt, style is "spare writing. Precise and restrained writing. I like short sentences," he says, "fragmented sentences, sometimes. I enjoy dropping in exotic words from time to time. Either they put off readers or drive them to the dictionary. I do it anyway."

Advising a schoolboy essayist, Mark Twain wrote: "I notice that you use plain, simple language, short words and brief sentences. This is the way to write English -- it is the modern way, and the best way. Stick to it. Don't let fluff and flowers and verbosity creep in. When you catch adjectives, kill most of them -- then the rest will be valuable. They weaken when they are close together. They give strength when they are wide apart. An adjective habit, or a wordy, diffuse or flowery habit, once fastened upon a person, is as hard to get rid of as any other voice." And thus, Mark Twain spoke of style without naming it.

I know good style when I see it. So do you. Here's the rub: It is far easier for us as readers to recognize good style than for us as writers to produce it. Sensitive editing can help, of course. Style is the essential element we strive across a lifetime to perfect. Perfection eludes. We simply have to keep working away at issues of style to keep improving.

Style: your mastery of words and technical skill at putting them together, your ability to make language work for you.

Tone: Necessity Number 3

Concerning tone: Every piece of writing must possess tone, whether that tone be serious or slapstick, formal or friendly, dynamic or gentle, cheerful or angry, lofty or earthy, mushy or strident, passionate or dispassionate, sunny or ominous, weighty or whimsical, happy or sad, flamboyant or restrained.

Tone must suit your attitude toward the subject you're writing about and must also announce that attitude to the reader so clearly that he or she will recognize immediately where you are coming from.

When I say immediately, I mean tone must be present from the start of your copy. It must be evident throughout although, certainly, it can and must change with your story's change of circumstances.

Tone: giving your copy a feel, a mood, an aura, a color.

So, into your work, inject:

Voice -- to exploit your individuality.

Style -- to prove your competence.

Tone -- to provide atmosphere.

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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The Fog Index

Posted on Wednesday, May 30, 2012 at 10:08 AM

Assessing the readability of a Time.com excerpt.

This month, we calculate the Fog Index of a Time.com article ("Technology's Perfect Storm Is Coming This Fall" by Tim Bajarin). Let's take a look:

"The second big thing will be the push by Microsoft to introduce two versions of Windows 8, the company's new operating system with the Metro touch user interface. This new OS will be especially important for the tablet market, and by late October we should have dozens of new Windows 8 tablets available in two distinct flavors. The first will be tablets based on Intel's x86 chipsets. This is important because it means that you will be able to run existing Windows apps on these tablets. The one problem with this is that existing apps will not be Metro- or touch-enabled, which means that to use them you will need a tablet that also has a stylus. Microsoft is pushing software vendors to build new apps that are touch-enabled to take advantage of the Metro UI, but at launch we expect less than 10,000 Metro apps for Windows 8 will be available."

Word count: 152 words
--Average sentence length: 25 words (28, 29, 10, 19, 31, 35)
--Words with 3+ syllables: 8 percent (12/152 words)
--Fog Index: (25+8)*.4 = 13 (no rounding)

This excerpt is in pretty good shape, but it could use some minor tweaks to bring the Fog score down by two points or more. (Remember, the ideal score is under 12.)

"The second big thing will be the push by Microsoft to introduce two versions of Windows 8, the new operating system with the Metro touch user interface. This new OS will be important for the tablet market. By late October there should be dozens of new Windows 8 tablets in two distinct flavors. The first will be tablets based on Intel's x86 chipsets. This means that you will be able to run existing Windows apps on these tablets. However, existing apps will not be Metro- or touch-enabled, which means that to use them you will need a tablet with a stylus. Microsoft is pushing software vendors to build new apps that are touch-enabled to take advantage of the Metro UI, but at launch we expect fewer than 10,000 Metro apps for Windows 8 will be available."

Word count: 136 words
--Average sentence length: 19 words (27, 10, 16, 10, 15, 23, 35)
--Words with 3+ syllables: 6 percent (8/136 words)
--Fog Index: (19+6)*.4 = 10 (no rounding)

By condensing some of the longer sentences, we were also able to trim the percentage of longer words. This helped us to bring this excerpt's Fog Index down from 13 to 10, a reduction of nearly 25 percent.

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Magazine Covers Matter

Posted on Wednesday, May 30, 2012 at 10:06 AM

In the news: Your cover still has the power to get people talking.

The concept of magazine content may be changing, but magazine covers can still make waves. Recently, several magazine covers have stirred up social media firestorms. Among them, the Newsweek cover that declared President Barack Obama "The First Gay President" and the Time cover featuring a breastfeeding mother and asking its readers "Are You Mom Enough?"

Last month, we talked about how magazines were evolving and raised the possibility of à la carte content delivery in the future. The recent social media success of the aforementioned magazine covers (among others, including a Bloomberg BusinessWeek cover featuring two suggestively posed commercial jets) suggests that the traditional magazine structure has a place in an iTunes-ized, tweeting society. A provocative cover can still ignite readers worldwide. Read more here and here.

Also Notable

Adobe Digital Publishing Suite

Adobe may have just made editorial workflow a little easier with the announcement of its updated Digital Publishing Suite. The new version allows editors to create digital content not only for personal computers and tablets, but also smartphones. This streamlines a process that often involves using multiple programs to publish across different platforms. Read more about the upated software suite here.

The Return of M Magazine

Fairchild Fashion Media has announced plans to resurrect M magazine. Editorial director Peter Kaplan says that the intended audience is men in their thirties and forties "who are Web-savvy but want to hold onto print." Likely competitors are GQ and Details. Read more about the magazine and some surprising digital vs. print audience statistics here.

Rising in the Editorial Ranks

This week, Mediabistro.com shares seven tips for editors in pursuit of the elusive editor-in-chief title. Read more here. (Note: For Mediabistro subscribers only.)

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