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Issue for June 2010

Decks That Work

Posted on Wednesday, June 30, 2010 at 1:07 PM

They persuade you to care.

By Jan V. White

All those reasons why "people nowadays don't read" may well be true, but they are not a patch on the real question: "Why should I bother?"

Given the screaming for attention all around and the plethora of so-called information, the immediate reaction is "I don't have the time," which is a euphemism for "I don't care enough to make the time." Or that sneaky excuse, "I'll look at it tomorrow," which is an attempt to preserve self-respect while that stack of ‘to-be-reads' next to the bed grows -- until it is dragged away for recycling.

Self-interest -- "Hey, that's useful!" -- is the irresistible motivator for anyone to start reading. (Always has been. Two thousand years ago, the Romans had three words for it: Sine qua non. Without which, nothing.) Plain curiosity -- the "Wow!" factor -- works nearly as seductively.

The solution to handling our material in a way that maximizes the beguiling capacity of our thoughts and words lies in the way people examine stuff in print. First, they scan it fast, skipping around and searching for value-to-themselves. They are investing time, treasure, and effort -- and are ready (hoping) to be caught.

Our persuasion strategy must therefore have two simultaneous aims:

1. Speed. Exposing the topic so conspicuously, by hollering in type, that they can't miss it as they peck and flip pages.

2. Significance. Telegraphing the value-to-me of the content so it is appreciated at first glance.

Our material -- words in type -- is nothing else but speaking made visible.

This is just plain conversation:

What does it look like in type? Exactly like this article's monotonous text, which seems to flow on and on...

This is vocal emphasis:

Something vital and worth screaming? Headline, perhaps?

This is the inside scoop:

Explanation... persuasion...whatcha-oughta-know...aha! The DECK!

The "display" -- headlines and decks -- is that vital, fast verbal persuasion.

Here are the eight headline characteristics covered last month:

--Heads aren't just journalism, they are salesmanship.
--Heads are recognition signals; make them look the same.
--Heads must stand out by looking loud and aggressive.
--Heads should be set flush left, lines broken by sense-making phrase.
--Heads should slip off the page smoothly in all-lowercase.
--Heads can be in smaller type size but framed in space.
--Heads should not be in all-caps except for a few special words.
--Heads can have a key word or phrase popped out in color or size.

Headlines and decks work together.

Decks are the headlines' partners. They must be handled so that 1 + 1 = 3. Here are nine practical suggestions.

Suggestion #1 -- Emulate a Master

Study Time magazine, because it exploits decks brilliantly. I dislike the word "creative" because it is overused, but here it is the correct adjective. The decks fit into visual patterns (which help give the magazine its individuality as a product) and their wording is sharply honed (which yields a sense of active immediacy).

Suggestion #2 -- Repeated Words?

No! Please! Repeating is deadening and a turnoff. "Tell 'em what you're gonna tell 'em, then tell 'em, then tell 'em what you told 'em" was the cynical wise-guy journalism that went with fedoras hanging on the back of the head and green eyeshades. In today's rush, the headline proposes a basic idea and the deck points out its significance. Repetition of a phrase or idea in the headline, deck, and first paragraph slows down the article exactly where speed and clarity are of the essence.

Suggestion #3 -- Length

If they look too long and too heavy, they'll get skipped. No, there are no rules. The comfortable length varies. Self-test it. To swipe Larry Ragan's insight into our trade, "Would you read it if you hadn't written it?"

Suggestion #4 -- Type Font

Same as the headline or contrasting? Yes -- one or the other. The important factor is that it should be standard throughout the publication because it is an important personality signal, just like the headlines are. Time uses two versions, since they have a great many of them. Newsweek, which has fewer-but-longer stories, uses only one style. The goal: consistency for the sake of recognition.

Suggestion #5 -- Type Size

Smaller and paler in impact than the headlines, but obviously bigger than the text. Realize that heads and decks are seen and scanned at a greater distance from the eyes -- possibly even at arm's length. That is why they need to be larger as well as easily legible. Have ample line spacing between the lines.

Suggestion #6 -- Ragged-right

Where lines are short and must be justified, ugly gaps between words or even the characters are forced into the lines. Not only is the texture destroyed, but the rhythm of reading is tripped up. Both are inimical to smooth, easy reading. Setting lines ragged-right solves that annoying problem. Does justifying make it look like "poetry" to Management? Maybe, but it doesn't read like poetry, so forget that silly bugaboo.

Suggestion #7 -- Decks Can Appear Above Headlines

There is no law that specifies that decks must be placed beneath the headline. They can be written in such a way that they lead into the headline and can be logically placed above. Punctuation such as a colon (:) or ellipsis (...) can be used to indicate the relationship.

Furthermore, they can be set stacked in short, tight lines and placed alongside the text as unexpected contrast.

Suggestion #8 -- Synopses Are Not Decks

Those are compressed summaries intended for quick reference, information retrieval, and keyword search. Any whiff of "selling" is rejected. A formal look centered on the page is appropriate to their serious scholarly context.

Suggestion #9 -- Abstracts Are Not Decks

Those are conventional summaries restricted to some 120 words citing standardized structural elements in reviews or scientific reports (such as problem/method/result/conclusion). They are expected to be set in bolder or larger type than the text and placed as a first paragraph.

Jan V. White is a communication design consultant and author of Editing by Design (3rd Ed.), Allsworth Press, 2003. He may be reached at janvw2 [at] aol [dot] com.

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Posted in Design (RSS), Editing (RSS)

Out-of-Style Style

Posted on Monday, June 28, 2010 at 1:58 PM

Style conventions that lag popular usage can give your publication an outdated feel.

By William Dunkerley

Is it "Web site" or "website?" We decided to survey readers. During the period from late March to late May, we heard from 383 editors. Here's the usage they reported:

--Web site: 157
--website: 212
--web site: 9
--Website: 5

You might think that this settles the debate. In the case of "Web site" v. "website" it would appear that website has simply won. Well, it did win, but it isn't that simple.

At the start of our survey, "Web site" was actually in the lead. Take a look at these results from before mid-April:

--Web site: 83
--website: 60
--web site: 3
--Website: 3

Then, for the latter period of our survey, the results were:

--Web site: 74
--website: 152
--web site: 6
--Website: 2

What happened here? Why did "website" pull into the lead, and "Web site" fall into disfavor?

Associated Press Steps In

The turnabout coincided with an announcement from the Associated Press on April 16, 2010. Its online stylebook had abandoned "Web site" in favor of "website." Clearly, the AP decision carried a lot of weight. What's puzzling, however, is what took them so long!

Actually, the style conventions adopted by any publication should take into account the vernacular of its audience. For a group of readers unfamiliar with the Internet, the old "Web site" rendition may indeed be helpful. For a more Web-savvy crowd, it might sound anachronistic. It is important to take these factors into consideration when establishing and updating style guides, so that house style never becomes outdated.

Here's a historical example for comparison. On July 21, 1933, The Pittsburgh Press published a piece by a science writer about a mythical race between a "space ship" (two words) and a comet. But, by April 12, 1961, when cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin actually traveled into space, The Huntsville Times reported that he did it in a "spaceship" (one word). More recently, there's been the transition from day care to daycare, and health care to healthcare.

One Publication's Rationale

At Editors Only, we adopted "website" back in 1998. We did so because we saw that when editors spoke of a website, it was actually being spoken as one word. "Web" was not modifying the word "site." A Web site and a grave site were not really just two different kinds of sites. Editors knew what a website was, and they had a name for it -- even if the style of all their publications didn't treat it as one word. We also decided to continue to capitalize Web when referring to the Internet. We did that for two reasons. First was to distinguish it from the "web" of web offset printing, and second was because the word is part of the proper noun World Wide Web. It's sort of like calling the United States "the States."

AP isn't the only organization that has been clinging to "Web site." Webster appears to still use it. But, writing in Editors Only for September 1989, Merriam-Webster editor-in-chief Frederick Mish explained, "Most modern lexicographers see the dictionary as, above all, a record of the vocabulary of our language, and especially the vocabulary current [emphasis supplied] when the dictionary is published."

It would seem good to apply that principle to style issues, as well!

William Dunkerley is editor of Editors Only.

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"I've been using 'website' for years whenever I was in a position to set style for a publication. It just made sense, for the reasons William Dunkerley provided in his article; it's a generic. I was delighted when AP made the switch." --Ruth E. Thaler-Carter, WriterRuth.com. 06-30-2010.

Posted in Editing (RSS), Grammar (RSS)

"Web site" vs. "website"

Posted on Monday, June 28, 2010 at 1:57 PM

Choose your style and apply it consistently.

By Denise Gable

Norman Goldstein, AP StyleBook editor, said in May 2003, "Style, in the sense we're talking about, really means a preference (in spelling or punctuation or capitalization or usage) when there is a choice to be made. AP made the choice of 'Web site' for what we thought were very good, language-based, reasons. Others are free to use their preference -- as long as it is clear to a reader and consistent. More creative writers than I have said that 'usage will push new meanings into currency no matter how many authorities hurl themselves into the path of change.'"

It's not unusual for a new word to take some time before fitting into a standardized style. 'World Wide Web site' has changed to 'Web site' and, now, 'website' in keeping with our rapidly advancing, technology-savvy world. While the style guides and experts differed on Web site versus website, what were editors and writers using?

Best Friends, Best Friends Animal Society
Frequency: Bimonthly
Description: Best Friends magazine has the largest readership of any general-interest animal publication in the U.S. The Best Friends Animal Society is guided by a simple philosophy: kindness to animals.

Mary Girouard, senior copy editor, "We use website. I decided to go that route after querying a copyediting listserv and finding that most of the copyeditors had switched from Web site to website. I was always uncomfortable with 'Web site' because web is not a proper word and therefore shouldn't be capped. Technically, it should be 'World Wide Web site' but that's too cumbersome."

Cineaste, Cineaste Publishers, Inc.
Frequency: Quarterly
Description: Cineaste is a quarterly magazine (founded in 1967) which offers a social, political, and esthetic perspective on the cinema.

Gary Crowdus, editor-in-chief, "This term, as with many of the new technology terms, can be really problematic for editors, as it has been for us, in terms of settling on a spelling with which we try to be consistent. We had some heated arguments, believe it or not, as to whether or not it should be spelled 'web site' or 'website,' among other variations. We capitalize Internet and World Wide Web, so we finally came to an agreement on our editorial board that in future we will spell it Website. But, you will find it half a dozen other ways in other publications."

Waste & Recycling News, Crain Communications Inc.
Frequency: Biweekly
Circulation: 51,000
Description: Waste News is the only bi-weekly tabloid news publication in North America written specifically for decision-makers in the rapidly changing solid-waste and recycling service and distribution system.

Pete Fehrenbach, managing editor, "We're still stuck with the stodgy AP-recommended variant, 'Web site.' I would prefer that we lowercase it and close it up: website. It seems to me the publishing world is headed in that direction." [Note: This response was submitted several weeks before the AP announced the change to "website."]

Charleston, GulfStream Communications
Frequency: Monthly
Description: A monthly magazine for Charleston, South Carolina.

Lauren Brooks Johnson, managing editor, "We use website (lowercase, all one word). Even though Webster.com has it listed as Web site (two words, Web capped), our editorial team felt that the word Web has become so widespread among readers that it no longer necessitates the proper noun privilege of capitalization. And though it has not made it to Webster as one word yet, is surely is on its way."

Rubber & Plastics News, Crain Communications Inc.
Frequency: Biweekly
Description: International newspaper for the rubber industry.
Ed Noga, editor, "We just switched to website from Web site. We use AP style, with some of our own variances, and our chief copy editor noticed a couple of weeks ago that 'Web' was now verboten. That was fine with us -- we never liked it capitalized. As I always say (and I'm not the first editor to state this), style is never wrong or right, it just 'is,' as long as you are consistent."

Chicagoland Gardening, State by State Gardening Magazines
Frequency: Bimonthly
Description: A magazine for gardeners in the Chicago area.

Carolyn Ulrich, editor, "I do one word for website and no capitalization. I also do not capitalize internet. I regard both website and internet as common nouns, so I would no more capitalize them than I would school or church. So that's the rationale, but I probably made my initial decisions based on gut feelings and what 'looked right' to me. The rationale came later."

Mediabistro.com, WebMediaBrands Inc.
Frequency: n/a
Description: A website dedicated to anyone who creates or works with content or who is a non-creative professional working in a content/creative industry.

Chris Ariens, editorial director, "We recently switched from Web site to website. We followed the AP Stylebook lead on this when they switched earlier this year."

Experience Life, Life Time Fitness
Frequency: 10 issues/year
Description: A magazine created to empower readers to become their best, most authentic selves and to support their enjoyment of a healthy, balanced, deeply satisfying way of life.

Steve Waryan, copy chief, "Our publication style follows the American Heritage Dictionary and Chicago Manual of Style in how we treat that term. We capitalize Web and spell it as two words -- Web site. We've followed this style since we started the magazine about 10 years ago. I'm aware that the AP recently changed its treatment of the two words into one -- website. We haven't yet discussed whether we'll follow this trend or not, but I anticipate future discussions about it."

AWCI's Construction Dimensions, AWCI
Frequency: Monthly
Description: A magazine delivering the latest in technical, promotional, business, and management ideas and issues for the wall and ceiling industry.

Laura Porinchak, editor, "We follow the AP Stylebook, so we used Web site up until the other day when the AP declared it to be one lowercase word: website. Most editors I know disagree with the change simply because 'World Wide Web' is a proper noun, thus Web site is correct. But most of those same editors are darn glad they don't have to explain anymore to their coworkers why it has to be two words with Web capitalized. It seems that those of us who follow the AP were in the minority when it came to Web site."

Denise Gable is managing editor of Editors Only.

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Posted in Editing (RSS), Grammar (RSS)

A Lesson from Nonfiction Writers

Posted on Friday, June 25, 2010 at 1:51 PM

Many lessons to learn from the pages of The Writer's Notebook.

By Peter P. Jacobi

Some sections of The Writer's Notebook, Craft Essays from Tin House (Tin House Books), focus exclusively on issues of fiction, which we're not in the business of. However, this collection of essays, based on craft seminars offered by those who publish the journal Tin House, is packed with nuggets worth the attention of nonfiction writers, too.

Let me share a few as a way of inducing you to look more deeply into the book's content.

Read It Aloud

Rick Bass, a Montana writer with a passion for environmentalism, has contributed "When To Keep It Simple." He discusses how to extricate oneself from the "too wrapped up in a lofty thought" situation: "Say it straight; literally. I'll try to speak the thought out loud, as if in conversation -- unaided by the treachery and guile of words on paper and speaking it as if in explanation, as when someone asks what it is you're working on, and you use plain language to tell them the synopsis rather than using high-octane dream lyrics."

How often have I preached the "read it aloud" path toward clarity and flow? Bass builds an entire essay on that potent piece of advice.

Keep It Authentic

Dorothy Allison, a Northern California-based novelist, feminist, and professor, focuses on "Place;" that's the title of her piece. She pleads for knowing detail, pointing to self experience as the means for the gathering and using of such. "I grew up among truck drivers and waitresses," she says.

Therefore: "I can give you detail. I can describe for you the tile they use in most truck stops because truckers have a horrible tendency to puke after having drunk great quantities of beer on top of chili. I know the colors of those tiles. I know, in fact, why 7-Elevens are designed the way they are. I've worked there ... Those places are real places for me. You probably read my stories to learn more about diners. And waitresses. And truck drivers. And I read to learn about the Jews in Brooklyn, the fishermen of Maine, and the combine drivers in Iowa."

Allison is encouraging authenticity, another issue I've addressed over the years. She asks us as writers to know and understand what we're writing about by using our own background or, short of that, doing careful fact finding, all to offer our readers meaningful detail.

Jim Shepard ties in to the above thought. He's a novelist and short story writer who teaches at Williams College. In his essay, "Generating Fiction from History and/or Fact," Shepard says: "The writers I admire take the world personally. It isn't true that only people who live in South LA can write about South LA: people who care enough to learn a bout South LA can write about South LA. If you can convince me of the reality of something, you have gained an authority."

Non-fictional Dream

Anna Keesey, a short story writer headquartered in Oregon, writes about "Making a Scene." She refers to John Gardner's classic text, The Art of Fiction, and his efforts to create the "fictional dream." It's "a kind of trance," she explains, "in which people read and they forget they're reading and they see the thing in front of them as though it's actually happening. They drop through the letters on the page into the imagined world and they respond to that world emotionally as if its events are actually happening."

That goal applies for nonfiction writers, too. We don't aim to get the reader into an "imagined" world, but if we can get the reader to "drop through the letters on the page" into the actual world we're trying to re-create, then we've done our job. It's a goal devoutly to be striven for.

Effective Writing

Margot Livesey, an author of fiction who serves as writer in residence at Emerson College, adds "Shakespeare for Writers" to the Tin House collection. She supplies sixteen useful lessons, among them, the following:

--"Begin dramatically."
--"Don't keep back the good stuff."
--"Consider beginning in the present."
--"Remember the power of appropriate omission. We don't need to take every journey with the characters, make every cup of coffee."
--"Don't over explain."
--"Be aware that form and tone govern content."
--"Be ambitious with your language."

Livesey expands on the above and others on her list, and -- in total -- they make for a mini-course in effective writing. But then, the entirety of The Writer's Notebook holds value. Don't be frightened off by the preponderance of fiction writers. There's much you can learn from these pages.

Revising Your Work

Take as a final example what memoirist and short story writer Chris Offutt covers in "Performing Surgery without Anesthesia." He deals with revising your copy and how to go about handling the completion of one's first draft, with which often comes the feeling of having "written something of absolute brilliance." As he puts it: "I love that feeling. It lasts until the next morning, when I look at the work again and realize it's a piece of crap." At that point, he explains, distancing becomes critical, brought on by the needed passage of time and the
re-emergence of objectivity about one's work.

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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Posted in Books (RSS), Editing (RSS), Writing (RSS)

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