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Issue for June 2016

Clear and Simple

Posted on Wednesday, June 29, 2016 at 11:20 PM

It is time for book catch-up. Here's one. More to come.

By Peter P. Jacobi

Princeton University Press recently issued the second edition of Clear and Simple as the Truth: Writing Classic Prose, authored by Francis-Noël Thomas and Mark Turner. Thomas is professor emeritus of humanities at Truman College, City Colleges of Chicago. Turner is institute professor of cognitive science at Case Western Reserve University.

The prose used by the authors isn't always so "Clear and Simple as the Truth," but I suggest you choose to struggle through the occasional thickets for a book-length essay about writing that has been deeply thought out by Thomas and Turner. They express unhappiness over how much teaching of writing is based on a faulty principle: that writing is a verbal skill or set of skills that will occur if an improper placing of commas and a restructuring of paragraphs can be straightened out. Not so, they argue. "Our answer is that writing is an intellectual activity, not a bundle of skills. Writing proceeds from thinking. To achieve good prose styles, writers must work through intellectual issues, not merely acquire mechanical techniques."

Intellectual and Literal Skills

I faced an example of the problem several years ago that started at a weeklong conference for writers. The writer in question had been assigned to me, meaning I had to read a submission of hers and spend time with her during that week as she attempted to make a bit of progress on her novel writing project by following some of the line editing I had provided. Later, at a dinner during which teachers offered their services for funds to be used for scholarships at future conferences on the site, my student purchased me to come to her town for a day and do a workshop with fellows in her local writers group. I waited for her to call me with details she needed to work out. Well, the details never did materialize. She could not carry out her plans for the meeting.

She asked if I'd be willing, instead of giving the workshop, to read and analyze her novel. I thought seriously about that, desiring if possible to help her move forward. But the truth came to me. I could, indeed, line edit her manuscript and, thereby, improve it. But there was no way that I could more productively benefit her by doing something quite different from line editing. I may be an expert on writing, I told her, but I am not an expert on writing novels. She did not need me nearly as much as she needed a writer and editor of novels.

With my note, I sent a check that equaled the one she had written to the conference folks for scholarship assistance. I told her to bank my check, then write her own, enabling her to attend a "whole novel workshop" offered by the same institution. She took my advice. She took the workshop. She learned and improved her novel. And we remain friends.

I was getting to the same point that the authors of Clear and Simple are striving to make: that I could have fussed around with her writing and made the reading of it more smooth. But she needed help on an intellectual and literary level that only experts could give her. For me to have gone on with her request, I would have ended up cheating her and wasting both her and my precious time.

Successful Style

"Style," say the authors, "is a word everybody uses, but almost no one can explain what it means. It is often understood as the inessential or even disreputable member of a two-term set: style and substance." Style is the subordinate term, goes their argument, and with it "a persistent suggestion that we would be better off without it. Style is, at best, a harmless if unnecessary bit of window dressing."

Of course, style involves how a writer uses the language, but not just how grammatically, not just how effectively, not just how efficiently, but with what level of authenticity, with what measure of topical clarity, with what sort of success at understanding the levels of meaning that define the subject, with what strength and assurance the writer grasps the topic and knows what it takes to make the coverage complete, with how well the writer has found and comfortably used a kind of tone that fits the material and theme, with how topic and readers are brought together by the flow and structure of the story, by how strategically and attractively the language has been chosen for the intended readership.

The first half of Clear and Simple explores all sorts of styles; the second focuses on the authors' chosen style, the classic. The examples shown help one study what works best in all sorts of situations. The goal of achieving a classic writing style, say Thomas and Turner, is to present whatever your topic in language that offers no problems, but that is clear and direct and spare and well-spoken and appropriate and carefully thought through so that the message and the reader are at all times fully served.

That leaves room for personal choices, for writing that reflects the author's personality. But if you read this introspective book and continue to mind its suggestions, you may find writing, at least temporarily, more difficult than before, what with the weight of considerations our two professors have insinuated into your mind and heart. That, however, should come easier with time and eventually lead you to a literary nirvana (or something of the sort).

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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Do Long Articles Work for Small-Screen Readers?

Posted on Wednesday, June 29, 2016 at 11:19 PM

Challenging the notion that mobile readers prefer shorter articles.

By William Dunkerley

"Less is more" when it comes to capturing the interest of mobile readers. At least that's been a commonsense notion about article length so far. That's presented editors with a dilemma: Do articles have to be abridged for readers using small-screen mobile devices?

Is Less Really More?

A new research report is causing some editors to question the less-is-more assumption. The Washington Post, for instance, ran the headline, "Surprise! People will actually read long news stories on their smartphones."

The WaPo lead goes on: "Those fretting over the effect that small screens have on big news stories may be able to breathe a little easier. A new survey from the Pew Research Center shows, somewhat surprisingly, that those reading on mobile devices actually spend more time with longer articles on their phones than they do with shorter ones."

This is an important consideration for any editor. The Pew report claims about 7 in 10 American adults currently own smartphones. But many editors have been perplexed about how to handle today's reality.

Pew explains: "One particular area of uncertainty has been the fate of long, in-depth news reports that have been a staple of the mainstream print media in its previous forms. These articles -- enabled by the substantial space allotted them -- allow consumers to engage with complex subjects in more detail and allow journalists to bring in more sources, consider more points of view, add historical context and cover events too complex to tell in limited words."

What Reader Statistics Are Telling Us

The survey results? "The analysis finds that despite the small screen space and multitasking often associated with cellphones, consumers do spend more time on average with long-form news articles than with short-form. Indeed, the total engaged time with articles 1,000 words or longer averages about twice that of the engaged time with short-form stories: 123 seconds compared with 57. This gap between short- and long-form content in engaged time remains consistent across time of day and the pathway taken to get to the news story. However, when looking solely within either short- or long-form content, engaged time varies significantly depending on how the reader got to the article, whether it is midday or evening, and even what topic the article covers, according to the study.

"Return visitors to long-form articles spend 277 seconds with the article compared with 123 seconds for users overall. For short-form content, return visitors spend an average of 110 seconds of engaged time with the article compared with 57 seconds for users overall."

Time Spent with Mobile News Stories

Once an article is published, how long does it take before the reader views start to die off? Pew found that to be variable:

"Time spent with longer news stories on cellphones shows somewhat more fluctuation. In the first week after publication, the average time cellphone users spend with a given article steadily increases, from 117 seconds on the first day of publication to 147 seconds on day seven. But engaged time then steadily declines, falling to 96 seconds on day 28 before a slight uptick for the remainder of the month.

"The total time spent with short-form news (fewer than 1,000 words) hovers around 58 seconds throughout the first 10 days after publication. After day 11, average engaged time slowly drops off until it reaches a low of 35 seconds on day 27 before a slight uptick through the remainder of the month (although there are fewer than 100,000 interactions during the last few days).

"The trend of increased engaged time during the first week after publication is even more pronounced for articles that are 5,000 words or longer. For these news stories, average engaged time increases from 199 seconds the day of publication to 373 seconds 8 days later, an increase of 87%."

What the Statistics Really Mean

So what can we make of all these statistics? I find them interesting but feel a need to observe caution in interpreting what they mean for us.

First of all, the statistics come from tracking the online behavior of consumers. The data are an aggregation of consumer interaction with the content of 30 different news organizations. The content in the overall magazine field is likely to be more diverse. Even within the news category there is considerable variance in consumer behavior. For example, articles longer than 5,000 words on the subject of crime command 490 seconds of engagement. Similar-length articles in the area of science and technology get only 99 seconds.

That all suggests that it's hard to reliably extrapolate the Pew statistics to any given publication or audience. The takeaway, I think, should be that every editor should hold in abeyance assumptions about his or her readers' preferences and actively seek feedback from them.

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

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The AP Stylebook 2016

Posted on Wednesday, June 29, 2016 at 11:16 PM

Rounding up the most noteworthy changes in the new edition.

On June 1, the Associated Press released the 2016 edition of its Stylebook and Briefing on Media Law. There's more to this new edition than just style changes; according to the AP's press release, the new edition features "the first interior page redesign in decades." Overall, the new edition features over 250 entry updates and additions, as well as 50 new or updated terms.

Making the biggest ripple is a minor, but controversial, change: Effective June 1, the AP began lowercasing "internet" and "web," breaking with years of tradition. (According to an April 2 tweet from the AP Stylebook announcing the change, World Wide Web will continue to be capitalized.) News of the style update reverberated through the media universe, drawing mixed reviews. A sampling of headlines:

--TechCrunch: "The death of 'Internet'" (April 2)
--Washington Examiner: "AP demotes the Internet: Lowercase 'internet,' 'web'" (June 1)
--Quartz: "The Associated Press is trying desperately to keep up with the Internet -- er, the internet" (June 1)
--Arizona Daily Star/Tucson.com: "Internet goes down" (June 3)

Elsewhere, Poynter.org has highlighted new and updated terms worth mentioning, including "emoji," "normcore," and "kombucha."

According to the AP's press release, the new stylebook is available in print, via online subscription, and as an ebook.

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Facebook as a News Source

Posted on Wednesday, June 29, 2016 at 11:14 PM

In the news: More and more readers are turning to Facebook and other social media as primary news sources. How will this affect magazines and newspapers?

According to a recent Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism (RISJ) study, whopping half of Internet users tap into social media for their news. This shift in reader behavior is due to multiple factors, including soaring smartphone adoption and resistance to intrusive digital ad formats on traditional publisher websites. Readers are also resistant to paywalls and paid online subscriptions. They are accustomed to getting their news for free, an ongoing struggle for publishers trying to generate digital and online revenues.

The good news is that, according to a recent piece by Mark Sweney on TheGuardian.com, "most of the content still comes from newspaper groups, broadcasters or newer digital brands that have invested in original content." So quality content is reaching readers who still value quality journalism. For more on this, read Sweney's full article here.

Also Notable

Print as a News Source

According to figures from the RISJ study mentioned above, few readers are getting their news from print media. Caysey Welton of Foliomag.com writes, "The largest consumer demographic that looks to print for news are those who fall in the 55+ range. Yet, only 12% of that segment is getting their news from print, whereas 53% of them look to TV and 25% go online." For more figures and a more detailed breakdown of news consumption habits by age, click here.

The Best "Brexit" Covers

Time.com has rounded up some of the best newspaper and magazine covers highlighting last week's controversial "Brexit" from the European Union. Among those publications highlighted were The Guardian, The Economist, and Le Monde. For a slideshow of the covers, click here.

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