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Issue for July 2013

The Imagination, the Labor, and You

Posted on Tuesday, July 30, 2013 at 10:45 PM

Part II: Labor, process, and six principles to get you going, picking up on a topic started in the May issue.

By Peter P. Jacobi

We continue with the content of a talk for writers I recently gave, dealing with writing as process. I titled that talk "The Imagination, the Labor, and You." In Part I the focus was on imagination, from which come idea generation, idea conceptualization, and idea materialization.


This month we move forward to and through labor.

And that does not mean you're ready to write. Not yet.

Gorgeous, facile writer though you may be, what exactly do you have at this point to put to paper or screen? Do you have a "what?" Now, what is a "what?" It is the body of information that should be at your fingertips as you pound your computer. The "what" is facts, details, stats, observations, feelings, the very essences of what you're going to write. For your story or article or essay, you need to gather information, maybe via observation. Maybe via participation. Maybe via interviewing. Maybe via research, studying, reading, searching. Maybe via several or all of these.

My view is: regardless of how well you write, if you don't have the concrete substance, the concrete "what" of your subject, you're in trouble. Writing skill will profit you nothing or next to it. Without the "what," there is no "how." Without solid matter, manner will fail you. You are only as good as the goods you've gathered for yourself. Yes, eventually you'll have to prove yourself as a writer, by the way you verbalize those gather goods, but the successful writer is, prior to that, the successful gatherer. There must be seeds to plant before your masterpiece can bloom.

Gathering the seeds, gathering the ingredients for what you are about to write involves the hard labor of reporting and research. The labor then continues as you consider and determine how to use your collected matter, how to put it into a framework, a structure, an architecture. It's much easier to know where you are going with words if, in preparation, you decide on a logical start-to-finish order. I trust you know how vital, how time saving, how nerve saving, how nail saving it is to nail down direction before you set the words to flowing. The method you choose depends on what you have at your disposal and what you want to accomplish, and for whom and why. But have a structure. Put labor into it.

Six Principles

Ah, but now you face either what you've been waiting to get your teeth into or what you've managed to avoid through prolonging the preparatory thinking and labor: WRITING.

Writing is the reason for everything done up to now. There is so much I want, I need, I could, I probably should tell you about writing. How to do it? How to help yourself get better? But here are six principles that should help.

Principle #1: My A-B-C-C Principle

A: Be accurate

Work with the best, most carefully sought out and checked material possible. Readers want and tend to trust the writers they turn to. Don't shake their trust. And speaking of accuracy: correct spelling and punctuation and solid grammar don't hurt.

B: Be brief

Don't waste words. Say what needs to be said as succinctly as possible. And that's not easy. As Toni Morrison put it, "It's harder to write less and make it more." But that's for you to accomplish. You must make every word count, make every moment the reader agrees to spend with you worthwhile.

The first C: Be clear

Sure, catchy and eloquent writing you should aim for, but such is of no importance if, from the start, from the very first words, you're not clear, if you're not making sense. The reader must understand your language and grasp your meaning without you giving him or her fits.

The second C: Be complete

Make sure the five W's and the H -- the who, what, where, when, why, and how -- have been taken care of. Make sure that no informational or contextual puzzles are likely to crop up. Granted, it is virtually impossible for a writer to be informationally complete; there's never room enough to say everything that might be said about your topic, particularly in a time such as now when brevity has become increasingly sought after. But you must strive, then, to be atmospherically complete, meaning that you've selected out of your collected body of knowledge and then put into your manuscript the most important, the most interesting, the most meaningful details, those that will give your reader an atmosphere of completeness, of having been provided all that was necessary and desirable to be read.

My accuracy-brevity-clarity-completeness principle: it is critical. Remind yourself of Stephen King's view: "Writing is telepathy. The value of writing comes in your ability to communicate stories and ideas to the reader." For that to happen, he says, "The greatest vocabulary or the most poetic prose is not as important as an ability to communicate and make the reader feel what you want him or her to feel."

Principle #2: Strive for Flow

From sentence to sentence, paragraph to paragraph, idea to idea, let there be linearity and linkage. A "Hey, where am I?" reaction from your reader threatens disaster, a communication meltdown. Your reader needs to know at every moment where he or she is, has been, and is likely to go to. Help yourself by reading everything you write aloud. The eyes allow themselves to be fooled; the ears far less so. Pair eyes and ears for maximum impact on your copy.

Principle #3: Be Conversational

Strive for a conversational quality in your writing, writing of a more relaxed, informal character, the sort we're used to hearing 'round and about us, the kind we tend to share when chatting with someone else. Conversational copy makes readers more comfortable. Its rhythm is familiar. It song is accessible.

Principle #4: Be Actively Graphic

By that, I mean use a bustling, things-happening approach wherever you can make it so. I mean writing that moves, that thrusts, that smells the roses, that dances or sighs or plays or struggles. I mean writing that records narrative or trend of thought, that describes scene or person or creature, that evokes the senses.

Principle #5: Be Authentic

When we sit down to read anything, we seek authenticity, material, and language that ring true. Even when we wallow in fantasy, we usually ask for plausibility, for the possible within the impossible. Another way of saying this is: Be honest in the way you prepare your story, the way you approach it, the way you verbalize it. Don't get fussy. Don't overdo. Don't inflate. Just treat what you have with respect. Offer truth in packaging.

Principle #6: Locate, Nourish, and Use Voice

As Oscar Wilde put it: "Be yourself. Everyone else is taken." Voice is a writer's signature. It gives the reader a sense of who you are. It identifies you through the way you perceive things and the way you give them life. Voice brings to mind personality, individuality. It is the YOU in your art. It separates what and how you write from that of others. I want you to have a YOU and to be that YOU. Find your voice. Imbue your writing with it.

And now the writing process nears an end. Just one more matter remains. It is far from insignificant and involves more labor: editing and rewriting. Here is the refining of your product, your precious document by means of reconsiderations and revisions and last edits. It is you making sure you've done your very best. It's you giving yourself an opportunity to rethink and act thereupon. If possible, separate your act of writing and your act of final editing. Time in between is likely to make you a more perceptive reader, able more easily to recognize problems. By doing it all too quickly, those problems might escape you. You're so close to what you've done. I urge separation, if possible.

Finally, know when to stop. Nothing will ever be perfect. The time arrives when you must tell yourself: "This is it. I must move on." Do that. Move on.

(I finished my lesson in process with some pep talk. However, since I've more than used up my space for this issue, I'll save that for another occasion. But do think of yourself as important, as someone special. You really should.)

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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Analysis Is Key in Magazine Editing's Future

Posted on Tuesday, July 30, 2013 at 10:26 PM

What's becoming of the magazine editing profession?

By William Dunkerley

It's time for magazine editors to get together for group analysis. I'm not talking Freud. I mean we need to analyze where we're going as a profession.

Usually we're too preoccupied with the struggle to put out the next issue to give much thought to seemingly non-pressing concerns. But there are some serious obstacles ahead -- even further ahead than next year's editorial calendar.

The actual role of magazines in contemporary society is up in the air. For a long time pundits have been saying that print is dead. Now it is the actual concept of a magazine that is in question. Do current-day readers really need or want editors to decide what they should read, package that content together, and disseminate it? And if readers don't need editors to do that, where does that leave you?

I think it's time that we put our heads together and figure out our future prospects. Then we can plot a successful strategy that will be beneficial for the profession.

Reader Preferences in Flux

Google Trends reports that the entire subject of "magazines" is in decline. Of course that just means that fewer searches are being conducted on that term. It's not a real barometer of the industry. But the downward curve certainly looks ominous. (Note: The time period of this and subsequent graphs is from 2004 to present.)

Figure 1: Google Trends report on the search term "magazines."

But magazine editing follows suit. Fewer searchers are looking for information about magazine editing.

Figure 2: Trend line for "magazine editing."

(Note: The graphs only present trend information, not absolute values. So, for example, while the interest in magazines seems to have the same amplitude as that in magazine editing, there actually is an enormous difference. Far more people are searching for "magazines" than "magazine editing."

Is the decline in magazine editing searches attributable to editors and editorial wanna-bes losing interest in print and in search of information about digital editing? Is that where our future lies? Google Trends actually lends some credibility to that hypothesis. The trend line for "digital editing" actually goes up.

Figure 3: Interest in digital editing is trending upward.

But before you open Google on your Web browser and start your own search, consider digital editing as a broad term. It does not necessarily refer to publications' work. Digital editors are needed for sales content posted by online retailers, product information supplied by manufacturers, and a host of other applications. In fact, Google Trends bears that out. A search for "online magazines" shows the cursed downward pattern once again, albeit flatter that the earlier curves.

Figure 4: The "online magazines" term shows a shallow yet downward trajectory.

What Can We Make of the Trends?

What's the story about digital readership? We hear glowing reports about the ascent of digital publishing. One report proclaimed, "Digital readership up more than 80 percent in past year." On the advertising side, another report heralds, "Magazines' iPad editions see 24 percent ad boost in Q1."

So digital is on its way up, no? Yes, it is, but not in such glowing terms as those reports. Notice that they talk in percentages. This means that, just as the graphs above for "magazine" searches and "magazine editing" searches look alike in percent terms, they are not really alike in absolute terms.

Take the "digital readership up more than 80 percent" claim, for instance. That's mighty impressive. But what gets lost in the fine print is that digital readership only accounts for 1.4 percent of all magazine readership! Doesn't that put a different spin on things?

Focusing on Reality

The sorry truth is that as important it is to incorporate digital into our future, a lot of caution is needed. There are an abundance of digital equipment manufacturers and people involved in the sales and supply chain who are overstating the current reality about digital publishing.

A lot of publishers look at the digital successes of some leading mass market publications and wrongly assume that things will work the same for them. The story is different for special interest consumer, trade, and professional magazines, though. Mass market publications can sell well at the checkout counter in a supermarket. But if you're editing a magazine for plumbers, you can't expect to use the same point-of-purchase techniques.

That's why editors need to start talking to one another and compare what's really happening at their respective publications as they extend their brands further into digital. I'm not talking about disclosing company secrets, but comparing notes on concepts that have shown measurable results and those that haven't.

In a recent edition of In-Plant Graphics magazine, editor Bob Neubauer touched on the benefits of information sharing. His readers operate the printing and graphic departments of corporations, universities, government agencies, and other organizations. Neubauer reported that at a recent conference of the In-Plant Printing and Mailing Association, he "overheard dozens of conversations between managers comparing the way they do things, relating their experiences with a certain piece of equipment, suggesting new services that have worked for them, etc. When commercial printers chat with their competitors at similar events, they're more guarded in what information they give out." In-plant printers, on the other hand, "seem to work for the common good," he concluded.

I think we editors need to do more of that at this critical time in our history. We need to work for the common good. Here at Editors Only, we're ready and available to facilitate your cooperation and information sharing. To start, please contact us with your concerns. Write to concerns@editorsonly.com.

William Dunkerley is editor of Editors Only.

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The Fog Index

Posted on Tuesday, July 30, 2013 at 10:19 PM

Assessing the readability of a Time.com biology article.

This month, we examine an excerpt from a July 25 article in Time.com's science section ("How the Moon Messes with Your Sleep" by Jeffrey Kluger):

"People have long reported that it is harder to get to sleep and remain asleep when the moon is full, and even after a seemingly good night's rest, there can be a faint sluggishness -- a sort of full-moon hangover -- that is not present on other days. If you're sleeping on the prairie or in a settler's cabin with no shades, the simple presence of moonlight is an inescapable explanation. But long after humans moved indoors into fully curtained and climate-controlled homes, the phenomenon has remained. What's never been clear is whether it's the real deal -- if the moon really does mess with us -- or if it's some combination of imagination and selective reporting, with people who believe in lunar cycles seeing patterns where none exist. Now, a report in the journal Current Biology suggests that the believers have been right all along."

--Word count: 142 words
--Average sentence length: 28 words (46, 23, 16, 40, 17)
--Words with 3+ syllables: 6 percent (9/142 words)
--Fog Index: (28+6)*.4 = 13 (no rounding)

This sample is in pretty good shape, but a few changes here and there would help to bring the Fog score below 12. The first sentence weighs in at a whopping 46 words, and another sentence later in the excerpt is 40 words. It would seem that sentence length is the problem here. Let's see what we can do:

"People have long reported that it is harder to get to sleep and remain asleep when the moon is full. Even after a seemingly good night's rest, there can be a faint sluggishness -- a sort of full-moon hangover -- that is not present on other days. If you're sleeping on the prairie or in a settler's cabin with no shades, the moonlight is an obvious culprit. But long after humans moved indoors into fully curtained and climate-controlled homes, the phenomenon has remained. What's never been clear is whether it's the real deal. Does the moon really mess with us? Is it some combination of imagination and selective reporting, with people who believe in lunar cycles seeing patterns where none exist? Now, a report in the journal Current Biology suggests that the believers were right all along."

--Word count: 135 words
--Average sentence length: 17 words (20, 25, 20, 16, 10, 7, 21, 16)
--Words with 3+ syllables: 6 percent (8/135 words)
--Fog Index: (17+6)*.4 = 9 (no rounding)

Our edits here were fairly light. Much of the work involved splitting up longer sentences. (We made 8 sentences where there were just 5.) We also reframed some divided sentences as questions for optimal flow. We left most of the longer words intact; the percentage thereof is quite small for a sample of this size.

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The End of Print Computer Magazines?

Posted on Tuesday, July 30, 2013 at 10:14 PM

In the news: PC World has shuttered its print magazine.

This month, PCWorld stopped producing its print edition after over thirty years. The magazine will now devote its resources entirely to digital content. The move is significant not only because it closes the doors on a publication that began in the early era of personal computer, but also because it symbolizes the end of the computer magazine era.

Harry McCracken of Time.com writes of PCWorld's print closure, "If you're feeling melodramatic, you could declare that the computer-magazine industry just died along with it." He concedes that this may be a bit hyperbolic, citing Macworld and MacLife as examples of computer magazines currently in print. But he also reminds readers that most computer magazines on the newsstands these days are devoted to narrower topics (e.g., a particular piece of software). Read more of his analysis here.

Also Notable

AllRecipes.com Print Magazine

We've heard a lot of stories about print magazines that have gone digital-only. Magazine publishing giant Meredith is turning this trend on its head. Meredith purchased AllRecipes.com, a popular recipe sharing website last year. Now, the publisher plants to launch an AllRecipes print magazine in November (for the December 2013 issue). The magazine will publish six issues per year. The AllRecipes brand brings with it a huge potential audience, with more than a billion website hits per year and 600,000-plus YouTube subscribers. Read more here.

Important Digital Metrics

In the past editors have looked to page views unique visits as a barometer of their online success. The picture has grown more complicated with the explosion of social media in recent years. Stephanie Paige Miller of Foliomag.com shares the five digital metrics that all magazine publishing professionals should consider. These include social referral activity, quality of followers, on-site social engagement, share of voice, and new and returning visitors. Read more here.

Tablet Edition Strategy

In a July 28 Guardian.co.uk article, David Hepworth reminds magazine editors and publishers that there is more to tablet strategy than simply creating a tablet edition. "Magazines on tablet may interest existing readers," he says, "but they also have to attract new ones." Many magazines are simply flowing their print content into tablet templates using "cheap page-turner apps," a tactic that is "unsatisfactory for the editorial team and not very thrilling for advertisers." Read more of his analysis of tablet editions here.

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