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Issue for August 2013

Stop and Think, Part I

Posted on Saturday, August 31, 2013 at 1:25 PM

How to persuade searchers to stop, think, and read.

By Jan V. White

We assume our targets are "readers". They aren't. They are investors who need our material (we hope!). First they are searchers, for what they hope will useful. They are in a hurry. That's why we can no longer afford the arrogance that puts our material in front of them and says, "OK, here is the hoped-for goldmine. Go dig." We must find the nuggets worth displaying and expose them on the surface. Those valuable nuggets are the bait in the hook. (How's that for mixed metaphors?)

Our duty to our investor/readers is to propel ourselves into their minds and understand how to dish out our stuff to them from their point of view. How their curiosity works.

Where am I? Orientation

To assuage immediate curiosity and foster reader confidence, the construction of the piece must be obvious. Chapters must be clearly demarcated. The sections must be discernible at first glance. Patterning must allow an intelligible rhythm to build. Sidebar elements must be instantly recognizable as non-mainstream matter. "How long is this thing?" It is all a matter of how much time the potential guesstimates of investing. Being lost in it -- skip it.

Planned skippability. Not all information is of equal weight. Readership levels vary according to the interest the material evokes. Each user has a different agenda. We must actively increase the velocity of understanding -- and appreciation -- by helping the reader to skip what we deem not immediately useful. We can write the information for skippability and use type to express the rankings. "Selective readership" is no mere slogan, but a concept demanding active response. Think of it as "two-level readership." Important/less important. Fast/slow. First read/later read.

Bite-size chunks. Information becomes understandable when spelled out in step-by-step fashion. A single thought presented as an individual element is easy to list, simple to find, fast to recognize, painless to access, effortless to absorb. Complex relationships can be assembled in such smaller bite-size chunks. They look like a long piece, but the small bits make it less unattractive.

Visual clues. Long blocks just look daunting. The typographic texture can be broken by narrow space separated into sub-units. Clusters of such units are identified by wider moats of space. Space is the most useful raw material always at hand to explain the segmentation.

Which comes first? Structured writing or its structured display? Which is forced to fit the other? Neither. They have to be developed together through trial and error, compromise, and goodwill. The typographic design must be tailored to fit the material, and we must learn to appreciate its capabilities of enticement with enthusiasm. We must also understand the reasons for the limitations it imposes, so that we avoid feeling constricted by them and recognize them for the positive factors that they are. It isn't eyewash but seduction.

Shall I come in? Welcoming doors

Their graphic makeup must be the user's first clue both to the organization of the volume and to the typographic expression of the writing style.

Story starts in print are always better on a right-hand page. Top left is where the screen's first glance is expected to be found.

Tables of contents are the front door into the volume. They represent the product in microcosm. To be the best guide, they must accomplish two purposes simultaneously:

1) List the intellectual content (verbally).
2) Explain the structure of the document (visually).

Indexes are the back door, typically used more often than the front for details. They cannot be relegated to secondary status as an afterthought. They deserve pride of place and setting in the same type size as the body copy. It is foolish to set them as small as we can get away with to save space. It is equally foolish not to invest the requisite effort of maximal usefulness: good indexing proves that more is more, not less is more.

Technical words scattered throughout are often used as a shortcut to search. That is why they must be clearly exposed (or "popped out").

Is type too small? Hard to read

That is often the wrong complaint. The fault does not usually lie in the size of the type, but rather in the frustration that readers can't find what they are looking for. The signals need to be larger and thus more noticeable. Once the labels have identified the section, the text type size can be as small as usual and nobody will notice. The clearer the signals and the more of them, the easier the document "reads," regardless of body type size.

Easy-to-read type to make the user comfortable. Readability results from a balance of many factors. The style, structure, and wording of the writing must be integrated with its typographic form. The type face chosen, its size, line length, and interline spacing must be in proportion to the size of the area as well as the number of type areas. The type must also be coordinated with the background, be it paper or screen.

Asymmetry to follow the flow of thought. Symmetry about the axis running down the middle is traditional, formal. It bespeaks dignity. But dignity is not the point. Clarity is. The job at hand is to catapult information off the page into the uncaring viewer's mind. Because words run in lineal series, they should not be forced into artificial and arbitrary shapes. Asymmetric arrangements impose fewer limitations than the rigidly balanced ones. They lend themselves to more expressive figuration. Besides, asymmetric pages look dynamic and active, whereas symmetrical ones appear stodgy and stolid.

Indentions to signify ranking. In all reading, the left-hand edge of the column is the vertical reference line to which the eye returns, line after line. Indention creates a subsidiary reference line, customarily understood as denoting secondary importance. A hierarchy of indented reference lines can be one major clue to understanding ranking, and thus aids effective page scanning. Thus, the geometry of the page can be utilized to elucidate meaning.

The "s'posed to" syndrome (i.e., tradition). It is sensible that poetry be set in traditional form. It was written that way. So must "difficult matter" like mathematical or chemical formulae. So should running narrative, as in novels. So should play scripts (though asides and stage instructions offer opportunity for argument about format). So must legal matter, whose retrieval system is based on specific forms that make traditional sense. The list of specialized formats is long, and common sense accepts the adage that if something ain't broke, it shouldn't be fixed. Users expect to find specialized materials a certain way, and that is the way they should receive them. The "s'posed to" syndrome is perceived as reader-friendliness and comfort. Tamper with it at your peril.

Patterning as a tool to aid recognition. The rhythm built by repetition of a pattern is itself a valuable attribute that aids recognition. Familiarity with its visual shapes becomes a clue to the reader's interpretation. Knowing what to expect also creates a feeling of friendly comfort, especially if past experience has been positive. The greater the consistency the better, because deliberate inconsistency can be such a valuable tool.

More Tips in Part II...

Jan V. White is author of the classic Editing by Design, Third Edition (Allworth Press, available on Amazon). Eight of his other books are now in the public domain and available for free at http://openlibrary.org/books. He may be reached at janvw2@aol.com.

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Don't Do It

Posted on Saturday, August 31, 2013 at 1:22 PM

Seven "don't" warnings to remember when writing.

By Peter P. Jacobi

I've been going through manuscripts submitted for workshops and for my classes at Indiana University. Reactions include numerous "don'ts." Yes, when the copy moves me to do so, I offer positives in my edits and evaluations. But copy, good or bad, deserves response, and an honest response, tough as it might need to be, is the best policy for an editor. Ultimately, it is the best for the development of writers, too. Be straight with them (and yourself as a writer, too). Tell them (and tell yourself) what is wrong. Give them (and you) "don't" warnings, along with necessary explanation.

Here are seven oft-used "don'ts" that my writers, my students, get.

Don't Obfuscate

I use the word to double down on a major problem, probably the most serious that we, as writers and editors, can commit. "Obfuscate," you might tell me, is an obfuscating word. Of course it is. So, I splash it in red wherever the writer has been so, wherever he or she has not been clear. It's my way of screaming the dictum that clarity comes first. If we can't provide clarity, not much else matters. Readers must easily comprehend what we're telling them. That's always been rule number 1, and so, when I find something that might confuse those being written for and to, first I'm likely to simply say, "Be clear." But when the issue is serious or becomes repetitive, I take to shouting, "Don't obfuscate." I've found it can be more alerting.

Don't Skimp

I know space is a premium commodity, but do not deprive the reader of what must be considered essential information. To leave coverage incomplete amounts to a sin of omission, which is to leave the reader unenlightened or ill informed. Provide whatever, on careful consideration, is deemed necessary for the reader's wants and needs, for the reader to feel the story covers the topic thoroughly.

Don't Overdo

Be aware of limits. Be cognizant of how much the reader requires or is likely to favor. Add to that a realistic view of what will fit comfortably and suitably into the body, the totality of the publication in which your article will run. Combine those mental alerts, and pay heed. The pressure these days is always toward the shorter. So, determine how to be your best at being shorter, keeping in mind the previous "don't" on this list: "Don't skimp."

Don't Bore

If you cannot build enthusiasm for your subject and your work, what you've done will have been done for naught. Be honest with yourself. Consider if you've made your material sufficiently inviting, interesting, pleasing, pressing, alluring, exciting, surprising, intriguing, amusing, and/or compelling. That you love your own material means little if you've not found a way to make the reader love it. There must be draw.

Don't Rush

Make the reader believe you are giving him or her time to chew, then savor, then digest the copy and its substance. That comes when the reader can settle into the article, as into an easy chair, take a breath, and, in comfort, be tempted to imbibe the mental and emotional food you're providing. Give the impression -- through your passion and/or urgency and/or the fascination of your material -- that this is a verbal meal designed to be noshed or inhaled rather than gobbled. In length, the package may be a snack, but make it a morsel worth dallying over and then remembering.

Don't Meander

Every moment the reader spends with your piece should be considered worthwhile. Waste not that temporary and precious writer/reader tie by allowing him or her to think you're providing less than was expected or is deemed necessary for satisfaction. The tie will loosen, even break. Make the most of the space available to you and the patience that your reader is making available to you.

Don't Shirk

Take no shortcuts in your work. Give the reader the benefit of your fully engaged faculties: the idea generating, the reportorial, the organizational, the verbal, the evaluating, the finalizing. Don't skimp on zeal. Don't skip steps in the editorial process. Skimping and skipping result in flawed products. They reduce effectiveness. They destroy excellence. They cheat your reader, and never should you want to do that.

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 Saturday, August 31, 2013 at 1:19 PM

Assessing the readability of a Time.com article.

This month, we calculate the Fog Index of an August 28, 2013, Time.com article ("E-Readers are Supposed to Be Dying, but Kobo Keeps Making Fancier Ones" by Jared Newman). Let's take a look:

"There's no guarantee that Amazon and Barnes & Noble won't launch their own higher-resolution, premium e-readers this year. Even if they do, the very existence of these devices proves that there's life left in the e-reader market. Certainly, more people are having all their reading needs met by multi-purpose tablets, but that doesn't mean dedicated readers won't become more sophisticated or that people will stop buying them. They still serve a purpose due to their superior battery life and better readability, which might explain why e-reader ownership is still on the rise."

--Word count: 92 words
--Average sentence length: 23 words (18, 19, 30, 25)
--Words with 3+ syllables: 12 percent (11/92 words)
--Fog Index: (23+12)*.4 = 14 (no rounding)

This excerpt isn't in bad shape, but the Fog score is on the high side at 14. What can we do to bring the score below 12?

"There's no guarantee that Amazon and Barnes & Noble won't launch their own higher-resolution, premium e-readers this year. Even if they do, the fact that these devices exist proves that there's life left in the e-reader market. Yes, more people are having all their reading needs met by multi-purpose tablets. That doesn't mean avid readers won't become more sophisticated or that people will stop buying them, though. Their superior battery life and readability might explain why e-reader ownership is still on the rise."

--Word count: 83 words
--Average sentence length: 17 words (18, 19, 13, 17, 16)
--Words with 3+ syllables: 10 percent (8/83 words)
--Fog Index: (17+10)*.4 = 10 (no rounding)

It didn't take much to improve the Fog score in this sample. Most of our edits were minor. We did the most editing on the last sentence to tighten it up and improve flow. By swapping out a few longer words and splitting one longer sentence in two, we were able to improve the Fog Index by four points.

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The Truth about iPad Subscriptions

Posted on Saturday, August 31, 2013 at 1:11 PM

In the news: AdAge.com tablet edition numbers from the first half of 2013.

Tablet subscriptions are experiencing rapid growth, but a recent AdAge.com article should be enough to give editors pause before jumping into the tablet game headfirst. Michael Sebastian writes, "Through the first half of 2013, magazines reported 10.2 million subscribers to their digital replica editions ... And one magazine -- Game Informer -- accounts for nearly one-third of those digital editions."

This is great news for Game Informer, but it also means that tablet editions are still planting roots in the overall magazine universe. It means that, while there are millions of people reading magazines on the iPad, those readers account for only a small piece of the readership pie (3.3 percent of total circulation, according to the Alliance for Audited Media). Read more here.

Also Notable

Amazon and Condé Nast Join Forces

In related news, Condé Nast and Amazon have just teamed up to create a digital subscription renewal service. The service will allow smartphone users to manage their subscriptions online instead of through snail mail. Read more about the new service here.

Native Advertising for Washington Post

Native advertising content remains a controversial revenue stream for magazines. AdAge.com recently reported on the Washington Post's plans to incorporate more native ads. According to the article, the ads will either resemble editorial content or be placed among the editorial features. Read more here.

Bundling Multiplatform Subscriptions

More and more magazines are bundling print and digital editions to bulk up their subscription offerings. What's the best the approach? Meg Estevez of Foliomag.com discusses some of the pros and cons of bundling content in a recent article. Read her analysis here.

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