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Issue for August 2014

Hook, Line, and Thesis

Posted on Sunday, August 31, 2014 at 2:07 PM

Once you've hooked your reader with a compelling lead, make sure your story delivers a sound thesis.

By Peter P. Jacobi

Over the years, we've devoted considerable space to the discussion of leads: how they should (1) attract attention, (2) establish the subject, (3) set the tone, and (4) guide or bridge into the story.

They're important. Story beginnings are important. But even the best can be spoiled, even nullified, if what comes thereafter fails to follow up or follow through on the lead's hints or promises. The problem tends to converge on number 2, the task of establishing the subject. Within the confines of the lead, only so much establishing can comfortably be done. More often than not, there does need to be an expanded effort to let readers know what the story is about. The lead needs a thesis to complete it. The story needs a thesis as an informational doorway into its heart and sinew.

I lose patience rather quickly when I lose a sense of direction, when the writer leaves me wandering and wondering, wandering aimlessly and wondering what I should be gaining from further perusal of the copy. I can be titillated or tempted for only so long. I want to be told why I should be spending time and effort with the article in question, and I tend not to wait too long. For me, and I suspect for many readers, the lead may entice, but the thesis is necessary to make the sale.

Three Compelling Examples

I've chosen three good examples, those that made the sale, to show you what I have in mind.

In a recent Smithsonian, I came across Abigail Tucker's article, "Quantum Mechanic." Here's how she begins her story: "At the age of 18, Saumil Bandyopadhyay had five peer-reviewed papers to his name, but no driver's license. His busy schedule was partially to blame -- he spent much of high school in an electrical engineering lab at Virginia Commonwealth University wearing a hairnet and tinkering with nanowires. Since his dad was a professor there, he always had a ride home.

"But in truth, driving terrified him. He winced at the mere mention of a merge. 'The collision possibility is very real, ' he says one day at home in Glen Allen, Virginia. He'd started learning on his mom's Honda Civic, but soon dropped the notion."

OK. It's written in a lively fashion. It's about an eccentric. I 'm tempted, but I 'm already asking myself, just what is this piece about? Fortunately, the author begins to clue me in, I'd say just in time. Tucker continues: "Instead, he worked even harder on the magnum opus of his young career: a unique infrared detector, which may one day reduce car crash rates by allowing vehicles to sense each other in fog or darkness. The nanoscale contraption, which to the uneducated eye looks like a silver postage stamp, might also someday help spy on stellar nurseries, detect hidden land mines, and monitor global warming."

At this point, I begin to understand why the editors of Smithsonian gave this fellow space in their "Ten Innovators Who Are Electrifying Your World" issue. I now have a why for continuing to read the article.

On the front page of a New York Times sports section, I find a story by Jere Longman with a Philadelphia dateline. "The football players at Martin Luther King High School gathered in a semicircle like a tired and rain-soaked choir," he writes. "They placed their arms around one another's shoulders and began swaying to a call and response.

"'Who the King?'

"'We the Kings!'

"'Who the King?'

"'We the Kings!'

"'Who the King?'

"'We the Kings!'"

We have the start to a promising scene, and if I were into sports, I'd likely stick around for a while. Since I 'm not that much into sports, upon starting to read the article, my critical guard began to manifest itself. Longman must have sensed that the likes of me would want some sort of resolution right about now in the story.

He obliges: "What was once unthinkable to many players had become intimate and binding. Most of King's current roster played last season at archrival Germantown High School in northwest Philadelphia. Few could have imagined the schools merging, the teams playing as one.

"When King last defeated Germantown in their annual Thanksgiving Day game, in 2010," Longman continues, "the players brawled with fists and helmets. The police intervened. But austerity has trumped rivalry. Facing a $304 million budget shortfall, the chronically troubled Philadelphia School district closed 23 schools in June. The closings included Germantown, one of the nation's oldest high schools.... Most of its students would now attend King."

The combination of lead and thematic expansion provides a package inviting enough for me to go on and benefit from a meaningful article, one definitely worth reading, not only because of the specific case but how this Philadelphia merger is a metaphor for others around the nation.

In an issue of Research & Creativity, published every so often by Indiana University, I found an article titled "Forced Feeding" by Lauren Bryant. She made her way into the piece this way: "If you're a parent, you've been there. You're grocery shopping with kids in tow, when you round the corner of a towering display. Suddenly, you're in the cookie aisle. The pleading begins.

"'Mommy, I want the chocolate covered peanut butter cookies. Please!' says your 6-year-old.

''Nooooooo,' whines the 8-year-old. 'I want the chocolate sandwich ones covered in white fudge! Please, Mom, please.'

"'No way,' says your 10-year-old. 'We're getting the chunky chocolate chip ones. That commercial with the singing cookies in the convertible is awesome!'"

There's the set-up: a probably make-believe mom and her three probably make-believe children at the supermarket traversing the cookie aisle, with a predictable result, one often not make-believe at all. Bryant now has to convince me to stick around.

She writes: "The cracker and cereal aisles are hardly different (who knew there was cereal in the form of a fat chocolate straw?), and you end up leaving the store with a small pile of foods you know your children should rarely eat."

The next paragraph begins: "Walter Gantz understands. The chair of Indiana University Bloomington's Department of Telecommunications and a 30-year veteran of media research, Gantz is lead author of the recently released Food for Thought: Television Food Advertising to Children in the United States."

I now understand why this article has been published in an Indiana University publication: There's been a study, and an IU scholar has been at the front and center of it. The clue reveals the author's purpose and allows me to decide whether or not to finish the article.

Please give your reader a complete package: make sure that in a beginning-middle-end story, you make that beginning informationally complete. Provide a thesis.

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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Not Pleasing the Eye

Posted on Sunday, August 31, 2014 at 2:06 PM

Returning to design basics and allowing the message to be the message.

By Jan V. White

We live in a world of chaotic visual excess. The flamboyance of today's graphic design is so gripping that we have begun mistaking the medium for the message. The medium is never the message; the message is always the message. Yet its design is too often just a skin treatment, a cosmetic applied to make a piece look more valuable, prettier, more beguiling -- but that's cheating. It relegates design to cosmetic embellishment in order to bamboozle viewers into paying attention by "pleasing the eye." We must step away from trendinesses, stop playing with visual cleverness just because the software lets us. We must return to basics. Only when we are fulfilling the function of the document, rather than embellishing it, can we improve the communication value of that avalanche of "information" we pour out to them out there.

People read and absorb information the same way whether it is must-read matter or reading-for-pleasure. The process may be identical, but the subject affects motivation. The more interested they are in the subject, the more they want it -- and the less we have to work to pull them in.

Fundamental publishing insights

--1. Studying the market and knowing the users and their needs, so they can be served.
--2. Realizing people are lookers first and that they become readers only if they have a good reason to bother when they see something worthwhile.
--3. Using visuals to create a mood, inform subliminally, amuse. Canny editors exploit these qualities to penetrate into the potential readers' subconscious to intrigue them into reading. Curiosity, emotional appeal, enjoyment are the sugar that makes the intellectual pill go down.
--4. Seeing your document as an object in its totality. The product is a sequence of interrelated impressions that must be handled in a deliberately planned, coherent, rhythmic fashion to produce the strongest, most unified reaction.
--5. Exploiting the advantages of repetition. Disciplined consistency is vital because it creates personality and facilitates understanding. Familiarity is a visual language in itself. Artificial variety disintegrates, and instead of "keeping the viewer interested," it confuses.

Conventional wisdoms, axioms, and 'posed-tos

--1. Design by itself will make the product better. Nonsense. All readers want is to find what they need to know -- fast and easily.
--2. Anything can be "correct." There is no such thing as right or wrong, only effective and ineffective. There are no rules, because what works varies from context to context. Don't ever swipe an idea.
--3. Symmetry equals good, proper design. We were taught in junior high that neatly balanced "orderliness" is good. In reality, centering is merely passive and dull. Asymmetrical arrangements are dynamic, active.
--4. Important stuff must be set in all caps. That's the best way to kill it. A word or two in caps is fine, but caps are hard to read, so cool it.
--5. Headlines Are Always in Up and Down Style. That traditional atavism makes them harder to understand because proper names or acronyms don't stand out. Set them in all lowercase!
--6. Background is just a neutral backdrop. White space must be exploited carefully as a tool for organization, separation, contrast ... not wasted as a worthless, fallow emptiness. Filling up the space solid makes it unpalatable and turns readers off.

Serving the user

We must present the material clearly and concisely and acceptably -- i.e., in reader-friendly typography. Everything that is true of type in print is valid on screen, except more so. Type must be used with skill and consummate care. The secret is to help glancers find what they're looking for. The elegant solution is the one that uses the most economical means to accomplish the stated purpose. Refinement is the result of ultimate simplification. Avoid design that is like Christmas gift-wrapping. Design should be transparent like blister-packaging.

--1. Understand the purpose of your document. Tabulate information to allow it to be accessed in random bits, and thus intrigued into interest.
--2. Define its user and the user's needs. Primitive or sophisticated, who will use it, where, and how?
--3. Decide on editing strategies. Instructional or informative? Focused on the user or the object?
--4. Use psychological editing techniques. Avoid confusing alternatives; use familiar wording; put important facts up front; organize material sequenced by frequency of use or importance; highlight important units by color (blacker or in hues); differentiate instructions from comments or explanations; summarize facts in charts and tables, etc.

Determining visual characteristics

(Not pleasing to the eye.)

--1. What is the first impression your piece gives? Does your product look cheap or worthwhile? Is there too much of it, or is it just right? Is it forbidding or easy to get into?
--2. Does it use techniques to help the user to access material? Can you see your product from the recipient/user's point of view? Its shape (i.e., design) must encourage whatever will enable the user to derive the greatest benefit most vividly and as fast as possible. It must complement the structure and content of the writing.
--3. Is it planned as an object that is right for its use? If not, it'll be rejected. Prioritize findability, recognizability, durability, shelf life, legibility (printing quality).
--4. Does its typography transmit instant information? Use headlines to define the subject matter at immediate glance. Text is to be studied and pondered slowly.
--5. Does its typography clarify meaning? Exploiting type's flexibility to pop up clues that reveal the structure shortcuts the slow drudgery of reading.
--6. Create a handsome product. Good image attracts functionally and with purpose. It demeans its potential if it is relegated to superficial cosmetics.
--7. Make it look valuable. Space focuses attention to what is displayed in it. When the object is surrounded by generous space, its value increases, like a jewel demonstrated to the buyer on a velvet cushion.

Is your piece literature or documentation?

Literature is for reading by a reader. The format is predicated on the way the writing is structured. Typically, it is a narrative flow the reader starts reading at its beginning and expects to follow to the end.

Documentation is for referencing by a user. Technical, factual, instructional materials are segmented into discrete info-units. The user is normally searching only for limited information at any one time. Their sequence is therefore less critical than:

--1. Immediate findability (i.e., typographic clarity in the document as a whole).
--2. Immediate comprehension (i.e., typographic clarity in each segment).

Serviceability is the prime purpose of all publishing, whatever its platform. Its needs vary according to what you need to say, but practicability is the touchstone of its effectiveness. The demands of functional excellence outweigh all other demands. The arrogant assumption has always been that it doesn't matter how we present the stuff; "they" need it so they'll plough through anything to get it. Wrong. Not anymore. Just being pleasing to the eye is eyewash.

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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The Fog Index

Posted on Sunday, August 31, 2014 at 2:05 PM

Assessing the readability of a Forbes.com excerpt.

This month, we calculate the Fog Index of an excerpt from an August 29 Forbes.com piece ("Five Reasons Why Millenials Love Listicles" by Stephanie Denning). Here's the sample text:

"Learning how to use inspectional reading to our advantage is critical. We can use it to understand complex ideas more quickly. Inspectional reading transformed my relationship with reading, thanks to one big 'aha!' It's ok to stop reading. I had to draw on the theory that sunk costs are indeed sunk. We may have already spent however much time on reading an article or a book and we're still not finished and we're tempted to think, 'Having invested so much time in it so far, I have to go on.' No! I had to realize that I shouldn't let the amount of time already spent affect my decision of whether or not to keep reading."

--Word count: 115
--Average sentence length: 14 words (11, 10, 12, 5, 13, 39, 1, 24)
--Words with 3+ syllables: 11 percent (13/115 words)
--Fog Index (14+11)*.4 = 10 (no rounding)

This is a perfect example of how to keep our Fog Index below 12. By limiting her use of longer words and breaking up sentences often, she weighs in at an ideal score of 10.

This month, we won't revise the sample because it has already achieved its objective (for our purposes). Sure, we could smooth out the writing a bit here and there. But the text is readable in the ways that count in the Fog-Gunning arena. It is concise, it is broken up into easy-to-digest pieces, and it is straightforward.

When we dress up our writing with needless bells and whistles, our Fog score suffers. It can be tempting to drag out a sentence or dazzle with a fancy word, but we should always weigh these choices with care. Mastering the Fog Index can sometimes mean striking a compromise between personal style and reader needs.

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Who Owns Branded Content?

Posted on Sunday, August 31, 2014 at 2:05 PM

In the news: The proliferation of sponsored content is raising new questions about content rights.

This week, Ricardo Bilton of Digiday.com raised important questions about branded content and ownership -- i.e., is the publisher or the advertiser who owns it? Bilton writes, "The answer has some big implications for not only the publishers but their advertisers, which are often interested in taking their brand content and republishing it elsewhere (or, in some cases, deleting it)."

Stances on ownership of branded content vary from publisher to publisher. According to Bilton, the Huffington Post presumes ownership of most sponsored pieces, while the Wall Street Journal feels that such content belongs to the sponsor. However, ownership of written content isn't the only potential legal landmine; photo permissions can also become an issue. Read more here.

Also Notable

AP Style: ISIL vs. ISIS

Earlier this summer, the Associated Press defended its choice to refer to the splinter group as ISIL instead of the more commonly used ISIS. Now that the group has changed its name to the Islamic State, editors are left wondering, according to Sam Kirkland of Poynter.org, "whether to go along with the group's rebranding efforts and potentially grant it undeserved legitimacy, or to keep using an acronym that's familiar to readers but is arguably out-of-date." Read more here.

"Why I Stopped Reading Magazines with Newsstand"

This week, Macworld.com posted about some pitfalls of the Apple Newsstand app. The app's "enclosing-folder" means that readers often don't know when new issues have hit the digital newsstand. The Macworld.com piece also cites slow download speeds for certain apps and bad reading experiences (particularly for magazines whose app content is repurposed from print). About magazine apps, Macworld writes, "The potential is there, but the reality is disappointing." Read more here.

Text Message Subscriptions

Boku, a startup mobile payments company, has partnered up with a major UK magazine publisher to create a text message–based subscription system. Readers would subscribe via text, and a confirmation text would direct them to a mobile registration form. The charge would then appear on their phone bill. Read more here.

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