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Issue for September 2009

Advice from the Competition

Posted on Wednesday, September 30, 2009 at 2:33 PM

Useful tidbits taken from other publications invested in the art of writing.

By Peter P. Jacobi

I'm not sure how well this will go with my bosses here at Editors Only, but I'm going to share some useful tidbits garnered from publications that deal with matters of writing, publications that might be said to compete with this beloved newsletter of ours.

But my philosophy of learning is to read widely, and I admit to paying for subscriptions to other sources that can add to my trove of helpful examples and precepts.

Fact vs. Truth

For instance, there's The Writer's Chronicle, put out by the Association of Writers and Writing Programs. In its September 2008 issue, the month in which I am writing this column, I find a conversation with Scott Russell Sanders, the distinguished essayist and someone I'm privileged to know. Here's just one telling lesson in an interview bulging with them, his response to the question: how do you define or distinguish between "fact" and "truth?"

"Facts are data; truth is the sense we make of the data," Sanders says. "And the sense we make should always be open to revision, to new evidence, to further discovery. The writer of nonfiction has an obligation, I believe, to be faithful to the facts, so far as they can be known or reconstructed. Wherever possible, one should test one's memory against other sources -- journals, photographs, scholarly works, news accounts, the testimony of other people. At the same time, the writer of nonfiction has an obligation to search out the meaning of an experience, to interpret the facts."

Find Inspiration

In the July 2008 issue of The Writer, another always useful compendium of advice, Michele Acker, a science fiction and mystery writer, suggests we "Find a New Perspective" to keep ourselves fresh. Her article offers five steps toward renewed inspiration: get out of the rut, pay attention, learn new things, hang out, and travel. "Writing is a solitary business," argues Acker, "with little to stimulate our writer's brain. But it doesn't have to be," if we follow her counsel.

There's not much new in what she tells us, but the filler material under the above headings are useful reminders. Take the first follow-up paragraph after "Pay attention." Acker says: "You may think you already pay attention, but do you really? When was the last time you looked at a building's architecture, really looked? Do you know how old it is, how it was built, or who designed it? When was the last time you noticed the beggar on the corner, that abandoned lot across the street, or the way the sun shines through your bedroom window? You see those things so often that you barely notice them anymore. Start noticing again. You'll be surprised at what you see."


Quill, the magazine published by the Society of Professional Journalists, devotes a number of pages each issue to columns handed out to ever-changing writers. In the June/July 2008 issue, under the rubric "News Gems," Jon Marshall, a Chicago area-based writer and teacher, notes: "Stories come alive when readers feel like they're at the scene of the action." He proves the point with various samples, one by Jeanne Marie Laskas, taken from GQ magazine, about a landfill near Los Angeles. Marshall keys in on the use Laskas makes of nouns, in her case, meaning cogent details:

"This is a 100-million-ton solid soup of diapers, Doritos bags, phone books, shoes, carrots, watermelon rinds, boats, shredded tires, coats, stoves, couches, Biggie Fries, piled up right here off the 605 freeway. It's a place that brings to mind the hell of civilization, a heap of waste and ugliness and everything denial is designed for. We tend not to think about the fact that every time we toss out a moist towelette or an empty Splenda packet or a Little Debbie snack-cake wrapper, there are people involved, a whole chain of people charged with the preposterously complicated task of making that thing vanish -- which it never really does."


And that leads me to another such column, one from the May 2008 issue of the same publication," this on a "Words and Language" page filled by wisdoms from Paula Larocque, author of various books on writing. She deals with description, whose goal, she says, "is to replicate something clearly, briefly, and suggestively, so the reader sees and senses what the writer saw and sensed."

Larocque goes on: "Good description is fast, spare, specific, and showing. Poor description is slow, wordy, vague, and telling. That distinction between showing and telling is particularly important. Telling fails to create an immediate and vivid mental image; rather, it offers a conclusion, which readers may not accept because it's not their conclusion. Telling interprets, while showing creates a convincing picture."

An important reminder lesson, wouldn't you say?

3 Big Questions

Ragan Communications' monthly Corporate Writer and Editor contains, as does each issue, a "Back Talk" column by its co-editors, Mark Ragan and Jim Ylisela. Tackling the subject, "How to Write Something Someone Will Read," these two gentlemen urge their readers to ask themselves "three BIG questions every story needs to answer."

"Big Question No. 1," they write, is, "What's it about?"

"Really Huge Question No.2," they continue, is, "Why should anyone care?"

"Massive Question No. 3," they add, is, "How can I get your attention?"

These are precisely the right questions to ask ourselves as we sit down to write anything that we want our readers to read.

In support of their first question, Ragan and Ylisela, say: "Sounds obvious ... but how many stories have you read -- or written -- where you just weren't sure what they were supposed to be about?"

Of their second question, they reason: "If you can't tell me why someone in your audience should care, then why are you bothering?"

And concerning the third, they sagely follow with: "If you know your audience, then you should know the best way to reach them. That means figuring out the best medium for the story and then packaging it to get their attention."

Beware of Modifiers

The August 2008 Writer's Digest includes Bonnie Trenga's regular column, "The Sentence Sleuth," devoted on this occasion to "News of the Weird Modifiers, Reports of misplaced modifiers amuse and confuse readers."

"Pick a modifier -- any modifier -- and you can misplace it," Trenga argues. She provides numerous and often comic examples, then concludes: "You don't want readers to laugh at your sentence structure or to think you're imprecise. Misplaced introductory modifiers, like this one I found recently, can be hilarious: 'Growing from a pile of sticks and mud, we found several stands of large mushrooms.' How great would it be if people could grow from sticks and mud? If you're writing science fiction, go ahead and use that line. Otherwise, watch your grammar."

Less Is More

James Kilpatrick, in a recent outing for his syndicated "Writer's Art" column, addressed "the deployment of 'whether or not,'" this following a query from a reader: "Is the 'or not' always redundant?" Yes, answered Kilpatrick, it is "usually redundant, and, yes, redundancies are usually barnacles on the hull of sturdy prose -- but! The court looks upon the usual 'whether or not' as ... a benign redundancy. In many constructions the 'or not' is essential: 'I will marry Mr. Rassendale, whether or not you approve!' The first rule, as always, is to eliminate unnecessary words. The second rule is to remember that 'necessity' is defined by the pen of a careful writer."

Kilpatrick always contributes sound advice. I hope you can find his column where you are.

Editor's Involvement

Finally, in a recent issue of Creative Nonfiction, another source of guidance and exemplars, I found an interview with Michelle Wildgen, senior editor of the literary journal, Tin House. She was asked about the extent of her involvement in editing a work.

"I'm there to respond," she says, "not to generate words. I prefer to note my response and leave it to the writer to decide how to address the issue, though I might throw out some ideas. The purpose, then, is not to force my suggestions down his throat but to air out the underlying issue so he can decide what to do... I may go a few rounds with a writer on an issue we both feel strongly about, but I have to be aware of when I'm getting too invested in making a point rather than remembering that the writer should make the choice. In the end, his or her name is on the piece, not mine, and I try to remember that. Ultimately, it is up to the writer. They have to come through."

Of course, that depends on how proficient the writer is.

Thoughts for you to contemplate, taken from other publications invested in the art of writing.

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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Book Review

Posted on Wednesday, September 30, 2009 at 2:32 PM

Magazine Editing: How to Develop and Manage a Successful Publication, by John Morrish.

Magazine Editing explores the multi-faceted magazine editing profession--including "the role of the editor both as a journalist, having to provide information and entertainment for readers, and as a manager, expected to lead and supervise successfully the development of a magazine or periodical" (Amazon description). It is written by John Morrish.

The book helps would-be editors to enter the industry and existing editors to polish their skills. Chapter topics include:

--How magazines work
--Editorial strategy
--Leader and manager
--Money matters
--The right words
--Pictures and design
--Managing production
--Where the buck stops
--Becoming an editor

The book also explores the ethical aspects of magazine editing, with appendices containing the National Union of Journalists Code of Conduct and Press Complaints Commission Code of Practice. Figures throughout the book offer insight into budgeting, scheduling, and production.

Magazine Editing is published by Routledge (288 pages, paperback) and is in its second edition. It is available for $31.69 on the Editors Only "Books" page under the "Books on Editing" heading.

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Errors Published Online -- To Fix or not to Fix

Posted on Monday, September 21, 2009 at 1:06 PM

What is the best course of action for online corrections? Do all edits require a correction notice?

By Meredith L. Dias

"We don't want to distract readers every time we fix a comma," said Salon.com co-founder Scott Rosenberg in an interview published by the American Society of Newspaper Editors. "On the other hand, we don't want the fact that it's easy to fix a Web page to give us an overly convenient cover on those occasions when we do screw up."

So what is the best course of action when you've printed a story online that contains grammatical, attribution, or even factual errors? Which mistakes require further comment? What corrections policy will best serve your readers?

The Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ) Code of Ethics states that "journalists should ... admit mistakes and correct them promptly." There are some who interpret this literally, noting even the most minor grammatical errors. Others ignore the SPJ tenet completely and "scrub" their stories clean of significant errors without comment (i.e., delete or edit content without issuing a correction or retraction). Still others differentiate between minor technical errors and more substantial errors that require correction notices. One editor told us, "If it is a simple typo, we'll fix it without comment -- or delay." The editor adds, "If something was factually incorrect, including the spelling of someone's name, we will correct it in the current version, plus under the heading 'Correction.'"

Bloggers have adopted a simple solution for edits, one that facilitates both the admission of mistakes and prompt correction. When correcting errors, they strike through the erroneous text using their blog editor or simple HTML tags. In Newsless.org's "The Future of Corrections," Reynolds Journalism Institute fellow Matt Thompson reports that this has become a common, and accepted, practice for blog writers. Strikethrough of faulty text promotes editorial transparency in a medium particularly easy to scrub clean of errors.

How should editors of online publications differentiate between innocuous errors and ones that require further comment? Recently, the Hartford Courant published a story entitled "Putnam Police Training Could Be At Fault For Woodstock Fair Shooting." The story was published online at 10:12 P.M. on August 31, and attracted two comments in response to the following sentence: "Because the pullet [sic] was travelling [sic] such little velocity when it struck the man, it may have passed through a berm or other structure intended to stop the bullets, Vance said." In response, "Susan5868" asked, "Does anyone proof read this stuff before publication?" Another reader, "phucer," replied simply, "Ugh."

The next day, September 1, the same article bore a new title: "Stray Bullet That Hit Man May Have Come From A Putnam Police Officer." In the revised article, the aforementioned sentence has undergone some cosmetic surgery: "Because the bullet was traveling at such a low velocity when it struck the man, it might have passed through a berm or other structure intended to stop the bullets, Vance said." All of these changes have been implemented without notice to the reader; however, "phucer" provides a link to the original, unedited article in the revised article's responses.

What can we learn from this? Most of the editors we contacted assert that errors of a typographical or grammatical persuasion do not warrant a correction notice; however, the reader response to the Courant article provides an interesting counterpoint to this editorial consensus. Though publications generally concur that grammatical tweaks can be scrubbed from the record without further comment, the response by "phucer" indicates that readers may be seeking transparency in even the simplest online edits.

When scrubbing grammatical or spelling errors from the record, editors ought to ask themselves: Will any readers be disadvantaged in the process? In the aforementioned ASNE article, Scott Rosenberg says, "You can fix an error and pretend you never made it. That rankles anyone who sees journalism as having a sense of history." Moreover, unacknowledged edits can introduce errors into the journalistic record. For instance, if a publication misspells President Obama's last name and edits without comment, this will do little to alter the historical record -- in context, even with the misspelling, the subject of the article will be clear. However, if a publication misspells an unknown person's name and later scrubs the mistake, this could alter the record if secondary sources have already attributed quotes and information to the erroneous name.

Recently, we contacted several dozen editors and publications on Twitter regarding their online corrections policies. Based on click-throughs to the web page containing our survey questions, there seems to be considerable interest in the topic. Only a handful responded, however. Are editors generally reluctant to discuss their online correction protocol? Or perhaps they have not yet developed cohesive policies.

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"Hey! Phucer here. What truly rankles is the utter lack of even basic proficiency in spelling and grammar by those being paid to write. The dumbing down of America marches forward, unashamedly." --Phucer. 09-29-2009.


"As for whether editors are reluctant to discuss their online correction protocols (note plural), I agree with the possibility that many publications and editors have not yet developed policies for the ever-changing electronic publishing world. I've noticed that factual errors do still get treated as corrections to be published, but typos often are simply fixed from one hour to another without being mentioned." --Ruth E. Thaler-Carter, WriterRuth.com. 10-04-2009.

Posted in Editing (RSS), Management (RSS), Technical (RSS)

To Err Is Human

Posted on Wednesday, September 16, 2009 at 1:24 PM

To correct is divine.

By Denise Gable

Mistakes are inevitable -- especially when facing the pressures of tight deadlines. It's not easy to admit publicly that you've printed a mistake, but for many editors it's a necessary part of business.

Country Business Magazine, country-magazine.com
Frequency: 7 issues/year
Description: Country Business is a specialty retailer publication featuring expert advice, new products, top trends, and more. Available only to qualified retailers, Country Business serves today's independent gift retailers.

Susan Wagner, editor, "If the error was minor and only up for a short time, we would fix it immediately but not make any comment. If the error was major, such as a wrong name, incorrect data, etc., we would fix it immediately and make an editor's note stating the new corrected info. If the error was minor but had been up for awhile, we would correct it and include an editor's note about the correction."

S.T.I.L.L. Magazine, Mack Buckley
Frequency: Blog format, continuous
Description: S.T.I.L.L. Magazine is an online hip hop music magazine, published in blog format. The magazine strives to inspire ordinary people to become "living legends".

Mack Buckley, editor-in-chief, "Our policy is simply to change the error (if it is grammatical in nature). Of course, we try not to publish any errors or facts that are untrue. In the event that we do find that some information is not in fact true, our policy is to contact the person(s) interviewed to confirm whether or not the information is correct. In the event information was passed along that was not factual, we will correct the error and add a notation in the article. That is pretty much all you can do! Online publications do have that distinct advantage over print -- we have the power to correct after publication, whereas print publications do not."

Attribute Magazine, attributemagazine.com
Description: An independent Internet publication that publishes digital editions targeting like-minded, optimistic individuals.

Stacey Louiso, founding editor, "Being (only) online we normally just go in and correct any inaccuracy we come across or that is pointed out by others. We don't really have the space to say, 'Oops, we made a mistake.' Our articles are edited fully and that includes fact checking -- but we all know how pliable facts are these days."

Lake Chelan Mirror, Prairie Media, Inc.
Frequency: Weekly
Description: Weekly newspaper for Lake Chelan and its surrounding communities.

Les Bowen, editor, "Corrections and clarifications are considered on a case-by-case basis. In most cases, updates with new information are simply added to stories and an editor's note generally will state an update was made. Corrections (like incorrect names or factual errors) are updated, but we add an editor's note that there were errors. This helps mitigate the results of caching search engines that may have captured the incorrect information.

"In all cases of a correction (both in print and online), we follow the rule of not restating the incorrect information. So an appropriate editor's note would be: 'John Doe was misidentified in an earlier posting of this story.' A statement like 'John Doe was incorrectly identified as John Jones' would be inappropriate. By removing the error and only posting correct information, we prevent the further propagation of the error. We recognize that an error was made and provide enough specific information that readers can tell what information was corrected without restating the error."

True West Magazine, True West Publishing
Frequency: 10 issues/year
Description: The world's oldest continuously published Western Americana publication.

Meghan Saar, managing editor, "Since 1953, True West Magazine's editors have always appreciated the feedback we receive from our readers, especially those who help us improve on our coverage. At times, an article may need to be corrected, and you can submit those corrections to editor [at] twmag [dot] com. Articles on TWMAG.com are usually corrected the same day that corrections are submitted, and if not, the correction will be posted online as soon as possible. We also encourage readers to share their opinions and thoughts about our coverage by posting their comments with the article on TWMAG.com. That way, the conversation continues, not only with the True West editors, but also with other readers. We want our website to be a comfortable home for Western enthusiasts to engage with us and with each other."

JavaScript and Groovy magazines, Michael Kimsal
Frequency: Monthly
Description: GroovyMag covers a wide variety of topics in the Groovy and Grails world, featuring some of the best and brightest names in the Groovosphere. JSMag aims to publish quality JavaScript content to educate, motivate and inspire JavaScript programmers.

Michael Kimsal, editor-in-chief, "Our stories go out in PDF form, and we don't typically fix every little thing. Usually any typos are found before launch, or sometimes a day or two after. We'll typically do one 'fix' change. Anyone who's already downloaded the PDF can do so again, and we'll Twitter out that there's an update. Beyond that, the PDF will include an 'errata' file (in a zipped download file) that will alert people to any moderate changes."

H.H.H. Magazine, HHH Entertainment, LLC
Frequency: Monthly
Description: H.H.H is the "New Generation of HipHop". The magazine showcases local artists, fashion designers, and DJs in order to help build fan bases.

Lisa Marie, CEO and editor-in-chief, "I like to say that we differ from most publications -- the articles that we post are controlled 100% by the artists and/or their representatives. If there is an error in something that we have made, I immediately go in to correct it once I am made aware of it."

The Wolf Magazine, Loyola University of New Orleans
Frequency: 3 issues/year
Description: Student magazine of Loyola University of New Orleans.

Jessica Williams, editor-in-chief, "In print, we would usually run the correction in our next issue. But still, once it's in print, it's there. Forever. The great thing about an online newsroom is you can always go back and change your mistakes. If the mistake was minor, such as a misspelling or a grammatical error, we would change it as soon as possible without further comment. But if it was major, such as an incorrect fact, we would change it, then highlight at the bottom of the story what was changed and why. If something was believed true at the time of posting, but new facts show that it isn't, we run an entirely new story as breaking news, and state in the new article that in the previous article such-and-such facts were incorrect. We then take the old article off of the site."

Denise Gable is managing editor of Editors Only.

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Posted in Editing (RSS), Management (RSS), Technical (RSS)

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