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Issue for September 2011

Essential Matters

Posted on Monday, September 26, 2011 at 9:33 PM

Some points worth sharing.

By Peter P. Jacobi

Reading and editing adventures of late have brought essential matters back to mind. Those matters are worth sharing.

Twists of Rhetoric

Like twists of rhetoric, as when E.B. White began his 7,500 word declaration of love, his essay "Here Is New York," with this sentence: "On any person who desires such queer prizes, New York will bestow the gift of loneliness and the gift of privacy." How neat is that inversion, how much more attractive than if White had started in predictable subject, predicate, object order: "New York will bestow..." And how about the choice of "queer" to identify the prize of living there, rather than "unusual" or "odd" or "different" or "strange."

Bring the Reader Close

Like closeness and distance. To reach beyond competency, bring the reader close. Good reporting, perceptive observation, and creative use of language are antidotes to the sort of writing that keeps the reader away from scene or situation. Your task is to immerse.

As does Mitch Albom, columnist for the Detroit Free Press, in "And Yet," his article for Sports Illustrated, about the "courage of Detroit." He sets scene: "This was Christmas night. In the basement of a church off an icy street in downtown Detroit, four dozen homeless men and women sat at tables. The smell of cooked ham wafted from the kitchen. The pastor, Henry Covington, a man the size of two middle linebackers, exhorted the people with a familiar chant. 'I am somebody,' he yelled. 'I am somebody!' they repeated. 'Because God loves me!' 'Because God loves me!' They clapped. They nodded."

The conversation, Albom tells us, turns to the Detroit Lions and its 0–16 record, and what the team's problems are, and who will be drafted. "Them Lions gotta do somethin', man," a homeless fellow waiting for his food is quoted as saying. And the story is underway: about despair and determination and hope and the sports of Detroit serving as metaphor for the city itself. Reader immersion comes quickly.

The Human Dimension

Like focus on people versus things, as Mike Sager does in The Secret Life of a Well-Dressed Man, for Esquire, the man "who won our contest to be named American's best dressed real man." The lesson behind the article deals with living better, more healthily, more productively, but proof becomes more emphatic and advice is more easily taken when filtered through the experience of a human. In this case, it's Kenyatte Nelson, "six foot two, two hundred pounds. A Leo (August), thirty-one years old. He has high cheekbones and a chiseled jaw that tapers into a cleft chin. His large black eyes are set against luminescent whites. His ebony face and skull have been shaved clean with a Wahl clipper, and Andis trimmer, and a Gillette Fusion razor, a ritual he performs about once a week."

We meet Nelson first at mealtime: "He lifts a forkful of omelet and chews thoughtfully, savoring a healthy combo of chicken and veggies, part of a dietary redirection that has left him, after six months of supreme willpower and about a trillion crunchies, nearly twenty pounds lighter with six-pack abs -- a boon to his self-esteem, his love life, and, most directly, his tailor."

That's the "after" Nelson, far different from the "before" version that tended "to carry his extra weight below his chest and above his knees," the result of eight post-M.B.A. years pursuing "the kind of food, drink, travel, and unfettered social life that befits a young single man rising up the corporate ladder." The human dimension.

Direction and Propulsion

Like having a sense of direction in your writing, making it clear to your readers as to where you're taking them. Graeme Wood does that for The Atlantic in Moving Heaven and Earth, an article about the threat of global warming and counter moves that some scientists are considering to save humankind, should matters become dire.

"If we were transported forward in time," Wood writes, "to an Earth ravaged by catastrophic climate change, we might see long, delicate strands of fire hose stretching into the sky, like spaghetti, attached to zeppelins hovering 65,000 feet in the air. Factories on the ground would pump 10 kilos of sulfur dioxide up through those hoses every second. And at the top, the hoses would cough a sulfurous pall into the sky. At sunset on some parts of the planet, these puffs of aerosolized pollutant would glow a dramatic red, like the skies in Blade Runner. During the day, they would shield the planet from the sun's full force, keeping temperatures cool -- as long as the puffing never ceased."

Wood says the technology is available now, and "we could do it cheaply: $100 billion could reverse anthropogenic climate change entirely, and some experts suspect that a hundredth of that sum could suffice. To stop global warming the old-fashioned way, by cutting carbon emissions, would cost on the order of $1 trillion yearly." The article has direction and propulsion.

Show Examples

Like showing by example, making the abstract specific, as Joyce Wadler does for The New York Times in Green Guilt, subtitled, "Even the most committed say they commit environmental sins." Wadler builds her story on one Josh Dorfman, author of The Lazy Environmentalist: Your Guide to Easy, Stylish, Green Living.

She writes: "He and his partner, Stephanie Holzen, a former stuntwoman, and their 5-month-old son, Shep, recently moved to a rental in a Victorian house in Crested Butte, Colo., where, he happily notes, the renovated stairway is made from reclaimed barn wood. Their furniture is also made from recycled wood and steel; in fact, the coffee table is wood that was reclaimed twice, having been salvaged from reclaimed wood that was being made into flooring.

"Mr. Dorfman, 38, and Ms. Holzen, 35, use natural cleaning products, and are 'constantly' drinking out of their Brita pitcher, so there is no need for disposable water bottles. All their personal-care products are organic, and Mr. Dorfman's clothes are made from organic cotton and recycled materials -- including his Nau blazer, which, he said, is made from recycled soda bottles.

"But they have one great greenie flaw: they are addicted to disposable diapers."

From that, and beyond, comes guilt. The "green" life is not considered green enough by the couple attempting to live it. The couple serves as author Wadler's example of "green guilt."

And that's it for the month.

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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How Heavily Do You Edit?

Posted on Monday, September 26, 2011 at 9:31 PM

To what extent do you edit your publication's features, and at what stage? Our anecdotal survey results are in.

By Denise Gable

Editors enhance articles or stories for publication by correcting, revising, or adapting them to their audience. They refine and polish each piece to their audience's expectations and make the stories better. The subject this month is how much editing is enough and when it should be done? The amount of editing varies from light "tweaking" to major rewriting. Our survey also asked where in the production process the editing is done -- early on in the manuscript stage or later at the page proofs stage?

Feedstuffs, The Weekly Newspaper for Agribusiness, The Miller Publishing Co.
Frequency: Weekly
Description: For over 80 years, Feedstuffs has been providing news, information and analysis on areas directly related to food production, including the related areas of feed manufacturing, animal health and nutrition, industry trends, feed ingredients, government regulations and marketing.

Kristin Bakker, editorial production manager: "We edit moderately to heavily. I proofread everything twice, and three sets of eyes typically read each story. Our final product is a printed edition, so the editing can be heavy depending on the space available.

"I would estimate that we edit 40 percent in manuscript form and 60 percent in page form. Every story first gets proofread before it is placed on the page and again after it is on the page. Since the final product is printed, the editing is weighted slightly more toward the page form to fit the copy in the allotted space."

Feldcomm, design/editorial/communications firm
Description: Feldcomm is a design communications company specializing in developing effective marketing for businesses, associations and professional services firms.

Joan Feldmann, editorial director and copublisher of Attorney at Work, "For traditional association magazines, articles are heavily edited (though most volunteer board members are in denial about that); 85 percent are edited in manuscript form (Word), 15 percent in page form (InDesign with PDF edits).

"For blog microsite publications, it's about 50-50 for heavily edited and moderately edited. Ninety-five percent of editing is done in page form (Wordpress) but some pieces are sent to editors who prefer to pull them into Word or even print them out and mark them up."

Official Board Markets, Questex Media Group, LLC
Frequency: Weekly
Description: The definitive newsletter for the recovered paper and board converting markets.

Mark Arzoumanian, editor in chief, "As editor of a weekly newsletter, I do a lot of rewriting versus editing of original material. That is the only way to go when you have a small staff and need to fill a weekly.

"When it comes to columns, I edit them lightly. The columnists that write for me are pretty good writers and enjoy writing, so I find that any editing I do for these is tweaking style and cutting a paragraph here or there to make the piece fit the page.

"I do not receive manuscripts by the mail anymore; it's all electronic. If I had to give you a percentage for light editing on columns/articles I would say 15 percent. With the print world shrinking as it is, poor writers just don't last because editors don't have the time to do a major edit."

West Virginia Executive, Executive Ink, LLC
Frequency: Quarterly
Description: West Virginia's premier statewide business publication.

Jennifer Jett Nugent, chief creative officer, "I would say that 75 to 80 percent of the time we edit heavily. The majority of our stories are written by 'experts' in the fields that we are covering, and they are typically not writers and not concerned with our style rules, et cetera. Once we get the story, we often have to heavily edit, reorganize, rewrite the whole thing or simply send it back and ask very nicely for them to try again. They often do not take into account that many of our readers are "laymen" when it comes to their professions.

"As far as editing in manuscript form, I would again say 80 percent of the editing is done this way. We get the story, edit it/mark it up for changes or suggestions, and send it back to the person. Unlike traditional journalism (e.g., newspapers), we have to have final approval from our writers on anything we change -- we don't want any surprises when the story comes out. Because of that, the story is usually fairly clean when it goes to production. We then print the magazine in its entirety three to five times and edit on spelling, grammar, style, and graphic layout."

Denise Gable is managing editor of Editors Only.

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Cutting the Fog

Posted on Monday, September 26, 2011 at 9:26 PM

Discussing the art of paring down text and deviations from the original Fog Index formula.

By Meredith L. Dias

Last month, we edited an excerpt from NYTimes.com for our Fog Index column and received several responses from editors who felt that we'd over-edited the sample. These editors raised some intriguing discussion points, so instead of assessing a fresh sample this month, we are going to take another look at last month's sample and review the Fog Index formula that we use.

Our Formula

Generally, we adhere to the Gunning-Mueller Clear Writing Institute Fog Index formula. We don't include two-syllable words with -ed, -es, or -ing suffixes in our percentage of 3+-syllable words. We add this percentage to the average number of words per sentence, multiply by 0.4, and present a whole-number result that has not been rounded.

In earlier times at Editors Only, the late Douglas Mueller of the Gunning-Mueller Clear Writing Institute contributed the monthly article on writing. It was the late Robert Gunning who first articulated the Fog Index, although some sources report that the two developed the index together. We're not sure whether or not this is the case. In any event, the two co-authored How to Take the Fog out of Writing, which has remained the authoritative book on the Fog Index. That book instructs the calculator not to round and to ignore the digits following the decimal point.

When calculation changed from by hand to by computer, some of the nuances of the formula were lost. Ironic, isn't it? The meaning of the formula for simplifying was corrupted by an effort to simplify it.

You can see one instance of variation here. This website contains instructions for writing a Gunning Fog Index computer script. In this case, the scriptwriter is asked to round the final result. The Fog Index formulae here and here include the decimal in the final result.

Last Month's Sample

Last month's sample was particularly challenging, as it conveyed medical information vital to the reader's understanding. But the Fog Index was 20, so we decided to take on the challenge of paring it down. Sentence length (average: 43) contributed heavily to this high score, so we were left with the difficult task of paring down the sample to bring the Fog Score below 12, which Gunning determined to be ideal in his formula.

The Response

Steven Cherry, senior associate editor of IEEE Spectrum, asked us why "engage in the charade of not rounding" our final result, and we wanted to clarify that this is no sleight of hand on our part. When Douglas Mueller wrote the Fog Index column for Editors Only, he used a whole number (not rounded) as the final result. So we have always done the same.

Donald Tepper, editor of PT in Motion magazine, presented an alternate recasting of the sample, which we will include here:

"For instance, many children who had seizures and chronic problems after receiving the whole-cell pertussis vaccine actually had Dravet syndrome, a severe form of epilepsy. That vaccine, which routinely caused fevers in children, is no longer used. However, Congress created the national vaccine injury compensation program to address the flood of lawsuits over the vaccine's effects. Children who had seizures after receiving the vaccine have been among the most well-compensated."

An Editor's Role

Is an editor's job is to be sure that every nuance of the writer is left in the final, edited manuscript? The premise of the Fog Index suggests not. Sometimes, nuance can become unnecessary detail, and that can interfere with the reader's understanding of the primary message. Certainly, though, the defogging should not alter the writer's point of view or introduce inaccuracies into the text.

It was not our intention to eliminate vital information from the sample, but if we did so, perhaps it can serve as a teachable moment. When a Fog Score is particularly high, we need to trim unnecessary words and, in some cases, information. Still, we must be careful. If we're too zealous in our pursuit of an ideal score, we can strip the text of something vital.

Meredith L. Dias is senior editor of Editors Only.

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"Retro" Print Editions?

Posted on Monday, September 26, 2011 at 9:22 PM

In the news: How "reverse publishing" is changing the game.

In recent years, we've seen many magazines abandon their print editions in favor of digital-only content. We've heard industry analysts herald the death of print and publishers shift their focus from print ads to social media.

But print still has a place, even for some digital-only publications. The Style.com website has announced its intention print a glossy edition every six months, and others have announced similar plans. It seems that even digital publishers, the heirs apparent to the publishing crown, are looking to diversify. Read more about the trend here.

Also Notable

Magazine App Rating System

Apps can be a vital component of a digital or print magazine, but not if they don't work properly. Last week, Stefanie Botelho of Foliomag.com discussed the new app ratings system from the McPheters & Company research firm. McPheters claims that 40 percent of apps don't work as they should. Five-star magazine apps include Allure and WIRED. One-star apps include Condé Nast Traveler and Science Illustrated (a Bonnier app). Read more.

Beware the Kindle!

More and more publishers are offering up Kindle content, but just how easy is it for publishers to get their content formatted for the device and online? Not easy enough, says Editors Only editor William Dunkerley in the September 2011 issue of sister newsletter STRAT. Read more about his experience with the platform here.

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