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Issue for September 2013

Reading to Improve Your Writing

Posted on Monday, September 30, 2013 at 11:19 AM

Two suggested reading titles for your learning enjoyment.

By Peter P. Jacobi

I love these books, two of them:

Writing Tools: 50 Essential Strategies for Every Writer, by Roy Peter Clark (Little, Brown), and

Vex, Hex, Smash, Smooch: Let Verbs Power Your Writing, by Constance Hale (Norton).

Writing Tools: Remember and Practice

Writing Tools actually was published in 2006, but I just came upon it and want to bring the book to your attention, in case you haven't learned of it before. Vex, Hex has just recently come out, and I hasten to let you know about its availability.

Roy Peter Clark is the highly respected senior scholar at the Poynter Institute. He's a great teacher and prolific writer who has given of his talents generously in classrooms and in print. He does so again in Writing Tools.

Here, indeed, are 50 short (and advice-packed) chapters covering matters such as "Begin sentences with subjects and verbs," "Watch those adverbs," "Establish a pattern, then give it a twist," "Prefer the simple over the technical," "Seek original images," "Know when to back off and when to show off," "Build your work around a key question," "Write from different cinematic angles," and "Learn from your critics."

The angles and issues covered are many and seem just about all-inclusive. And there's a structure to the whole. Clark has divided the coverage into four sections: "Nuts and Bolts," meaning from the basics to the development of voice; "Special Effects," dealing with refinements in the use of language; "Blueprints," which gets into content, structure, and usable techniques; and "Useful Habits," offering hints that might get you over humps and bumps.

To give you a notion of Clark's approach and tone in a book lavish in examples, here's the opening paragraph of a "tool" titled "Cut big, then small." "When writers fall in love with their words," he explains, "it is a good feeling that can lead to a bad effect. When we fall in love with all our quotes, characters, anecdotes, and metaphors, we cannot bear to kill any of them. But kill we must. In 1914, British author Arthur Quiller-Couch wrote it bluntly: 'Murder your darlings.'"

Clark follows with: "Such ruthlessness is best applied at the end of the process, when creativity can be moderated by coldhearted judgment. A fierce discipline must make every word count." He then cuts to the quick, offering specific advice on how to do what he's advised you to do: get rid of passages that don't support your article's focus; throw away your weakest material to "give greater power to the strongest;" do your own cutting rather than leaving it to others since "you know your work better;" and so forth.

The author knows how to fashion arguments so they stick with you. While discussing punctuation, for instance, he says: "If a period is a stop sign, then what kind of traffic flow is created by other marks? The comma is a speed bump; the semicolon is what a driver' education teacher calls a 'rolling stop'; the parenthetical expression is a detour; the colon is a flashing yellow light that announces something important up ahead; the dash is a tree branch in the road."

I consider Writing Tools a short reminder course on what we, as writers and editors, need to remember and practice.

Vex, Hex, Smash, Smooch, Let Verbs Power Your Writing: Artful Verb Usage

Constance Hale, a San Francisco–based writer and teacher who previously authored the helpful Sin and Syntax, somehow has managed to compose some 300 pages on how to make verb usage more artful. Not only that, but she has added useful appendices, including one that delves into singulars and plurals, a sometimes complicated issue when it comes to collective nouns, compound subjects, and Latin words like agenda and bacteria.

Up front, Hale argues: "Knowing the differences between a paltry verb and a potent one, a static sentence and a sinuous one, the passive voice and the active one, is not about turning yourself into a grammatical know-it-all. It's about becoming a better writer. It's about digging for a deeper understanding -- not just of English but of language. It's about perking up your prose, spinning supple sentences, and learning to control the mysteries of pacing and suspense."

She uses the words in her book title as structure in each of her chapters, which range from "I Came, I Saw, I Conquered: The Dynamics of Verbs" to "Passive Restraint: Understanding the Voice of Verbs," and from "Predicate Etiquette: Making the Back End of a Sentence Behave" to "Headache Verbs: Odd Usages and Other Sources of Confusion."

"The Vex section of each chapter," she explains, "will take on the things that are oh so confusing about language, syntax, and verbs." The Hex section puts "a pox on false language pronouncements we've heard over and over ('Don't split infinitives.' 'Ain't is vulgar.')." "In Smash, we will look at the goofs of writers famous and infamous, hapless and clueless." Smooch showcases "writing that is so good you'll want to kiss its creator. These passages feature juicy words, sentences that rock, and subjects that startle."

As does Clark, Hale loads her book with great examples, some familiar, many not, but all adding to the pleasure of learning. In her chapter, "Grammar Wars: The Tension between Chaos and Control," she offers a poem by Kenneth Koch called "Permanently." Here's the first stanza:

"One day the Nouns were clustered in the street.

An Adjective walked by, with her dark beauty.

The Nouns were struck, moved, changed.

The next day a Verb drove up, and created the Sentence."

In the Smooch section for "Verbal Dexterity: Playing with Participles and Other Cross-Dressers," Hale uses a paragraph from Toni Morrison's Sula to show how participles can paint a picture:

"Then summer came. A summer limp with the weight of blossomed things. Heavy sunflowers weeping over fences; iris curling and browning the edges far away from their purple hearts; ears of corn letting their auburn hair wind down to their stalks. And the boys. The beautiful, beautiful boys who dotted the landscape like jewels, split the air with their shouts in the field, and thickened the river with their shining wet backs. Even their footsteps left a smell of smoke behind."

Fun in learning is always welcome.

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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Stop and Think, Part II

Posted on Monday, September 30, 2013 at 11:15 AM

More tips on how to persuade searchers to stop, think, and read.

By Jan V. White

In Part I, we left off discussing readability of type. Now we continue with that topic, and offer additional tips.

Consistent styling. The fewer possibilities in type application there are, the simpler the visual effects become, and the more effective the patterning can be. Clarity of communication, however, needs sufficient variety to express the tonalities of emphasis from whispering to shouting. Styling decisions must be carefully crafted and balanced to accommodate the wide variety of needs. Once the system has been decided and agreed on, rigid discipline in its application must be enforced, to guard against its erosion. Its impact must not be diluted by unplanned ad hoc variations.

Standardization of spacing. Relationships up and down the page must be systematized and controlled. Therefore, page break policies must be embedded in the system to protect correct spacing. Opening up between lines to justify the column, for instance, destroys the integrity of the visual fabric and should never be allowed. Varying gaps between typographic elements can destroy the effects so carefully planned.

Departing from the usual. Situations may well arise whose specialness justifies departure from the norm. Clearly, such custom-fitted changes in format should be possible to make if the cost/benefit ratio is in their favor. They had better be worthwhile, because their very visual difference dramatizes their specialness.

Type for reader comfort. The people whom we are trying to attract must feel so comfortable that their attention is not diverted to the typography. Reading must not be a self-conscious, tiring effort, but a smooth, easy continuum. The type should be so right that it becomes part of the background, like furniture that nobody notices. No typographic exaggerations should be allowed: no ultrabold or ultralight weights, no all-caps in bulk, no italics in bulk, no unnatural spacing for the sake of special design effects. Functional typography is a mechanism restricted to functional use. Fashion is out of place not only because it disturbs, but because it brings attention to itself.

Color contrast of bold and light type. The different "color" (i.e., the darker or paler greyness of the texture the type creates) is vital for distinct visibility and findability of the signals as distinct to the text. The "weight" pulls the viewer's eye and gets more attention to the more important versus less important bits. (That could be an oversimplified way of calling our trade "visual editing.") Making them not just darker but also a bit bigger turns "headings" into headlines.

Fast perception? Display type

Think about traffic signs. They are large enough to be seen from a distance, always located in the expected place, recognizable in shape, noticeable by color and type, and visible because the surrounding bushes have been cleared away by the responsible authorities.

Headlines, our typographic signposts. Like them, they are a continuum. They must be placed where scanners expect to find them, and their look must be instantly recognizable. Their first job is visibility, noticeability, findability. Reader orientation is not their only function. Their job is also as identifiers and promisers. They lubricate understanding while their noticeability gives a cumulative character to the product as a whole. They sell.

Start at the top. The time-honored practice of deploying an article is to start at the end and work backwards and then arrange the display in whatever space is left over at the top. That is self-defeating, because the space in which scanners spot the display wording is as much a recognition factor as the type itself. The top is the crucial area for careful control.

Isolation. The blank area (that invaluable "white space") must be exploited as an active participant to explain relationships and rankings that the typography is intended to convey. Careful manipulation of size with placement makes for effective signaling. It is often impracticable to attract attention with enormous type. Instead, wording of modest size can stand just as noticeable by isolation in a cocoon of emptiness. (And no, that is not "wasted space").

Flush-left headings. Centering a heading in its space splits the leftover white space into two insignificant halves, one at each end of the heading. Flush-lefting merges them into a single, double-sized one, gaining more valuable contrast.

Breaking for sense. The display type should be as untrammeled as possible to protect the integrity of the thoughts it embodies. Fitting these valuable words and phrases into arbitrary line length can make the meaning hard to follow, even if it does not affect the actual interpretation. Line breaks should be specified by the writer to mirror the words as we speak. Tip: sound the headlines out loud. Simple! Logical! Readers like it without realizing why. Hyphenation in display type betrays poor craftsmanship.

Downstyle. Boldness and type size make headlines pop out without need of further elaboration. Capitalizing Important Words in Display Is a Useless Tradition. The first initial, of course, signals a new sentence. The rest in lowercase improves reading speed as well as understanding, because proper names and acronyms stand out. Speed of reading and increased comprehension are no small advantages, especially if they can be achieved at no cost. Only Outmoded Habit Insists on the Harder-to-Read Up-and-Down-Style.

Short label heads. Terseness may be fast, but not at the cost of enlightenment. Short heads are less effective than fully-worded, informative statements that define substance and promise results. Reading time may be microseconds longer, but motivation and comprehension are improved. Use as many words you need to sell the idea.

Legends and captions are read before the headlines. (Believe me -- it is true!) The illustration is what lookers notice first ... wonder about ... get curious ... search for explanation. Captions are the ideal opportunity to inform and lure them into reading. Full sentences draw attention to meanings, and conclusions motivate the reader. They should therefore be set in type large enough and visible enough to make the most of what the viewers see first.

Technical terms in text can be used as scanning shortcuts to bypass the slow process of looking something up. To act as a visual index embedded in the running text they must be popped out clearly in bold, since they are often strings of confusing abstract alphanumeric symbols.

Functional color can help immediate comprehension by classifying particular groups of information. At the same time, color can indeed be used as embellishment by making bullets red, arrows blue, rules green, headlines purple. Though prettiness and function each have their own place and validity, function is a better investment for reader satisfaction.

Raisins in the cake are vital. But you have to use visual embellishment with circumspection. Purely cosmetic fun and games at one end of the spectrum to serious information identification at the other are fine so long as the purpose of the piece is not compromised as decorative puffery. The danger is falling in love with any of it.

To be liked, satisfy our customers. When they are well served, they like our product. The desirable elegant solution must grow organically from the inner requirements of both the material and the user. Reveal the structure at first glance. So write and edit with an eye on the presentation. Organize the information into its component segments and flag each segment to reveal its content.

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 Monday, September 30, 2013 at 11:11 AM

Assessing the readability of a Mashable.com excerpt.

This month's Fog Index sample comes from a September 29 Mashable.com article ("3 Beliefs That Transformed My Work-Life Balance" by Erin Greenwald for the Daily Muse). Let's take a look:

"If you feel like basic things are starting to slide off your schedule, try this: Sit down and make a list of things that need to get done every day, every week and every month, and determine how much time they take; this can include everything from activities you need for basic living -- an hour a week for personal administrative tasks (e.g. buying plane tickets, paying bills), 15 minutes every day for tidying up -- to personal non-negotiables like an hour twice a week to cook, or a few hours of 'you' time every week."

--Word count: 94 words
--Average sentence length: 94 words (94)
--Words with 3+ syllables: 6 percent (6/94 words)
--Fog Index: (94+6)*.4 = 40 (no rounding)

This sample yielded the highest Fog Index we've seen since we started doing this monthly column. The culprit is clear: the entire excerpt is one long sentence. We must split this up into smaller pieces if we want to bring our Fog score below 12. Here's our attempt:

"You may feel like basic things are starting to slide off your schedule. If so, try sitting down and making a list of things that need to get done every day, every week, and every month. Determine how much time they take. This can include everything from basic living tasks -- an hour a week for personal administration (e.g. buying plane tickets, paying bills), 15 minutes every day for tidying up -- to personal needs like an hour twice a week to cook, or a few hours of 'you' time every week."

--Word count: 90 words
--Average sentence length: 23 words (13, 23, 6, 48)
--Words with 3+ syllables: 4 percent (4/90 words)
--Fog Index: (23+4)*.4 = 10 (no rounding)

We only shaved four words from the original excerpt, but we quadrupled the number of sentences. In doing this, we ended up with a Fog score that is a quarter of the original. This month's sample shows us that just a few punctuation marks can make a huge difference in cutting through the fog.

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Magazine Publishers, E-books: Together at Last?

Posted on Monday, September 30, 2013 at 11:07 AM

In the news: Magazine editors are experimenting with e-book publishing to engage existing readers and attract new ones.

This month's industry news has revealed a blossoming relationship between the magazine and book publishing spheres. A recent HuffingtonPost.com article in its "Books" section highlights several magazines that have released e-book singles as bonus content to attract new readers from the e-book world. Magazines that have tested the e-book waters include GQ, Publishers Weekly, and National Geographic.

Read more about magazines that have experimented with e-book singles here.

Also Notable

Book Publishers and Custom Magazines: Together at Last?

It's not just magazine publishers who are tapping into books to create alternate revenue streams; some book publishers are creating magazines that focus on popular titles and authors. Random House recently partnered with Flipboard to create digital magazines for Margaret Atwood's latest release and George R. R. Martin's best-selling Song of Ice and Fire series. Read more about these custom magazines here.

Magazine Printing Kiosks

MegaNews Magazines has unveiled a new kind of magazine newsstand that could provide some relief to print magazine publishers contending with losses in the form of unsold copies. The automated kiosks would allow customers to purchase and print single issues onsite. MegaNews Magazines has installed its first kiosk in Stockholm, Sweden. Read more here.

Crucial Editorial Skills

Which skills are most important in today's magazine publishing industry. John Gallant of IDG Enterprise answers this question and others in a September 25 Foliomag.com interview with Arti Patel. Gallant discusses how the editor's role has changed in recent years and the skills he looks for in prospective editorial staff. Read the interview here.

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