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Issue for September 2015

The Right Details

Posted on Tuesday, September 29, 2015 at 11:39 PM

A masterful intertwining of content and language serves author, subject, and readers well.

By Peter Jacobi

I'm starting off this month with another person's lead, a long paragraph. Please read it with care; if you do, I'm sure you'll gain pleasure from the reading.

"On a snowy morning in February, Violette Verdy walked into a well-lit rehearsal studio seven stories above Broadway. At 81, the former ballerina, best known for her 20-year collaboration with George Balanchine at the New York City Ballet, is a striking woman, petite and vivacious, with eyes the color of stormy seas. ('My mother said they change with the weather,' she told me.). She wore her signature work attire: matching tights, knee-length skirt, and top, all in the same shade of dark blue, and complemented by a pair of bright-red ballet flats. If one looked closely, one might have noticed that her shoes were held in place not by elastic or ribbons, but by matching rubber bands, the kind shelved next to the paper clips at Staples. Verdy displays the pragmatism of someone who is utterly comfortable in her skin."

I found that beginning and all the splendid paragraphs that follow it in the August 2015 issue of The Nation. Marina Harss, a freelance dance writer with numerous credits in top-tier publications, authored the piece. And since I know Violette and know about her, I can vouch for what Harss has put together. The writing is effective. The reporting is thorough. The selection of what to use and what she chose to leave out proves to me that the article honors both the subject and the reader.

Winning Combination

The combination of language fluency, sufficiency and thorough grasp of material, and shrewd packaging is unbeatable. Harss has provided that combination. The opening paragraph exemplifies it, and the reason for her success comes from the high quality of her reporting and researching, how professionally she did her information gathering, her collecting of details.

A Lead That Passes the Test of Detail

It is details that I want to stress. More than once during the many years I've written this column, I've argued that no matter how good your writing, you will falter if you fail the test of detail. Whether you are dealing with fiction or nonfiction or poetry, your composition gets the job done only if you enrich the reader with both how and what, the best writing you are capable of (HOW), along with the most enticing information you can include (WHAT).

Take another look at the article's first paragraph. The opening sentence gives you a human subject engaged in an action, good for a starter and strengthened by the detail of seven flights undertaken and done, a task all too many of us would find taxing. Immediately thereafter, you tell me that the climber's conquest comes when she is 81, more amazing. But then we come to the fact that she was a ballerina, suggesting that she has led the life of an athlete and that she danced all those years for a master choreographer, George Balanchine, at one of the world's premier dance companies, meaning, of course, she's watched her health, thereby triumphing in a stressful vocation in a stressful environment.

In the meanwhile, I'm discovering that she is a "striking woman," a good adjective but made far more so by two added adjectives, one about size ("petite"), the other about personality ("vivacious"). That fruitful sentence continues to be fruitful when we learn next of her "eyes the color of stormy seas," wonderfully creative but also true; I've looked into them. Harss embellishes with a quote, Verdy's own about how her mother lovingly described those eyes.

We come next to her attire, certainly not of the kind we might expect a diva to wear and, therefore, reasoning that her fame in the world of ballet has not gone to her head. Famous she is; a diva she is not. The clothing specifics are precise, this to emphasize the incongruity. And, oh my, her shoes are held together by rubber bands, "matching" rubber bands, the sort you can buy at Staples. In all, in an initial summary, we have been introduced to a woman "utterly comfortable in her skin."

Think about how much you've learned from that lead paragraph. Harss has put together an informative and lively package, with not a word improperly selected or placed. It is bulging with information and designed for easy shipping and opening.

Continuing with the Right Details

Granted, there's not much action in that first paragraph, but consider how much you've learned about Violette Verdy, how that copy has prepared you for what's to come. The richness of detail leads so comfortably to the next paragraph, which switches to action, to things happening. The follow-up material flowingly moves the story forward: "As soon as she entered the room, Verdy was surrounded by friends and admirers. Some had shared the stage with her or watched from the wings during the 1950s, '60s, and '70s, when she was one of New York City Ballet's most celebrated dancers in what she calls the '19th century and a half' repertory, by which she means ballets that make reference to 19th-century themes and traditions while applying the innovations and refinements of 20th-century technique. Verdy had a word for each person who approached her. Hers is an irrepressible friendliness."

We find out that she's been asked to show a couple of current New York City Ballet dancers assigned to a ballet in which she starred how to handle the intricacies and spirit of the choreography. Her lesson is to be taped for the company's archives and made available to those who will dance the roles in future generations. Author Harss will detail what happened during that master lesson, step by step, moment for moment. She will continue to insert background material (events from Verdy's life). The report makes for a terrific piece, made so by the writer's way with words and by her wisdom in choosing the right details, the how and the what.

And near the end, Harss will clarify the ballerina's individuality as woman and dancer: "Like the Advaita Vedanta school of Hinduism she has quietly practiced since the '60s, ballet, for Verdy, is a spiritual pursuit. 'I feel the obligation to make people consider that this is not just a physical activity, a physical technique, but that it points to something higher,' she told me. This belief bound her to Balanchine, in whom she intuited a similar idealism. 'If you're going to have a guru in the world,' she added, 'Mr. B was it.'"

The masterful intertwining of content and language serves author Marina Harss well, subject Violette Verdy well, and consuming readers well. Serving all should be your goal.

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 Neuroscience of Editing

Posted on Tuesday, September 29, 2015 at 11:38 PM

Adopting a whole-brain approach to writing and editing content.

By William Dunkerley

A 2014 Huffington Post headline reads, "Scientists Achieve Direct Brain-to-Brain Communication Between Humans." It discusses an experiment in which brainwave electromagnetic communication was effectuated between two people via the Internet. Think of the possibilities that this presents.

Does this mean that sometime in the future we'll be able to connect up the brains of our authors with our readers directly? All the authors would have to do is think through the message they want to convey to readers and, bingo, it would go via the Internet right to the readers' brains. Well, actually, we wouldn't be able to call them readers anymore because the reading process would have become obsolete.

Gosh, if reading were obsolete, where would that leave us editors? What would be left to edit?

What Is Brainwave Communication?

Don't worry about your jobs yet, though. The futuristic notion suggested by the headline is quite misleading. The story reports on a university experiment. This research may indeed be more meritorious than just junk science. But the Huffington Post's handling of the story is junk editing.

The notion of robust brainwave communication seems to lack technical feasibility. From the science of information theory we know that the speed and volume of information that can be communicated by electromagnetic means is directly proportional to the bandwidth available. For instance, simple telephone voice communication requires a bandwidth of 3,000 hertz. Television needs a 5,000,000-hertz bandwidth. But the brainwaves detected by an electroencephalograph occupy only 50 hertz. That's enough to communicate at least the blink of an eye or the twitch of a finger, but it's a far cry from being able to transfer any sophisticated thoughts.

Nonetheless, we editors should start giving more thought to the neuroscientific aspect of what we're doing.

Categorizing Brain Activity and Anticipating Reader Response

We all know that brain activity can be categorized in a few contrasting ways: rational vs. emotional, conscious vs. subconscious, left-brained vs. right-brained.

Marketers have long recognized that much of the brain activity that goes into making a purchase happens at a subconscious level. Many contend that, deep down, many decisions are made on an emotional basis. Rational thought only comes forth when buyers attempt to rationalize purchases to themselves or to others.

Few editors, however, consciously consider how the brains of their readers are going to process the content of their articles.

If you edit a publication that is intended purely for entertainment, you are likely to be good at communicating with readers at an emotional level. Editors with readers who are primarily interested in garnering information from the publication tend to be less aware of the emotional, subconscious, and right-brained side of communication.

Engaging Readers' Whole Brain: The Experiment

This came up one time when I was helping an editor to develop a subscription promotion piece. She was the editor of a technical publication. Her first draft was very rational and left-brained in its approach. I did an alternative draft that tried to appeal more broadly. Her draft spelled out all the features of the publication in a very matter-of-fact manner. Mine attempted to get the recipient to dream of the benefits that would accrue from subscribing.

The editor's response was something like this: "My readers are serious, highly educated people. They won't fall for that kind of solicitation. It may work for a glossy entertainment magazine, but not for us."

We agreed to put the two versions to a test. We split the universe receiving the solicitation randomly. One half got the editors' version; the other half received mine.

The Results

And the results?

My text that appealed to the whole person, the whole brain, far outpulled the strictly rational and emotion-free version. It communicated more effectively

How are you appealing to your audience?

You may have a publication that deals with information, not entertainment. But are you presenting your information primarily in a sterile, rational, and unimaginative way?

If you are, you might consider the neuroscientific angle of your approach. Think about communicating with the whole brain of your readers. This could enable greater effectiveness in your communication, give your readers a more enjoyable reading experience, and even increase your renewal rate!

Oh, and one more thing: If you ever decide to run a story about brain-to-brain communication, fact-check your report and try to understand what it's all about before you publish the article. The rational side of the communication process is still important, too.

William Dunkerley is principal of William Dunkerley Publishing Consultants, www.publishinghelp.com.

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The Fog Index

Posted on Tuesday, September 29, 2015 at 11:10 PM

Assessing the readability of a WashingtonPost.com excerpt.

This month, we're analyzing the Fog Index of an excerpt from a September 28 WashingtonPost.com article ("NASA Confirms the Best-Ever Evidence for Water on Mars" by Rachel Feltman). Here's the sample, with longer words in italics for reference:

"The study builds on research from April, when scientists using data from the Curiosity rover noted that the planet had the seasonal potential for liquid water. We know that because of the extremely low pressure on Mars, water has a boiling point of just a few degrees Celsius, after which it evaporates. The April study noted the presence of perchlorates -- a kind of salt -- which could make the boiling point of Mars's water much higher, theoretically allowing it to remain liquid. They posited that the planet's temperature would be right for liquid, perchlorate-filled water to form every day during winter and spring."

--Word count: 102 words
--Average sentence length: 26 words (26, 26, 29, 21)
--Words with 3+ syllables: 8 percent (8/102 words)
--Fog Index: (26+8)*.4 = 13 (13.6, no rounding)

The number of longer words is quite low for a sample of this size. However, we have just over 100 words split into just four sentences. Let's see if we can pare down our average sentence length to cut at least 2 points from our Fog score.

"The study builds on research from April, when scientists using data from the Curiosity rover noted that the planet had the seasonal potential for liquid water. We know that because of the extremely low pressure on Mars, water has a boiling point of just a few degrees Celsius. After that point it evaporates. The April study noted the presence of perchlorates, a kind of salt that could make the boiling point of Mars's water much higher. Theoretically, this would allow it to remain liquid. The experts posited that the planet's temperature would be right for liquid, perchlorate-filled water to form every day during winter and spring."

--Word count: 106 words
--Average sentence length: 18 words (26, 22, 5, 23, 8, 22)
--Words with 3+ syllables: 8 percent (8/106 words)
--Fog Index: (18+8)*.4 = 10 (10.4, no rounding)

We didn't have to do much to this sample to improve the Fog score. With a few very minor syntax tweaks, we turned four sentences into six. This was all the editing we needed to cut 3 points from the original sample's Fog Index, bringing us well within ideal range (i.e., below 12).

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When Retailers Become Magazines

Posted on Tuesday, September 29, 2015 at 10:58 PM

In the news: More and more stores are producing editorial content to augment their brand.

Once upon a time, retailers relied on traditional advertising methods to drive the consumer conversation about their products. Today the game has changed. Just as trade and B-to-B magazine publishers are experimenting with new content platforms (e.g., video), retailers have begun producing original editorial content to strengthen their brand presence.

Alec Leach of HighSnobiety.com examines several retailers that have started brand magazines. "Many retailers are finding that editorial content is a great way to not only enrich their customers' experience and perception of the store, but to boost sales, too," he writes. "Just as brick-and-mortar retailers are adding experiences such as in-store cafes as a way to keep people shopping, online stores are increasingly turning to content creation as a way to attract customers -- and to keep them coming back." Read more here.

Also Notable

The Enduring Allure of Print

"The good old-fashioned print publication has become a simple luxury," writes the Economist's Marina Haydn in a recent Foliomag.com piece. She discusses the continued relevance of print despite flagging newsstand sales and changing reader preferences. Many readers consume so much digital content on their portable devices that they need a break from their screens, a break that a print publication can offer. Furthermore, they tend to engage more fully with print content than with digital. Read Haydn's complete discussion here.

Digital Readers: Still Outnumbered

Recent statistics from a Mequoda study reveal that print readers still outnumber digital readers by nearly 2 to 1. According to MediaPost.com, the study found that nearly 70 percent of adults had read print magazines (an average of 2.91 issues each) in the last month, while only roughly 37 percent had read digital magazines (an average of 2.37 issues each) during the same period. Read more of the study's findings here.

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