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Issue for September 2016

Writing Is Lonely Business, Part I

Posted on Wednesday, September 28, 2016 at 1:41 AM

Writing is difficult, but think what your accomplishment can mean for those you reach with your words.

By Peter P. Jacobi

I share with you a stream of advice uttered by writers who know the business and how to express their thoughts in a manner that's not only understandable but graphic. In total, the quotes are meant to offer you a reminder of writer opportunities and responsibilities. They're for you to use as editor and writer and for your writers to use as they go about their lonely task.

Fail Better

The American writer of novels, memoir, and criticisms Mary Gordon tells us: "There may be some writers who contemplate a day's work without dread, but I don't know them. Beckett had, posted to the wall beside his desk, a card on which were written the words: 'Fail. Fail again. Fail better.' It's a bad business, this writing.'" But apparently, Mary Gordon can't let it go. She's caught in writing's net, as are, most likely, you.

Secret Chamber

Egypt-born American author André Aciman -- novelist, memoirist, and teacher at City University of New York -- ponders: "Don't all writers have a hidden nerve, call it a secret chamber, something irreducibly theirs, which stirs their prose and makes it tick and turn this way or that, and identifies them, like a signature, though it lurks far deeper than their style, or their voice or other telltale antics? A hidden nerve is what every writer is ultimately about." It's what distinguishes your gift for the task of writing from that of others. Be happy for the chamber's, the nerve's, existence.

Unmistakable Signature

The late short story writer and poet Raymond Carver addressed that chamber and the issue of voice: "It is the writer's particular and unmistakable signature on everything he writes. It is his world and no other. This is one of the things that distinguishes one writer from another. Not talent. There's plenty of that around.... Talent is an element that is all around us and arrives daily through the hole in the ozone layer just above Canada. But a writer who has some special way of looking at things and who gives artistic expression to that way of looking: that writer may be around for a time."

Get Out of Your Own Way

The late writer, teacher, filmmaker, and social activist Susan Sontag viewed what we do a bit differently, at least in how she expressed it: "Writing is finally a series of permissions you give yourself to be expressive in certain ways. To invent. To leap. To fly. To fall. To find your own characteristic way of narrating and insisting: that is, to find your own inner freedom. To be strict without being too self-excoriating. Not stopping too often to reread.... Allowing yourself, when you dare to think it's going well (or not too badly), simply to keep rowing along. No waiting for inspiration's shove." That tends to be my approach to the process of writing: not to get in my own way.

Clarity and Brevity

Novelist and short story writer James Salter speaks of language, the verbal substance with which we work: "In the richness of language, its grace, breadth, dexterity, lies its power. To speak with clarity, brevity, and wit is like holding a lightning rod. We are drawn to people who know things and are able to express them." Yes, clarity. Yes, brevity. Wit depends on what is your subject, but it can be persuasive.


I need not identify Anton Chekhov, or so I choose to believe. That Russian giant of literature advised a correspondent: "You are making great progress, but allow me to repeat my advice: write with more self-restraint. The more emotionally charged a situation, the more emotional restraint one must use in writing, and then the result will be emotionally powerful. There is no need for laying it on thick." Moderation helps, but be careful, lest you lay restraint on too thick.

Maximum Attentiveness

The late Paul West, British-born American novelist, poet, and essayist, argued for his approach to writing: "Of course, the writer cannot always burn with a hard gemlike flame or a white heat, but it should be possible to be a chubby hot-water bottle, rendering maximum attentiveness in the most enterprising sentences."

More advice in Part II...

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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Instituting Editorial Workplace Changes

Posted on Wednesday, September 28, 2016 at 1:39 AM

A reader's question: How can I get staff to go along with the work-routine changes necessitated by the rapidly changing publishing field?

By William Dunkerley

Q. I run a medium-size magazine shop on the editorial side. We have three legacy print publications, online editions, and seven digital publications. My senior staff members are all holdovers from the glory days of print. Even many of the new staffers are most experienced in print and online replica editions. My publisher says print revenues are still substantial. But she feels increasing pressure to turn a buck with our growing digital offerings. One of my big problems is motivating my editorial staff to adopt new ways of thinking and accept new work routines. Some are flatly digital-phobic, while others lack any enthusiasm for improving and expanding our digital publishing. How can I get these people to be more compliant? We need to make a lot of changes. My people need to embrace working differently, but they don't see things that way.

A. Actually, the changes in editorial routines you're interested in making may be doomed to failure.

Staff resistance is a leading cause of failure when making any workplace changes, not just in editorial offices. People usually respond to imposed change with resistance.

People resist because they fear loss. Things like loss of job ... income ... status ... future opportunities ... perks ... reputation ... influence ... responsibility ... autonomy ... relationships ... familiar routines ... security.

In one sense, the changes you may want to institute have something in common with a good beer. They both require a process to make. For beer it is the brewing. For editorial workplace change it is the transition from the old to the new. If you don't take care to handle that process effectively, the result won't taste good.

Here Are a Few Recommendations

--Through leadership, create a shared vision of what needs to be changed. Make sure the problem is clear before you start advocating the solution.

--Empower your staff. Significant change cannot be accomplished single-handedly. Enlist the help of your people in rounding out your vision and planning the detailed path toward your goals.

--Create new organizational structures and procedures. Encourage teamwork. Give people the necessary authority and support. Reward contributions.

--Produce a strategic plan.

--Work out a detailed plan together. Identify everything that needs to be done to achieve your objectives. Establish milestones or checkpoints along the way for evaluating progress and taking corrective action when needed.

--One of the first steps toward a strategic plan is to do a no-nonsense analysis of your organization's strengths and weaknesses regarding the subject of your plan.

Use This Checklist:

1. Are current capacity and resources adequate, or can they be augmented?

2. Is there a satisfactory management or supervisory structure in place?

3. Is the strategy workable?

4. Are the objectives and strategies working in consonance, or are they at cross-purposes?

5. Is there sufficient expertise for carrying out the tactics?

6. Are the financial resources available to back up the plan?

7. Is the amount of risk acceptable?

8. Is the timing appropriate?

9. Does the plan anticipate future conditions?

In Summary:

--Expect resistance to change.

--Use effective leadership techniques.

--Seek broad-based decision-making.

--Plan strategically.

--Carefully monitor progress.

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

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The Fog Index

Posted on Wednesday, September 28, 2016 at 1:34 AM

In the news: Assessing the readability of an NYTimes.com excerpt.

This month's excerpt for our Fog Index exercise comes from a September 25 NYTimes.com article ("Making Video Ads That Work on Facebook's Silent Screen" by Sapna Maheshwari and Katie Benner"). Here's the text, with longer words in italics:

"Advertising is a medium that has long relied on the hummable jingle, the memorable catchphrase and the familiar voice-over to connect with its audience. Now, as technology companies like Facebook, Twitter and Snapchat hustle for a bigger cut of television marketing dollars by adding videos, they have been working to show advertisers that their videos can be just as effective, even if they are played on mute or are viewed for just a few seconds. With advertisers seeking to reach an increasingly fractured and fickle audience, the challenges of presenting ads on platforms that are not one-size-fits-all are sure to be much discussed at Advertising Week, a top industry gathering that begins Monday in Manhattan."

--Word count: 115 words
--Average sentence length: 38 words (24, 51, 40)
--Words with 3+ syllables: 16 percent (18/115 words)
--Fog Index: (38+16)*.4 = 21 (21.6, no rounding)

We have our work cut out for us here. We need to cut 10 points from our Fog Index. The chief culprit is sentence length: We have 115 words split into just 3 sentences. Let's see if we can resolve the issue without infringing too much upon the writers' style:

"Advertising has long relied on catchy jingles, striking slogans, and familiar voice-overs to connect with its audience. Now sites like Facebook, Twitter, and Snapchat are hustling for more TV marketing dollars by adding videos. They want to prove that their videos can work even if they are played on mute or are viewed for just a few seconds. Audiences are becoming fractured and fickle, so there are many challenges in presenting ads on platforms that are not one-size-fits-all. These issues are sure to be a hot topic at Advertising Week, a top industry show that begins Monday in Manhattan."

--Word count: 99 words
--Average sentence length: 20 words (17, 17, 24, 20, 21)
--Words with 3+ syllables: 8 percent (8/99 words)
--Fog Index: (20+8)*.4 = 11 (11.2, no rounding)

We had to wrestle with the text quite a bit to bring the Fog score below 12. Turning 3 sentences into 5 only got the job partway done. We had to look at the longer words and edit further to eliminate some of them. Words like "advertisers" and "audience" are difficult to replace, and they are key players in this paragraph. Ultimately, we were able to get down to 11 while also cutting 16 words from the original.

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The Role of Editorial in Native Content

Posted on Wednesday, September 28, 2016 at 1:33 AM

In the news: Who is producing the native content we're seeing in magazines?

On September 1, Greg Dool of Foliomag.com explored the production of native ad content for magazines. The headline tells the tale: "Majority of Publishers Use Their Own Editorial Staffs to Produce Native Ads." More and more, editors and journalists are being asked to produce content across various formats (including video) while still doing traditional editing and fact-checking on tight turnarounds. Advertising is bleeding into the editorial arena as never before, and editors are often the ones producing said advertorial content.

Reporters still weigh the same ethical considerations as always, but now they must also contend with FTC disclosure rules and deliver content with due transparency. It's a work in progress; Dool concludes, "Only 11 percent of respondents to the survey say they don't label native advertising, although another 24 percent report marking native ads with only 'a different look and feel.'"

Read more here.

Bonnier Shutters Travel Print Editions

Earlier this month, Bonnier stopped printing Islands, Destination Weddings & Honeymoons, and Caribbean Travel & Life. Islands will continue as a digital publication, slated to launch next year. The magazines had recently undergone redesigns to try and regain lost ground. Read more here.

Layoffs at Gannett Newspapers

Two weeks ago, North Jersey Media Group, a subsidiary of Gannett, announced major layoffs at The Bergen Record and the Herald News (Passaic County) newspapers. According to Benjamin Mullin of Poynter.org, Gannett will lay off over 200 employees in November. The move comes two months after Gannett's acquisition of North Jersey Media Group in July. Read more here.

A New Investor for Rolling Stone

This week, Singapore's BandLab Technologies Ltd. gained 49 percent ownership of Rolling Stone magazine. Jeffrey Trachtenberg reports, "Terms weren't disclosed. However, the investment doesn't include ownership in closely held Wenner Media LLC, Rolling Stone's corporate parent. The move comes as many publishers are seeking to broaden their portfolios to become less dependent on print advertising revenue." Read more about the acquisition here.

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