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Issue for October 2013

Nuggets from Notables

Posted on Thursday, October 31, 2013 at 1:06 AM

Words of advice from professionals.

By Peter P. Jacobi

Rather than just repeating nuggets of advice given you previously in words of my own devising, permit me to repeat them in the words of others, notable others, so that they might serve to remind you of ways you can help the process of writing (for those who depend on you to edit them or for yourself, when you switch into writing mode).

Read Aloud

For instance: I've urged you time and again to read copy aloud. Well, now comes word that best-selling author David Sedaris favors such action for himself. Renowned as he is, however, he's able to go a distance beyond just reading material aloud in the privacy of his office. He tests his material by reading it to live audiences, a luxury most of us don't have. Folks flock to hear him; they even pay admission to hear him. Wonder of wonders: an editing session becomes performance; re-evaluation turns into theater.

An audience, he says, provides a real test, one he likes to use, if possible, even before he sends copy to his editor. "There's no substitute for a live audience," he says. "I used to hate it when a book came out or a story was published and I would be like 'Damn, how did I not catch that?' But you pretty much always catch it when you're reading out loud."

Sedaris strives to mark up his copy as he reads, this to help him remember later what needs fixing: repeated words or words that sound too much alike or a passage "that sounds a little too obvious." And when he starts to hear coughs and seat-shifting, he draws a skull in the margin. A skull means that verbal moment requires extra careful reconsideration.

All well and good for David Sedaris, but like me, you're not likely to gather up a live audience. Nevertheless, you can take a step beyond just reading out loud; I think I've mentioned this somewhere along the way. You can tape record your out-loud reading, then play it back, making you a one-person audience listening to yourself. And as you listen, you can applaud what you like and alter what you don't. It works.

Interview, Observation, and Participation

As one would expect from title and concept, there's much of an inspirational nature in A Syllable of Water, Twenty Writers of Faith Reflect on Their Art, a collection edited by Emilie Griffin for Paraclete Press in Brewster, Massachusetts. But one can find harder-edged, super-practical counsel, too, in its 220 pages.

For instance, Philip Yancey, longtime writer for Christianity Today and author of 20 books, has contributed an essay on journalism titled "The Literature of Fact." Here's a sampling of what he tell us:

"Good journalism, whether thematic or based on interviews, tells a story. As novelist and essayist Reynolds Price says, 'The need to tell and hear stories is the second most important need after food. People are going to tell stories.' And participatory journalism affords me a chance to live a story before I tell it."

Early in his career, says Yancey, he "met a young man named Peter Jenkins at a writers' conference as he was working on the book A Walk Across America. As he recounted some of his adventures on a long walk across the country, he said, 'I get tired of these reporters flying down from New York, renting a car, then driving out to meet me. They hit the electric window button of their air-conditioned car, lean out, and ask, "So, Peter, what's it like to walk across America?" I'd like a reporter to walk with me for a while!'"

Yancey agreed to do just that. "For several days, Peter and I hiked together, swatted fire ants, bargained with farmers for watermelon, chased snakes (and were chased by them), and endured the abuse of cruising Texas teenagers who had nothing better to do than harass the outsiders setting up tents in their town. I collected far more material in those days than I could ever include in an article."

I've addressed this matter with you. Interviewing is not always the best approach to gathering information. Observation and participation often can play a more significant part in a writer's effort to create a potent, attention-grabbing article.

"Shut Up and Write"

Sit. Walk. Write. Those three words sum up the wisdoms of author/teacher/sage Natalie Goldberg, as developed across 224 pages in The True Secret of Writing, Connecting Life with Language (Atria Books). One gets sucked in by her lush and evocative use of language, by her ranging mind as she obliquely instructs us through recapitulation of life experiences, long-term retreats with adoring students, by her application of Zen.

Not all of you may be taken in by her unhurried teaching method in this particular volume; I'm not always with her 100 percent. But she has a lot to say if you're patient enough to walk along with her through ruminations and retraced walks and talks.

Toward the end, she says: "I tell my students, Shut up and write. These four words are all you need, but to realize them is not so easy. The phrase has the terseness of Zen -- pithy, cutting though, to the point. But we have to fall through many layers of human life to directly meet its prescription. We have to know the dignity of language, the dimensions of war and aggression, then patience, the slow recording of detail, desire, anguish, hope, then letting go, silence and speech, imperturbability, resolve, then flummoxing, losing it all, thinking we can escape. We go through the whole gamut, the extremes, till we lower ourselves into the center -- quiet, looking harmless, barely moving, but ferocious inside, determined, touching down on delight and candor, pouring it onto the page."

Well, I guess so. Writing is a complex matter. But in the end, we have to tell our writers and ourselves: "Shut up and write."

Writer's Block

That connects to another issue I've dwelled on from time to time: writer's block. I've never worried much about writer's block because, as a practicing journalist, I've never allowed myself to let it take hold and, thereby, become its victim. Granted, I often wait until the last moment to write, finding excuses to delay the task. When, however, I know the last moment has arrived, discipline takes over and I "shut up and write."

If you have the problem or know someone who has, take advice from none less than John McPhee. In a piece titled "Draft No. 4" for The New Yorker, McPhee tells a muted writer: "You are writing, say, about a grizzly bear. No words are forthcoming. For six, seven, ten hours no words have been forthcoming. You are blocked, frustrated, in despair.... What do you do?

"You write, 'Dear Mother.' And then you tell your mother about the block, the frustration, the ineptitude, the despair. You insist that you are not cut out to do this kind of work. You whine. You whimper. You outline your problem, and you mention that the bear has a 55-inch waist and a neck more than 30 inches around but could run nose-to-nose with Secretariat. You say the bear prefers to lie down and rest. The bear rests 14 hours a day. And you go on like that as long as you can. And then you go back and delete the 'Dear Mother' and all the whimpering and whining, and just keep the bear."

I say no more.

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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Is Your Comments Section Troll Infested?

Posted on Thursday, October 31, 2013 at 1:04 AM

5 problematic situations and tips on how to handle them.

By Margaret Looney

[Internet troll n (slang): a person who sows discord in your comments section by starting arguments or upsetting people]

Combing through antagonizing remarks in your comments section can be an exhausting task. Worse, an online community can become a seedy breeding ground for Internet trolls.

But there are ways to lighten the load. At a recent panel at the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication conference, Ro Gupta offered advice. He's vice president of business development at Disqus and has battled his share of under-the-bridge dwellers. Gupta listed the top five "prime trolling conditions" and offered a few ways community managers can avoid them:

#1 -- Lack of Clear Guidelines and Norms

"You'd be surprised by how many sites, especially professional news organizations', don't have clear communication of what their guidelines and norms are," Gupta said.

By clearly outlining the kind of discourse you intend to feature on your site, as NPR does, you can thwart the trolls in their tracks. Cite the guidelines if people get upset that their unruly comments are removed. "If you can point to something that you've always stated upfront, that will also sometimes appease the situation," he said.

2 -- Lack of Community Manager Presence

Gupta isn't just referring to someone moderating, approving, or deleting comments. Rather he includes the feedback of the author, guest contributor, or company mentioned in the article.

"Having that presence on a consistent ... and visual basis we see correlates pretty highly with successful communities." Gupta recognized this step as a challenge. He cited journalists' aversion to "what's down there in the comments," as well as workflow issues and the time-consuming nature of staying truly engaged. But if the community manager doesn't seem to care, then online aggressors won't hesitate to attack.

3 -- No Sense of Community Empowerment

Get a few engaged, sincere commentators on your side. They'll do a lot of the battling for you, like "helping to enforce the norms, telling people when they're out of line or when the contributions aren't welcome."

"Once the audience sees that you care enough to be consistently in the conversation, a constant voice of authority, you'll start to see a sort of citizen empowerment thing happening," he said. "They can often do a lot of work for you in terms of fighting off trolls, and on a more positive point, making [the comments section] a more welcoming environment."

Gupta notes that community managers have sometimes given moderation rights to regular contributors. That involves those who have proved they are passionate, responsible, and in tune with the type of conversation the site wants to encourage.

4 -- Reverse Chronological Order Sorting

If you always keep the most recent comment at the top of the thread, you're offering trolls a guaranteed 15 minutes of fame even for a low-quality comment. Taking a bit of inspiration from Reddit, Disqus monitors voting signals to see which comments should float to the top. By allowing well-received comments to be presented first, you're "incentivizing a really well-thought-out contribution that's pertinent to the topic."

5 -- A Snarky Tone in the Content

Snark breeds snark. "If [a publication] is written in a really provocative or controversial way, then naturally people are going to react."

Gupta said he doesn't think a writer's controversial tone is a good excuse for a troll attack. But it does mean the site should expect and prepare for matching feedback. When a reporter at Gawker, a site known for its quippy style, complained to Gupta that cruel comments had brought some Gawker reporters to tears, Gupta retorted, "Well, the natural question is 'how many of your writers have caused people to cry over the years?'"

"Sometimes you have to embrace that in a way, or at least accept what your tone or voice is going to yield in terms of people who [respond]," he said.

Margaret Looney is a member of the editorial staff of IJNet (www.ijnet.org), published by the International Center for Journalists, Washington, DC, an organization dedicated to advancing quality journalism worldwide.

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The Fog Index

Posted on Thursday, October 31, 2013 at 1:01 AM

Assessing the readability of a Wired.com article.

This month, we calculate the Fog Index of an October 30 Wired.com piece ("New Server Every 10 Seconds -- The Price of Our Digital Lives" by Jeff Klaus). Here's the excerpt:

"It is true that servers have been gaining more efficiency at processing per watt, but there is still a critical need for power consumption management. Every new server pushes the data center closer to site capacity power limits, and increases the energy costs that are already a significant portion of the overall data center budget. In total, data centers consume at least 1.5 percent of all the world's available energy. This represents a doubling of energy consumption over the last five years, and is due in part to the digital lifestyles we all enjoy."

--Word count: 94 words
--Average sentence length: 24 words (25, 30, 15, 24)
--Words with 3+ syllables: 16 percent (15/94 words)
--Fog Index: (24+16)*.4 = 16 (no rounding)

The Fog Index is on the high side at 16. The average sentence length is on the longer side at 24 words, so our best bet will be to break up the text into smaller parts. The percentage of longer words is also quite high, so we'll also try to cut these where possible.

"Servers have become faster at processing per watt, but there power consumption management is still vital. Each new server pushes the data center closer to site capacity power limits. It also increases the energy costs, which are already a major portion of the data center budget. In total, data centers consume at least 1.5 percent of all the world's available energy. This represents a doubling of energy use over the last five years that is due in part to the digital lifestyles we all enjoy."

--Word count: 85 words
--Average sentence length: 17 words (16, 13, 17, 15, 24)
--Words with 3+ syllables: 11 percent (10/88 words)
--Fog Index: (17+11)*.4 = 11 (no rounding)

This sample required some minor line editing to tighten up the Fog score. We were able to reduce the average sentence length by 7 words. We also cut the percentage of longer words by 5 percent.

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ASME's Rules for Native Advertising

Posted on Thursday, October 31, 2013 at 12:59 AM

In the news: The American Society of Magazine Editors have drafted guidelines for native advertising. Will these new rules become the industry norm?

Native advertising has spawned much debate within magazine publishing circles. Should magazines run ads easily mistaken for editorial content? If so, should there be guidelines to ensure that any sponsored content is easily identifiable? Publishers want to avoid the controversy that ensued in January when The Atlantic published native content sponsored by the Church of Scientology.

The American Society of Magazine Editors has weighed in with its own set of native advertising rules, inspired in part by The Atlantic's policy changes after its misstep. The new guidelines appear in the Best Practices for Digital Media. Read more commentary on the new rules here and the rules themselves here.

Also Notable

American Magazine Conference 2013

Last week, magazine professionals gathered for MPA's annual conference. Hot discussion topics included native advertising, the future of tablet publishing, the continued importance of print, postage rate hikes, and others. Read roundups of the concert here, here, and here.

Using Competitors' Content for Digital Editions?

Architectural Debut magazine has developed a digital edition rich in editorial content -- competitors' content. The magazine app makes it clear that the linked material comes from other publications; however, one editor whose publication's content appears on the app has expressed displeasure over the practice. Should a magazine be able to aggregate other publications' articles and monetize it as a magazine app? Read more here.

Today's Journalism

These days, cross-training between digital and print editorial departments is more important than ever. For a long time, it seemed that print was getting the lion's share of editing, while with digital the priority was up-to-the-minute content over writing quality and aesthetics. But this disparity between print and digital quality has lessened over the years. Read Foliomag.com's take on the "newest journalism" here.

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