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Issue for October 2014

Demystifying the Writing Process

Posted on Thursday, October 30, 2014 at 2:47 PM

Finding the process that works for you.

By Peter P. Jacobi

As the esteemed E.L. Doctorow once put it: "Planning to write is not writing. Outlining, researching, talking to people about what you're doing, none of that is writing. Writing is writing."

Yes, but.

As the equally esteemed Bernard Malamud once put it: "You write by sitting down and writing ... How one works, assuming he's disciplined, doesn't matter. If he or she is not disciplined, no sympathetic magic will help. Everyone learns his or her own best way. The real mystery to crack is you."

These wisdoms came to mind a couple of weeks ago when I went through an issue of The Writer's Chronicle, the one for May/Summer 2014. In it, I found a graduation speech given at Bennington College by Bernard Cooper, the Distinguished Visiting Writer in Nonfiction at the University of Iowa. His subject: "Demystifying the Writing Process."

Writing Strategies?

"Someone recently asked me to explain my writing strategy," he recounts, "and I heard myself say that I wouldn't know a strategy if it bit me in the ass.... I invariably speak with students who fear that real writers possess some kind of trade secret, some list of rules that, if followed to the letter, will transform them from a novice into a professional in much the same way that Pinocchio was transformed from a marionette into a real boy."

Cooper tosses quotes into his discourse. One from W. Somerset Maugham: "There are three rules for writing a novel. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are." Another from Henry James: "We work in the dark, we do what we can, we give what we have. Our doubt is our passion and our passion is our task. The rest is the madness of art."

There are moments meant for chuckling in Cooper's commencement speech, such as mention of writer Bill Roorbach's experience at a cocktail party where he met a surgeon to whom Roorbach mentioned that he was working on a novel. Said the surgeon, "I've always wanted to take a couple of weeks off and write a novel." Roorbach's response: "What a coincidence. I've always wanted to take a couple of weeks off and perform surgery!"

But Cooper gets very serious; he obviously worships the art of writing. "Writing," he told the graduating students, "allows you the luxury of weighing every word. Writing offers you chance after chance to get it right. By writing, you wage a battle against silence and incoherence. You shine a light into the otherwise dim and neglected recesses of human experience."

13-Step Writing Process

And so, back to my "Yes, but" to Doctorow's putdown of planning and such. The task is difficult, and most of us, I believe, can benefit from a process, a way of getting into and through all that the act of writing entails. Way back in 1996, in a couple of Editors Only issues, I shared the points made in a speech of mine to attendees at a summer writers' conference.

I outlined, would you believe, a 13-step writing process: (1) Wandering (to get the creative juices flowing)... (2) Dreaming (awake, to tie down an idea)... (3) Gathering (information, facts, opinions, details)... (4). Understanding (to make sense of what has been gathered)... (5) Selecting (deciding what to use and what not)... (6) Constructing (giving what's to be written a logical order, a structure, an architecture)... (7) Writing (putting words to the idea and chosen material)... (8) Spinning, Weaving (to shape continuity)... (9) Listening (sound out what you're writing for clarity and continuity)... (10) Adjusting (moving around, smoothing, improving, reconsidering, editing)... (11) Reaching (question whether your message has been properly shaped for the intended reader, and have you reached out toward your fondest goals)... (12) Releasing (letting go of the article/story/essay/report)... (13 Evaluating (after a passage of at least a little time, for future reference, judge what you've done).

A list of 13 steps may overcomplicate the issue, but -- to be secure -- I probably wouldn't want to cut out any of the above. Still, when I wrote my book, The Magazine Article: How to Think It, Plan It, Write It (Indiana University Press), I consolidated.

Focus on These Four

After determining who is going to be the audience, I said to focus on four steps: (1) coming up with the right idea (tailored for that audience), (2) gather the right information (do all the necessary researching and reporting), (3) organize (decide how the collected material should best be put together, ordered, structured), and (4) write (and rewrite until you're satisfied with your product).

For me, that's the just-right reduction of steps in the process of writing. I've found if I follow through on that approach, I will save on grief and wasted motion; I will have made the always difficult act of writing just a touch easier and, probably, as easy as I'm ever going to make it.

Find What Works for You

Going back to Bernard Cooper: He made the point that "uncertainty is a state every writer needs to embrace. And doubt does have its secondary gains. It keeps you alert. It prevents complacency. It forces you to ask more questions than you can answer." I accept the uncertainty, the doubt. But I want to provide for myself a means to prevent any bit of extra worry or confusion from burdening me needlessly. For that, my process works, for me. Follow it, if you like, or create your own. But I urge you to find a reasoned way from your beginning to your end. You'll wallow less and accomplish 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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The Easy, Simple Loaded Arrow

Posted on Thursday, October 30, 2014 at 2:46 PM

Using arrows to convey your message.

By Jan White

Don't be upset if it is difficult for you to find a symbol with which to "illustrate" an idea. Nobody thinks it easy except cartoonists. It does not mean you are a bad artist. You may well be a lousy artist, but being an artist has nothing to do with it. You need no magic, no artistic talent -- just clear, analytical thought. Visuals only catapult information off the page into the viewer's mind if they are loaded with significant meaning. Therefore, you must first define the heart of the idea so that you can then focus on what is worthy of visualization.

Once you know the point of the message, you can start searching for its cogent image. Forget being "creative." You are not looking for a florid visual with which to make a splash -- there are too many meaningless visual splashes all around as it is, and who is swayed by such efflorescence? Instead, you are searching for something that will make the point of the message startling, understandable, memorable, persuasive.

It is so hard to know where to start thinking -- let alone choosing -- the right image because they are infinite. Relax. The simpler and more forthright, the better. Because its success depends on the interpretation that your target will draw from it, that point must be obvious and understandable at first glance.

To Trigger Your Visual Thinking

Arrows are the easiest shapes to handle, and they have infinite meanings. Imagine in your mind a bunch of simple arrows: UP, DOWN, LEFT, RIGHT. They are obvious primitive direction signs. So what? So that is the nub of the idea! Just the nub. Now imagine arrows going IN and OUT. More difficult because you have to create a context of background. Plain left and right is cheating. Don't you realize that you understand the symbols without even thinking? That is rich communication! That obvious symbolic "THIS WAY" shape has marvelous possibilities of interpretation when you just think about it. Just draw an arrow and try.

The flat shape is obvious. Consider the flat shape some other way: like a tube, or as if it were folded, or it could be built up and three-dimensionalized. The fundamental direction would tell the basic fact, but the tubing or the folding or the lumping give contextual meaning. Enrichment of meaning. Here are a handful of variations on the basic arrow shape.

Study them slowly to define the meanings. When you've figured out a dozen or so, you'll realize that you can think about all this the other way: the content could well represent the arrow, if you have twisted it the right way.

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 Thursday, October 30, 2014 at 2:46 PM

Assessing the readability of a Forbes.com article.

This month, we're calculating the Fog Index of an October 26, 2014, Forbes.com article ("Complex Data Analytics, Put Simply" by Adrian Bridgwater). Here's the excerpt:

"These technologies will lead us onwards to looking at machine learning. Artificial Intelligence (AI) is starting to sound a lot less artificial if we start to understand the heuristics involved behind the way we deal with information. Heuristics are methods for problem solving based on learned experiences and logical guesswork rather pre-established mathematical formulas. Using many of the methods, channels and tools discussed here we are reaching a point where computers can start to make decisions that look after us. Yes we already have aircraft autopilots that operate within a comparatively (to our brains) defined physical world, but we are talking about deeper and more complex level of human understanding through analytics. The world is getting better, probably."

--Word count: 118 words
--Average sentence length: 20 words (11, 26, 17, 26, 32, 6)
--Words with 3+ syllables: 18 percent (21/118 words)
--Fog Index: (20+18)*.4 = 15 (no rounding)

In this sample we have a pretty high number of longer words (21 out of 118 total). We are dealing with highly technical subject matter, so paring this down will be a challenge. Let's see what we can do to cut at least 3 points from the existing Fog score.

"These technologies will lead us onward to looking at machine learning. Artificial intelligence (AI) starts to sound much less artificial if we study the heuristics involved in how we manage data. Heuristics are problem-solving methods based on learned experiences and sound guesswork rather proven mathematical formulas. Using many of the methods, channels and tools discussed here, we are reaching a point where computers can start to make decisions that look after us. Yes, we already have aircraft autopilots that function within a comparatively (to our brains) defined physical world. But we are talking about a deeper and more complex level of human knowledge through analytics. The world is getting better, probably."

--Word count: 111 words
--Average sentence length: 16 words (11, 20, 15, 26, 17, 16, 6)
--Words with 3+ syllables: 13 percent (15/111 words)
--Fog Index: (16+13)*.4 = 11 (no rounding)

We came in just under the wire with a Fog Index of 11.6 (11 with no rounding, per Fog-Gunning guidelines). In some cases we made simple word swaps to reduce the number of longer words. However, thesaurus mining alone cannot cut through fog. We were able to turn six sentences into seven, and we did some other trimming for clarity. These minor changes cut our Fog score by 4 points.

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Magazine Content Consumption Rising

Posted on Thursday, October 30, 2014 at 2:46 PM

In the news: The Association of Magazine Media's latest study shows that magazines are still a hot consumer commodity.

A recent study by the Association of Magazine Media (MPA) has found that magazine content consumption is up 10 percent from last year. In a recent BusinessAdministrationInformation.com piece, Erin Palmer writes, "The growth, study authors reveal, is largely attributed to a 98% increase in mobile readers. Digital and print publications increased 2.1%."

The findings are significant on multiple levels. There is the good news that hunger for magazine content appears to be growing. Moreover, this study marks the first time the MPA has used its new "Magazine Media 360°" metric, defined thusly on the MPA website: "Magazine Media 360° is a newly created industry metric that captures demand for magazine media content by measuring audiences across multiple platforms and formats (including print/digital editions, websites and video) to provide a comprehensive and accurate picture of magazine media vitality. Magazine Media 360° uses data from leading third-party providers and from the reader universe. This is the first time ever by any media to measure and communicate cross-platform consumer demand by brand." Read more about the study here.

Also Notable

Digital Circulation Success Quantified

How can editors of multimedia (i.e., print and digital) magazines measure circulation success? According to D.B. Hebbard of TalkingNewMedia.com, goals vary from brand to brand. However, he finds that many editors and publishers aim for at least 10 percent of their circulation to be digital. Read his analysis, and his thoughts on digital-only circulation success, here.

2014 EPPY Awards

This week, EditorandPublisher.com announced the winners of its annual EPPY Awards for media-affiliated websites. Among the winners were NewYorker.com and TIME.com, which tied for best redesign/relaunch among media websites with at least one million monthly visitors, and the Wall Street Journal for best daily newspaper website with at least one million monthly visitors. See the complete results here.

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