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Issue for November 2009

Ten Great Ways to Crush Staff Creativity

Posted on Monday, November 30, 2009 at 1:10 PM

How to hold on to your established editorial franchise in the face of a publishing sea change.

By Paul Sloane

As editors, you have much more power than you realize. You can patiently create a climate of creativity or you can crush it in a series of subtle comments and gestures.

Your actions send powerful signals. Your responses to suggestions and ideas are deciphered by staff as encouragement or rejection. If you want to crush creativity in your organization and eliminate all the unnecessary bother of innovation, then here are ten steps that are guaranteed to succeed.

#1. Criticize

When you hear a new idea, criticize it. Show how smart you are by pointing out some of the weaknesses and flaws that will hold it back. The more experienced you are, the easier it is to find fault with other people's ideas. Decca Records turned down the Beatles, IBM rejected the photocopying idea that launched Xerox, DEC turned down the spreadsheet, and various major publishers turned down the first Harry Potter novel. The same thing is happening in most editorial organizations today. New ideas tend to be partly-formed, so it is easy to reject them as "bad." They diverge from the narrow focus that we have for the publication, so we discard them. Furthermore, every time somebody comes to you with an idea that you criticize, it discourages the person from wasting your time with more suggestions. It sends a message that new ideas are not welcome and that anyone who volunteers them is risking criticism or ridicule. This is a sure-fire way to crush the creative spirit in your staff.

#2. Ban Brainstorms

Treat brainstorming as old-fashioned and passe. All that brainstorms do is throw up lots of new ideas that then have to be rejected. If your organization is not holding frequent brainstorm sessions to find creative directions, then you are not wasting time on new ideas. Instead, you are sending a message to staff that their input is not required. If people insist on brainstorm meetings, then make them long, rambling, and unfocussed with lots of criticism of radical ideas.

#3. Hoard Problems

The editor-in-chief and senior editorial team should shoulder the responsibility for all the major editorial decisions. Strategic issues are too complicated and high-level for the ordinary staff. After all, if people at the grassroots level knew the strategic challenges the organization faces, then they would feel insecure and threatened. Don't involve staff in serious issues, don't tell them the big picture, and above all don't challenge them to come up with solutions.

#4. Focus on Efficiency, not Innovation

Focus solely on making the current publishing model work better. If we concentrate on making the current system work better, then we will not waste time on looking for different systems. The current publishing model is the one that you helped develop and it is obviously the best one for the publication. After all, if the makers of horse-drawn carriages had improved quality, they could have stopped automobiles taking their markets. The same principle applied to makers of slide rules, LP records, typewriters, and gas lights.

#5. Overwork

Establish a culture of long hours and hard work. Encourage the belief that hard work alone will solve a problem. We do not need to find a different way of solving a problem -- rather, we must just work harder at the old way of doing things. Make sure that the working day has no time for learning, fun, lateral thinking, wild ideas, or testing of new initiatives.

#6. Adhere to the Plan

Plan in great detail and then do not deviate from the plan regardless of circumstances. "We cannot try that idea because it is not in the plan and we have no budget for it." Keep to the vision that was in the plan and ignore fads like new media and Twitter -- they will pass.

#7. Punish Mistakes

If someone tries an entrepreneurial idea that fails, then blame and retribution must follow. Reward success and punish failure. That way we will reinforce the existing way of doing things and discourage dangerous experiments.

#8. Don't Look Outside

We understand our publication better than outsiders. After all, we have been working in it for years. Other industries are fundamentally different, and just because something works there does not mean it will work in publishing. Consultants generally are over-priced and tell you things you could have figured out anyway. Freelancers don't have good ideas, either. We need to find our sense of direction inside the business by working harder.

#9. Promote People Like You from Within

Promoting from within is a good sign. It helps retain people and they can see a reward for loyalty and hard work. It means we don't get polluted with heretical ideas from outside. Also, if the editor-in-chief promotes people like him, then he can achieve consistency and succession. It is best to find editors who agree with the editor-in-chief and praise him for his acumen and editorial foresight.

#10. Don't Waste Money on Training

Talent cannot be taught. It is it a rare thing possessed by a handful of gifted individuals. So why waste money trying to turn ducks into swans? Hire good editors and let them learn our system. Work them hard and they can emulate the success of the editor-in-chief as he leads the publication forward into the future.

Paul Sloane is the founder of Destination Innovation (www.destination-innovation.com). He writes and speaks on lateral thinking and innovation. His books, The Innovative Leader and The Leader's Guide to Lateral Thinking Skills, are published by Kogan-Page.

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Posted in Management (RSS)

Advice from a Master

Posted on Wednesday, November 25, 2009 at 1:31 PM

How to write like Chekhov.

By Peter P. Jacobi

This month, I defer to Chekhov. He's not a bad choice for any of us to emulate.

On a previous occasion, I've passed along one of his wisdoms: "Don't tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass." It's the old show-versus-tell argument but stated with such clarity, like a combination of example and definition, all in one. He's not just telling us what to do but also showing us how to get it done.

Cut Unnecessary Details

Let's take another sampling from this master story teller and shaper of torn, yet recognizable, souls. "If, in the first chapter," he advises, "you say there is a gun hanging on the wall, you should make quite sure that it is going to be used further on in the story." Keep out extraneous material; that's what he's alerting us to do. We're not to burden our pieces with unnecessary details, with stuff that just gets in the way and ends up overwhelming (or underwhelming) the reader. We're to keep our eyes on the main event: getting our selected point across distinctly and succinctly.

Rethink Your Beginning and Ending

Here's one more recommendation from the sage Anton Chekhov: "My own experience is that once a story has been written, one has to cross out the beginning and the end. It is there that we authors do most of our lying ... One must ruthlessly suppress everything that is not concerned with the subject." Well, again, he's telling us to get rid of excess, but he's also suggesting that we rethink those two critical elements in our story, the lead and the conclusion. Have we really come up with the strongest, most enticing yet also honest opening, we should ask ourselves. What about that ending: is it the best summary? Is it the best way to help the reader remember what we've tried to say?

My focus on Chekhov results from reading a newly-issued book, How To Write Like Chekhov, Advice and Inspiration Straight from His Own Letters and Work (Da Capo Press), edited and introduced by a pair of scholars, Piero Brunello and Lena Lencek. Brunello is a professor of social history at the University of Venice. Lencek is professor of Russian and the humanities at Reed College in Portland, Oregon; she did double duty, serving also as translator.

The two editors have taken the letters of Chekhov that speak of his philosophy about writing and the methods he used to accomplish it. That's been done before, meaning it's not original but, because Chekhov has so much he can tell us, remains valuable. In addition, however, Brunello and Lencek have cast a spotlight on a particular work of the Russian genius, a nonfiction work, The Island of Sakhalin, written after Chekhov traveled to a Russian penal colony there. Chekhov, you may remember, was a trained doctor who then chose literature for his career.

The Sakhalin section reveals how Chekhov put it together, from the
pre-journey research, through the travel and the field research he did while on the island, to the writing and his admonition to self that he best write sooner than later while his "impressions are still fresh."

Write Like a Painter

He urges that a writer should emulate a painter. "If a landscape painter were to visit Sakhalin," he says, "I would recommend he make an excursion to Arkovo valley. In addition to its beautiful location, this spot is so unusually rich in color that it is hard to describe without resorting to that stale simile of the multicolored carpet or kaleidoscope. Consider the lush, verdant growth of giant burdocks glistening from the recent rain; beyond them, in a tiny plot no more than twenty-one feet wide, rye is turning green, and beyond that lies a patch of barley, and then burdocks again, and then another patch filled with oats, and then a row of potatoes and two stunted sunflowers with drooping heads, and then a wedge of rich green hemp, and, here and there, umbrella plants thrust their bracts proudly like the arms of candlelabra, and crimson patches of poppies. On the road, you pass peasant women wrapped in big burdock leaves to keep off the rain and looking like huge green beetles."

How much he tells us, employing simplicity of language. The description is spare, objective, and yet brimming with the sort of information that brings one close. So, the lessons in How To Write Like Chekhov come in the forms both of counsel and example.

Excellent Advice

Throughout this volume, one discovers gems first delivered to colleagues and friends and advice-seekers in letters:

"Brevity is the sister of talent."

"A strange thing has happened: I have developed a mania for brevity. No matter what I read -- my own or others' writing -- everything strikes me as too long."

"My job demands only one thing of me: to be talented, that is, to distinguish between relevant and irrelevant evidence; to illuminate characters, and to speak in their language."

"Before it reaches the page, every sentence must spend two days in the brain, lying perfectly still and putting on weight."

"One must never lie. Art has this great specification: it simply does not tolerate falsehood. One can lie in love, politics, and medicine; one can mislead the public or even God, but there is absolutely no lying in art."

"In your story, one can feel the place, smell the bagels."

"Commonplaces such as, 'The setting sun bathing in the waves of the darkening sea poured out a flood of crimson gold' and, 'The swallows skimming the surface of the water chirped joyously' -- such commonplaces should be eliminated. In describing nature, focus on minute details and group them in such a way that when the reader will have finished reading, he will be able to close his eyes and see a complete picture. You can produce the impression of a moonlit night, for example, by writing that the broken bottle glass twinkled like stars on the milldam..."

"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."

Just go through the above statements again. Study them. They are self-explanatory. Reach your own conclusions. Learn from the lessons imparted. They alone constitute a short course on writing. But the book holds countless more points and, from start to finish, samples of Chekhov's brilliantly subdued and provocative style.

He writes a friend: "I think going barefoot must be better than wearing cheap boots. You cannot imagine my suffering! Now and then, I crawl out of my carriage, get down on the wet ground, and pull off my boots to give my heels a break. A rare pleasure in the freezing cold! I ended up buying felt boots in Ishim and wore them until they fell apart from the damp and the mud ... We set off ... Mud, rain, a piercing cold wind ... and felt boots on my feet. Do you know what felt boots are like when they are wet? Gelatin."

As editor or writer, the book is worth your time.

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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Posted in Writing (RSS)

The Fog Index

Posted on Monday, November 23, 2009 at 4:54 PM

Assessing the readability of a Newsweek.com excerpt.

This month, we take a look at an article about college loans published on Newsweek.com ("College Students Hit by High-Interest Loans"; November 20, 2009). We calculate the Fog Index of this sample using a simple formula based on the total number of words, the number of three-plus-syllable words, and sentence length. Here is the sample:

"Consumer advocates see nothing wrong with schools that offer to help finance their students' educations. It's rates as much as 10 percent higher than federal student-loan rates that have them worried. Before the recession and credit crunch hit the student-loan market, it wasn't uncommon to see federally backed loans hovering around 3 percent or even lower. For qualified students, 8 percent bank loans are still common. Mark Kantrowitz, publisher of Finaid.org, says it's hard to estimate the average private student-loan rate, but he said most loans are in the low double figures. Eighteen percent, however is near predatory and driven by a pure profit motive, says Loonin."

There are 107 words in this sample, with an average sentence length of 18 words. The percentage of words three syllables or greater (omitting the exceptions listed in the March 2009 issue) is 13. Adding 18 and 13 gives us 31. Multiply 31 by 0.4 to arrive at a Fog Index of 12 (no rounding).

Given this number, we can conclude that the readability of this passage is good compared to past excerpts we have assessed. The ultimate goal for writers is a Fog Index of less than 12, so this sample suffers from only slight fog. Trimming the two longest sentences, which weighed in at 25 and 26 words, would result in a Fog score under 12.

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Posted in Editing (RSS), Writing (RSS)

Reader-Tailored Design

Posted on Friday, November 13, 2009 at 3:40 PM

Should your magazine design take into account outside factors, such as readers' current state of mind and the economy, into account?

By Jan V. White

Saville Row, located in London, is where you go to order a suit made to measure and come out in sartorial splendor with a considerably lighter bank account. These world-famous tailors make "bespoke," i.e., custom-ordered clothing. Should magazines be bespoke to their audience?

When times are tough, should the publication's look be mournful, with somber colors, larger type size, lots of slumping italics? Or should it pretend to be brave in the face of adversity, all cheerful in pink and sunny yellow? Or is dignified, neutral, quiet best? Does prettiness trigger first-glance attraction? Should a business-to-business pub ape consumer-style in order to engage readers more?

No, no, and no. Well, maybe just a little bit, except for the b-to-b aping consumer-style, which is absurd. But these are all the wrong questions, because they ascribe too much power to "the look," whatever that look may be.

True, we are a service industry and to succeed we must present our products beguilingly. We have the same problem as a fine restaurant, where you don't just expect fresh ingredients deliciously spiced, but they must also be artfully presented on the plate. Presentation isn't a cosmetic luxury, but an integral ingredient of a good dish or a good magazine. However, it can never be more than a supportive ingredient.

The fundamental cause for the magazine's existence is to deliver a message. Therefore, it must be read. Everything else is secondary to that main purpose. Reading anything presupposes a decision on the reader's part that has little to do with design. It has to do with content. Does this subject interest me enough to bother with it? (It also assumes that the material has been handled proficiently enough not to make it repulsively illegible, but let's take that for granted.) "What matters is the message, the means is unimportant. Choose the means that'll mean the most to the audience," said the poet Steve McCaffery.

Why do they read?

I've spent half a lifetime deconstructing magazine design to make it less artistic and more functional, cogently based on sensible analysis rather than on personal taste (though that remains a component, of course). I've been stashing useful quotes for my pontifications, and the following -- from Karen Gold in New Scientist (United Kingdom), June 1992 -- is infinitely the most valuable of them all:

"How readers approach reading depends on their aims. They may need to retain every detail ... or they may simply want to know if they can safely skip a bit. To achieve these goals they may use different reading styles: browsing, searching, skimming, scanning, close study, or dipping for occasional help. ...

"Readers prefer a 'cookbook' approach to information. They want it broken down into quantities ... that they can visualize and manage. ...

"When reading technical information, people have a mental accounting system that calculates ... the effort required to gain knowledge. If they feel additional information will put too much of a load on their memory or understanding, they simply ignore it. ...

"People appear to trade a fall in understanding against the cost of doing something about it. If they feel at the top of a page that this isn't going to contain anything they need to know, then the cost component of bothering to read it in case they do isn't worth the effort."

How do they read?

To help potential readers take in your message, you have to understand them and their interests as intimately as possible. If you want your text to be read accurately, you have to ask three questions:

1. What do your readers know before encountering the information you are giving them here? What is their level of sophistication?
2. What happens during the encounter between what you are presenting to them and how they cotton to it? What is the extent of their comprehension, and what can help or hinder it?
3. What happens after they have read the piece? How can they implement their new-found knowledge?

You may not know the answers, but these questions will help direct the piece into being useful to your readers.

What will help?

We have to understand the complexity of the communication process, and simplify the message to make it easy to absorb. Since our readers are normally searching only for limited information at any one time, we must fulfill three critical criteria:

1. Expose the reason why they should bother, which results from our displaying the "what's in it for me" value in the places they look first: the captions, headlines, pull quotes. Unless those are loaded with gobbets of irresistible bait, the potential readers won't bite.
2. Organize the stuff for immediate findability and overall typographic clarity, and use signage that pops off the page.
3. Write and design for immediate comprehension.

This blends content with form, editing with design. Our products are a mosaic, synthesizing the meaning of words with the shapes we present them in. What we give our readers and how we show it affects how they interpret and understand it, and later on retain it.

In any conversation, people are readers/listeners/viewers simultaneously and participate in an exchange. Reading is only a one-way conversation, to be sure, but it is a conversation nonetheless. It shouldn't be a lecture. Be aware of how you are "speaking" visually.

The attention must not be on the visual, but rather on the message. Its graphic component should be transparent. Choose the data that are significant to the viewer, focus on them, make them clear and accessible. Do not focus on the containers of the data.

If you manage to do that, does it matter whether in lousy business times the magazine's look is mournful or brave in the face of adversity, somber brown or cheerful pink? Does prettiness trigger first-glance attraction? Not really. Substance does, and our most important task is to make that substance jump off the page and bite the reader on the nose by every technique available.

Success in persuading people to read depends on a blending of writing excellence with the visual logic of its presentation. That design, in turn, operates on two levels. On the higher intellectual level, it has everything to do with journalism and the functional expression of substance. On the lower level, it is really industrial design: styling a product that is right for its audience in its market niche.

Only there does this business of depressed or cheerful colors and their atmospherics come in. Clearly it ought to be considered, but it is by no means the universal panacea. If you manage to get the content to sparkle, then the atmospherics such as happy or sad colors matter less and less.

Jan White, author of the book Editing by Design, lectures worldwide on the relationship of graphic design to editing. After 13 years with architectural magazines at Time Inc., he established his own publication-design firm in 1964. He has written dozens of books on editing and design techniques. He is a frequent contributor to Publishing Executive magazine, where the original version of this article appeared (3-07) and is reprinted here with permission of the magazine.

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Posted in Design (RSS), Editing (RSS)

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