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Issue for November 2010

Lead + Title + Subtitle = Complete Package

Posted on Monday, November 29, 2010 at 5:23 PM

Writer's leads and editor's editions produce a winning formula.

By Peter P. Jacobi

The magazine Smithsonian, in its September 2009 issue, featured an inviting and informative section devoted to "Top Travel Writers' Dream Assignments." The six articles included led me to think once again about leads:

1. How to choose a lead, so as to introduce and drive a suitable approach for the story;

2. How to fit a lead, so as to suggest with it the purpose of and forthcoming content in the story;

3. How to enhance a lead by paving the way toward it with collaborative title and subtitle.

On the third item above, I'm using the labels "title" and "subtitle," designations for editorial matter used atop feature stories and magazine articles to guide a reader into what follows through some form of enticing suggestion about those inches of copy that follow. Were you to be writing a straight news story, then the appropriate labels would, of course, be "headline" and "subhead," which serve to succinctly summarize the copy that will then complete the editorial package.

The authors employed by Smithsonian will be familiar to many of you; they're topnotch writers: Susan Orlean, Francine Prose, Geoffrey Ward, Caroline Alexander, Frances Mayes, and Paul Theroux.

Let's look at several of their contributions and how the editors of the magazine led into the leads.

An Inviting and Educating Package

The Orlean piece was given "Where Donkeys Deliver" as title, supported by this subtitle: "The author returns to Morocco to explore the animal's central role in the life of this desert kingdom."

Orlean begins: "The donkey I couldn't forget was coming around a corner in the walled city of Fez, Morocco, with six color televisions strapped to its back. If I could tell you the exact intersection where I saw him, I would do so, but pinpointing a location in Fez is a formidable challenge, a little like noting GPS coordinates in a spider web. I might be able to be more precise about where I saw the donkey if I knew how to extrapolate location using the position of the sun, but I don't. Moreover, there wasn't any sun to be seen and barely a sliver of sky, because leaning in all around me were the sheer walls of the medina -- the old walled portion of Fez -- where the buildings are so packed and stacked together that they seem to have been carved out of a single huge stone rather than constructed individually, clustered so tightly that they blot out the shrieking blue and silver of the Moroccan sky."

Title and subtitle prepare me for surprise, for an unexpected journey. The lead paragraph takes me there. The author becomes a personal "I." The reader becomes a personal "you." The TV-laden donkey set against the ancient buildings offers the metaphor that symbolizes the contrasts of experiences facing those who live in Morocco and the distinctiveness of place that will embrace the visitor. The package invites and begins to educate. Success achieved, at least for this reader.

Setting the Mood

Francine Prose writes about "Serene Japan" where, according to the subtitle, "On the western coast, far from bustling Tokyo, tradition can be found in contemplative gardens, quiet inns and old temples."

She shares this introductory observation: "At the Buddhist temple of Gesshoji, on the western coast of Japan, the glossy, enormous crows are louder -- much louder -- than any birds I've ever heard. Crows are famously territorial, but these in the small city of Matsue seem almost demonically possessed by the need to assert their domain and keep track of our progress past the rows of stone lanterns aligned like vigilant, lichen-spotted sentinels guarding the burial grounds of nine generations of the Matsudaira clan. The strident cawing somehow makes the gorgeous, all-but-deserted garden seem even further from the world of the living and more thickly populated by the spirits of the dead. Something about the temple grounds -- their eerie beauty, the damp mossy fragrance, the gently hallucinatory patterns of light and shadow as morning sun filters through the ancient, carefully tended pines -- makes us start to speak in whispers and then stop speaking altogether until the only sounds are the bird cries and the swishing of the old-fashioned brooms a pair of gardener are using to clear fallen pink petals from the gravel paths."

One could argue con and pro about the length of Prose's sentences: "con" that they can be considered overwhelming in detail and, perhaps, meandering in development; "pro" that they establish a mystic aura, appropriate for a burial site and temple, and also that they make room for an author's flight of imagination, fostered by those noisy, seemingly protective crows in a serene and otherwise silent environment. The contemplative writing reflects the "contemplative gardens" listed in the subtitle and paves the way for what, yes, turns out to be a contemplative article. The mood is set.

You can read for yourself and gain much from reading the above pieces fully, as also "Saving Punjab" by Geoffrey C. Ward ("My wife says I suffer from an 'India problem.' She's right."). And from Caroline Alexander's "Captain Bligh's Cursed Breadfruit," about Jamaica ("An hour out of the maelstrom of Kingston's traffic, the first frigate bird appeared, and then, around a bend in the road, the sea."). And from Frances Mayes' "Under the Polish Sun" ("In 1990, when my husband, Ed, and I bought an abandoned villa in Tuscany, we hired three Polish workers to help us restore a major terrace wall. They were new immigrants, there for the money, and not happy to be out of their homeland.").

Smoothly Paving the Road

The sixth author, Paul Theroux, deals with "The Long Way Home," about which the subtitle says: "The noted world traveler fulfills a boyhood dream -- to drive across America in the spirit of Kerouac, Steinbeck and other poets of the open road."

Here's how Theroux begins: "The mixed blessing of America is that anyone with a car can go anywhere. The visible expression of our freedom is that we are a country without roadblocks. And a driver's license is our identity. My dream, from way back -- from high school, when I first heard the name Kerouac -- was of driving across the United States. The cross-country trip is the supreme example of the journey as the destination."

Theroux realizes his dream and, for us, he recounts it. The title/subtitle/lead combine smoothly paves the road, paves the way thematically. Adventures await me, from Los Angeles to Cape Cod. Theroux does not disappoint.

Look for the above issue of Smithsonian. See what writers' ambient leads can do. See what editors' sensitively crafted additions can do. The do-good things and all for the reader.

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 Editing (RSS), Writing (RSS)

Tablets and E-readers: The Next Wave?

Posted on Monday, November 29, 2010 at 5:21 PM

Examining the results of the Harrison Group/Zinio digital reading survey.

By Meredith L. Dias

Editors everywhere are responding to the explosion of tablet computing and e-reading devices. Tablets and e-readers are poised to make an even bigger splash in the coming year, reveals a September 2010 Harrison Group and Zinio survey. "'We are forecasting that tablet-based devices and e-readers together will exceed 20 million units in the next year," says Harrison Group's vice chairman, Dr. Jim Taylor, "and they may well be the Christmas gift of 2010."

The survey results, however, tell a more modest story about digital readership that editors ought to consider before making any sudden moves. According to Harrison Group/Zinio, 28 percent of respondents read digital magazines or books. While this constitutes nearly one-third of the survey respondents, it means that over two-thirds of the 1,816 18- to 64-year-olds surveyed are not yet digital readers. The percentage of digital readers is likely to explode in coming years, but the survey results tell us that, for the time being, there is still a significant contingent of non-digital readers.

What's more, Harrison Group/Zinio quantifies the aforementioned 28 percent of respondents as "up from less than 10 percent in 2008." This is a somewhat misleading statistic. It is like saying that 2010 car model sales have boomed because more people are driving 2010 cars than they were two years ago. The digital technology has changed significantly since 2008. Back then, there were fewer e-reading devices on the market and tablet computing was still in its infancy.

In the press release, Dr. Taylor claims, "'[Tablets and e-readers] are associated with substantial increases in adult reading.'" However, the survey results simply tell us that 58 percent of tablet and e-reader owners "are reading 'more digital content than [they] ever thought [they] would,'" Does this mean that e-readers and tablets are creating more avid readers, or could it mean that avid readers are more likely to purchase the devices?

The press release also reveals that "33 percent [of tablet and e-reader users] acknowledge that they are spending more money on buying things to read." True, these device users are spending more on reading material, but the survey doesn't tell us whether they are actually buying digital, print, or both -- or even whether or not they actually read what they're buying.

In an October 6, 2010, article on Folio's website, Jason Fell leads with another statistic from the survey: "Consumers who own tablets and other e-readers generally spend 50 percent more time reading magazines (presumably on those devices) than consumers who do not own those devices.'" Can we infer conclusively from the data given that these readers are reading their magazines on their tablets and e-readers? The survey speaks simply to the increased time spent consuming magazine content -- but, again, not the mode of content delivery.

When developing a strategic plan for smartphone and tablet editions, it is important to look at the hard numbers and ignore any unsupported postulation. We can make assumptions based on available data, but we can't bank our publications' futures on them.

Meredith Dias is senior research editor of Editors Only.

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Posted in Editing (RSS), News (RSS), Technical (RSS)

Participial Phrase Abuse

Posted on Monday, November 29, 2010 at 5:20 PM

Don't cheapen your copy with needless or incorrect participial phrases.

Participial phrases, defined by About.com as "a word group consisting of a present or past participle and any modifiers, objects, and complements," can be troublesome for writers and editors alike. They lend themselves to a host of grammatical ills, including dangling participles and chronological impossibilities.

Dangling Participles

The most common problem associated with participial phrases is the dangling participle. Here's an example:

Swimming in the ocean, the cool water refreshed him.

This sentence, as written, tells us that the water is swimming in the ocean. Let's fix it:

Swimming in the cool ocean, he felt refreshed.

Or, more simply:

Swimming in the cool ocean refreshed him.

Chronological Impossibility

Consider the following sentence:

Walking down the hallway, he stopped to tie his shoe.

"Walking down the hallway" functions as a participial phrase. However, keep in mind that a participial phrase happens simultaneously with the main verb. Someone cannot walk down the hallway and stop to tie his shoe simultaneously, so this sentence needs revision.

A possible fix:

While walking down the hallway, he noticed his shoe was untied and stopped to tie it.

Another option:

Walking down the hallway, he noticed his shoe was untied. He stopped to tie it.

Another example:

Turning off her alarm clock, she fell back asleep.

Unless the subject has a highly irregular sleep cycle, she cannot simultaneously turn off her alarm and fall back asleep. She must first turn off her alarm and then fall back asleep.

A simple revision:

She turned off her alarm clock and fell back asleep.

Recasting the participial phrase as an independent clause allows us to make this sequence of events chronologically possible.

Summing It All Up

Use participial phrases with care, and use them sparingly. Participial phrase abuse is a common bad habit for newbie writers, so it falls upon us, the editors, to break them of this habit. When you come across one of these tricky phrases, ask yourself two key questions: (1) Does the action expressed in the participle link up with the main clause correctly? and (2) Can these two things occur simultaneously?

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Posted in Editing (RSS), Grammar (RSS)

Rules for Editors

Posted on Monday, November 29, 2010 at 5:19 PM

Looking to the past for editorial wisdom.

The Atlantic magazine recently celebrated its 153rd birthday. In these days of magazines folding due to diminished revenues, it is refreshing to be reminded that long-time survivors are still around.

Commemorating the magazine's birthday, senior editor Alexis Madrigal recently brought out a list of rules for editors. He says it has been tacked up in the hallway at their offices. "Judging from the type and tone, I'd say it's from the middle of the 20th century, but I have no real information on its provenance," he explains.

Here is the list:

1. When in doubt, let a manuscript go back.

2. Always remember that the fastidious element in the Atlantic audience is its permanent and valuable core.

3. Don't over-edit. You will often estrange an author by too elaborate a revision, and furthermore, take away from the magazine the variety of style that keeps it fresh.

4. Avoid mistakes of fact. If a paper is statistical, question the author closely.

5. The Atlantic has always been recognized as belonging to the Liberal wing. Be liberal, but be radical only as a challenge to be answered.

6. Be careful about expenses. Calculate the cost of each number. Remember that our margin is always narrow.

7. A sound editor never has a three-months' full supply in his cupboard. When you over-buy, you narrow your future choice.

8. Follow the news. Remember that timeliness means being on time, not before the time. Interesting papers on conscience, personal religion, theory of living, are always precious. The Atlantic has three dimensions -- breadth of interest, height of interest, depth of interest. Individual personal philosophy always adds to the depth.

9. Keep all suggestions in the Black Book, so that they can be followed up. Humor is precious and correspondingly hard to find. Most humor that reaches us is merely jocularity, and it is well to be jocular only when really funny.

10. Quick decisions -- except in poetry. Collect groups of verse and make a selection after several readings.

What do you think? Does it contain sage advice that is still relevant today? It seems to have served The Atlantic well. However, a lot of things have changed since the mid-1900s. In this day of the multimedia, multichannel magazine, should we be following a different set of rules?

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Recently Tweeted

Posted on Monday, November 29, 2010 at 5:15 PM

Recently tweeted from @STRATnewsletter:

Magazine industry uses Google to gang up on Apple. http://read.bi/arVwIO

NYT: U.S. News & World Report to end print publication in favor of an online-only presence. http://nyti.ms/901GNh

Newsweek gets another new owner ... as its business strategy gets curiouser and curiouser. http://bit.ly/9qjFtK

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