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Issue for December 2013

Writing Can Be Lonely

Posted on Tuesday, December 31, 2013 at 1:22 PM

Remember that reading isn't.

By Peter P. Jacobi

When I teach writing, whether to collegians in a class or to pros and would-be pros in workshops, I think about others who write. Lecturing on the craft and faced with their questions and/or manuscripts, I am reminded of their and my, our, struggles to do what we do better. I am reminded that I am one among many.

When I write, I tend to forget all that. I become so immersed in the process that the world external to my responsibilities of the moment fades away. I become the loner, striving to overcome limitations of time and energy, striving to make the most of the materials I've gathered and to tame the language so that it will work for and with me.

Of course, when I read -- and I read as a writer -- I regain a societal foothold, recognizing that I'm pouring through and analyzing and criticizing and enjoying the results of another writer's battle for verbal dominance. That way, I remember I'm part of a sisterhood and brotherhood.

Remembering that I belong has been intensified by a couple of books recently published and recently savored: Why We Write, 20 Acclaimed Authors on How and Why They Do What They Do (Plume Books), edited by Meredith Maran, and Good Prose, The Art of Nonfiction (Random House), by Tracy Kidder and Richard Todd. Both also are filled with lessons from which each of us can benefit.

Why We Write

Maran writes nonfiction and fiction in all sorts of formats but took the time to convince 20 writers -- from Isabel Allende and David Baldacci to Jane Smiley and Meg Wolitzer, all chosen because of success at both craft and commerce -- to pause long enough in their work to ponder, "Why write?"

Maran herself says she writes "to answer my own questions." In an introduction, she quotes George Orwell, who, back in 1946, listed "four great motives" -- in his words, sheer egotism, aesthetic enthusiasm, historical impulse, and political purposes. She also recalls Joan Didion's follow-up 30 years later in The New York Times Book Review: "I write entirely to find out what I'm thinking, what I'm looking at, what I see, and what it means."


Every statement of purpose in Maran's collection is followed by explanation and reasoning so that the reader is left with food for thought and lessons for use. As you read what motivates other writers, you learn about yourself through empathy or rejection and potentially help yourself through emulation, consideration, extension, appropriation, and/or revision.

I mentioned Isabel Allende, perhaps today's most prominent writer in the Spanish language. She says, "I need to tell a story. It's an obsession. Each story is a seed inside of me that starts to grow and grow, like a tumor, and I have to deal with it sooner or later."

Popular novelist David Baldacci says, "If writing were illegal, I'd be in prison. I can't not write. It's a compulsion."

Kathryn Harrison, who divides her time between creating nonfiction and fiction, insists, "I write because it's the only thing I know that offers the hope of proving myself worthy of love."

Susan Orlean, whose byline appears in the best of magazines, and often, explains her passion: "I write because I love learning about the world. I love telling stories, and I love the actual experience of making sentences.

Jane Smiley writes about writing as well as novels and non-fiction. She says simply, "I write to investigate things I'm curious about." Then, as do the others, she elucidates.

And the adventure-seeking Sebastian Junger (The Perfect Storm, Fire) builds on this paragraph: "I'm not usually writing fiction, so I'm not wracking my brain for good ideas. My good ideas come from the world. I harvest them, but I don't have to think them up. All I have to do is take these things I've seen -- things people have said to me, things I've researched, artifacts from the world -- and convert them into sequences of words that people want to read. It's this weird alchemy, a kind of magic."

Good Prose

Pulitzer Prize winner Tracy Kidder (The Soul of a Good Machine) and prominent book and magazine editor Richard Todd (he was Kidder's editor for the Pulitzer Prize selection) write of their friendship and about what "The Art of Nonfiction" entails. The book makes for lovely reading. In the teaching, there is grace and generosity of spirit; in the learning one finds pleasure.

A perusal of content offers a glimpse of substance and approach. The chapters cover Beginnings, Narratives, Memoirs, Essays, Beyond Accuracy, The Problem of Style, Art and Commerce, and Being Edited and Editing. There's plenty of meat in each.


From "Beginnings," take these lines: "Writers are told that they must 'grab' or 'hook' or 'capture' the reader. But think about those metaphors. Their theme is violence and compulsion. They suggest the relationship you might want to have with a criminal, not a reader. Montaigne writes: 'I do not want a man to use his strength to get my attention.'

"Beginnings are an exercise in limits," Kidder and Todd continue in explanation. "You can't make the reader love you in the first sentence or paragraph, but you can lose the reader right away. You don't expect the doctor to cure you at once, but the doctor can surely alienate you at once, with brusqueness or bravado or indifference or confusion. There is a lot to be said for the quiet beginning."

How wisely considered, that argument, and how quietly stated.

Read Aloud

In discussing "The Problem of Style," the co-authors say: "...all rules of writing share a worthy goal: clear and vigorous prose. Most writers want to achieve that. And most want to achieve something more, the distinction that is called a style. It's an elusive goal, but the surest way to approach it is by avoiding the many styles that offer themselves to you. The world brims over with temptations for the writer, modish words, unexamined phrases, borrowed tones, and the habits of thought they all represent. The creation of a style often begins with a negative achievement. Only by rejecting what comes too easily can you clear a space for yourself."

They assert that good writing must have a "human sound" and that, "if you can't imagine yourself saying something aloud, then you probably shouldn't write it." Expressed in different ways, have you heard that bit of advice before? In the pages of this newsletter? In this column? Well, let Kidder and Todd tell you once again, in their own inimitable style, that and much more amidst what they call "stories and advice from a lifetime of writing and editing."

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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Will the FTC Be Looking Over Editors' Shoulders?

Posted on Tuesday, December 31, 2013 at 1:20 PM

The plot surrounding native advertising thickens as the FTC steps in.

By William Dunkerley

The contentious topic of "native advertising" has drawn the attention of the Federal Trade Commission. In early December, the Commission hosted a meeting titled, "Blurred Lines: Advertising or Content?" Native advertising proponents and opponents attended .

Afterwards, Advertising Week reported that the "day-long examination of native advertising left regulators with no clear direction about how to police what has become digital media's hottest ad format."

What the FTC's Involvement Means for Editors

What is native advertising, and why is it so hot? It is basically advertising content presented in a format that resembles editorial content. If the FTC is going to police it, and if the concern focuses on so-called "blurred lines," how would that affect us as editors? Simply put, the act of policing will involve judging whether an editorial-looking piece is really editorial or if it is advertising.

For instance, suppose your publication runs new product announcements. And suppose the producers or sellers of those products pay for display advertising. Will the FTC's new scrutiny of publications lead it to evaluate whether there is a quid pro quo? If it does, the commission will indeed be looking over editors' shoulders with unprecedented intensity. The breadth of scrutiny would surely encompass more than just product reviews. It all could result in extensive intrusion into the editorial process.

Certainly the FTC's concern is legitimate. If publications are complicit with advertisers in misrepresenting the nature of content -- editorial vs. advertising -- then regulatory intrusion may be needed. But it would inflict a new burden upon editors.

An Increased Blurring of Lines

There are some big players in the publishing field that have gotten behind the push for more native advertising. The New York Times is involved in leading the way. It has announced the launch of a "full native advertising platform" starting in 2014. In justifying the move, publisher Arthur Sulzberber Jr. explained that it is because "the digital advertising market is changing fast." That's really kind of a non-explanation.

Amidst mounting concern over the blurred lines implicit in native advertising, the Times seems to be blurring its own motivations. In a December 4 article, the Times reported that "the FTC has to answer crucial questions before it can come up with any solutions: Do consumers really care about the advertisements? And is there harm being done?"

The Times tried to answer that question with a quote from a college professor: "David J. Franklyn, a professor at the University of San Francisco law school, said preliminary results from his research showed that as many as 35 percent of the consumers in groups he has studied could not identify an advertisement even when it said 'advertisement' on it. Roughly half, he said, indicated they did not know what the word 'sponsored' meant.

"Perhaps more important, he said, is that one-third of consumers say they do not care if something is an advertisement or is editorial material, and many would be more likely to click through to an item if they knew it was an ad.

"That led Mr. Franklyn to ask: 'So what are we protecting the consumer from?'"

What did that professor just say? About a third (35 percent) of his subjects couldn't identify a native ad as such. And then a third said (not sure if it's the same third, but maybe so) they don't care if something is an ad or editorial. Well, duh. What does that prove? You mean if someone can't identify a native ad when he sees it, he doesn't care whether it's an advertisement or editorial material? If that's really what the professor said, it sounds like quackish research and poor editorial judgment by the Times for publishing it.

Hot Ticket or Just Hype?

So why do some publishers and advertisers think that native advertising is such a hot ticket? They have no reality-based reason to think so.

Keep in mind that the impetus for native advertising came from the failure of online advertising to pay off. There's yet to be a format that is really successful. Banner ads have proven themselves to be ineffective; pop-ups and auto-start videos are extremely annoying. Moreover, technologies exist or are being developed to thwart them. Perhaps the push for native advertising is just another blind attempt to find a formula that works for advertising online.

The migration of native advertising to print doesn't seem to be any better thought out, either. It's another example of grasping at straws to regain revenues that were lost to the Great Recession. Last October, Advertising Age magazine reported that the Washington Post was starting to sell native ads. Now there's a company with a proven track record of making bad publishing decisions. First it ran Newsweek (as owners) into the ground as a result of a series of extremely misguided moves. (See "Why Newsweek Magazine Failed.")

The Post had been losing far more money than Newsweek. And finally the company sold off the newspaper, too. Amazon's Jeff Bezos agreed to a deal in early August. He's been in control since October 1. I wonder if he'll follow through on the native ad plans. Maybe he'll find a way to make a go of it.

It would be preferable if publishers served their advertisers with advertising opportunities that could be trusted to deliver results. I know that many publishers are still experiencing frustration as they try to regain lost ground in ad sales. But it would be far better to sharpen their sales strategies and skills to achieve their goals. For now, native advertising is an unproven idea, one with a lot of unanswered questions and with a significant risk of unintended consequences -- not only for publishers, but for editors as well.

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

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The Fog Index

Posted on Tuesday, December 31, 2013 at 1:11 PM

Assessing the readability of an AdAge.com excerpt.

This month, we calculate the Fog Index of a December 19 AdAge.com excerpt ("New York Times Magazine to Undergo Three-Month Review" by Michael Sebastian). Here's the text:

"The Times Magazine is a staple of the paper's Sunday edition and a key asset in the war for circulation revenue, which surpassed ad revenue over a full year for the first time in 2012. Its mission and impact has become a little less clear over the years, however, as competition grew and the core paper itself became more analytical. Advertisers, meanwhile, have taken their dollars elsewhere, both online and to the paper's monthly fashion magazine T, which has proven to be a better fit for marketers from the still-strong fashion and luxury category."

--Word count: 94 words
--Average sentence length: 31 words (35, 25, 34)
--Words with 3+ syllables: 13 percent (12/94 words)
--Fog Index: (31+13)*.4 = 17 (no rounding)

This sample yields a Fog score of 17. The percentage of longer words is quite high, but sentence length is the main culprit here. We have nearly 100 words split into just three sentences. Let's see what we can do to bring the Fog Index below 12 to meet the Fog-Gunning ideal.

"The Times Magazine is a staple of the paper's Sunday edition and a key asset in the war for circulation profits, which surpassed ad profits over a full year for the first time in 2012. Its mission and impact have become a little less clear over the years, though. Competition has grown and the core paper itself has become more analytical. Advertisers, meanwhile, have taken their dollars elsewhere, both online and to the paper's monthly fashion magazine, T. The magazine has proven to be a better fit for marketers from the still-strong fashion and luxury category."

--Word count: 96 words
--Average sentence length: 19 words (35, 14, 12, 17, 18)
--Words with 3+ syllables: 7 percent (7/96 words)
--Fog Index: (19+7)*.4 = 10 (no rounding)

This sample didn't need much editing to clear up the fog. The word count increased slightly, but we were able to split 3 sentences into 5 and reduce the number of longer words by nearly half. This brought the Fog Index down by 7 points.

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A Future for Print Magazines

Posted on Tuesday, December 31, 2013 at 1:07 PM

In the news: A recent Atlantic article asks whether or not print magazines can save themselves.

There's no question that digital drove the magazine publishing conversation in 2013. We've always tried to strike a balance between print and digital coverage in our monthly news roundup, but it was a challenge this year. There was some bad news for print magazines this year, and that paired with the continued hype over digital magazines helped to bury some of the good news (e.g., some online-only publications developing print editions this year and, as discussed below, the recent successes of hobby magazines).

This month, The Atlantic asked if print magazines could be saved, particularly given an industry-wide trend away from print advertising. It's a tough road, but the article argues that print magazines can survive if they offer high-quality content and consider raising subscription rates. Ultimately, the article concludes that there is still a place for print because "digital delivery, which we regard as indispensable, is expensive." Read the entire article here.

Also Notable

Hobby Magazines

Not all magazine sectors struggled in 2013. According to a December 27 New York Times article, hobby magazines are doing remarkably well thanks to subscription rate increases, loyal readers, and modest circulation growth. Some hobby magazines have been so successful that they've added editors to their payroll. Does this recent success mark a shift away from general interest magazines toward niche titles? Read more here.

New York Times Sunday Magazine Shakeup

The New York Times will assess strategy before hiring a new editor for its Sunday magazine, says a December 19 HuffingtonPost.com article. Last month, editor Hugo Lindren announced that he would leave his editorial post at the end of the year. Senior Times editors will spend about three months deliberating strategy and purpose before naming Lindren's successor. Read more about Lindren's exit and the search for his replacement here and here.

Spoof Magazine Editing

This month, two websites re-edited a BBC news story about Syria from a different editorial perspective to highlight some of the overediting that happens at both women's and men's magazines. These re-edits have left some editors laughing and others shaking their heads. Read the original, "What If a Women's Magazine Editor Edited a BBC News Story About Syria?", here. Read another take, "What If a Men's Magazine Editor Edited a BBC News Story About Syria?", here.

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