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Issue for December 2018

Word Usage Becomes National Headline

Posted on Saturday, December 29, 2018 at 12:09 AM

An object lesson about our responsibility to use words clearly and honestly.

By William Dunkerley

At Christmastime a national media scandal erupted over, of all things, word usage! It brings to the fore the responsibilities we editors have to our audiences as we use words to inform readers. This is true in whatever field we cover with our content.

What was the scandal? It was actually about the word "Christmastime" itself. Here's the short of it: NBC News ran the headline, "Trump becomes first president since 2002 not to visit troops at Christmastime." But when minutes after midnight on Christmas Day Trump left for a troop visit to the Middle East, a media scandal broke out.

Defining "Christmastime"

Trump supporters asserted that the day after Christmas is still "Christmastime." Others disagreed. However, the Washington Post's media critic, Erik Wemple, called them to task. He commented:

"The [NBC] story appears to rest on a lawyerly definition of 'Christmastime.' Some succor for this approach comes from Merriam-Webster, which defines the word as 'the time of year when people get ready for and celebrate Christmas: Christmas day and the days and weeks before it.'"

But Wemple missed what's perhaps a larger point. When we checked our print copy of Webster's, we found that it defines Christmastime simply as "the Christmas season." The definition cited by Wemple appears only on merriam-webster.com. And there it is shown as just a secondary usage under the heading "More Definitions for Christmastime."

Papering Over the Mistake

Even stranger is the way in which NBC changed its headline after its goof was revealed. Now it says, "Trump becomes first president since 2002 not to visit troops on or before Christmas." What a lame recovery from a bad mistake. Trump did actually visit at 11:17 a.m. EST on December 26. Sarcastically, I thought NBC could make its headline even more precise by adding that Trump did not visit "on or before the day after Christmas at 11:16 a.m. EST." The point is that NBC is making a distinction without a real difference.

There is really no precise definition of the period called Christmastime. Some observe the twelve days of Christmas from December 25 to January 5. Greek Orthodox Americans celebrate Christmas on January 7.

It's not unusual for a given period to be considered differently by different audiences. Take the word "modern." Modern history is generally considered to be from 1500 to around 1800 AD. The modern art period is said to be from the 1860s to the 1970s. Modern music reportedly began at the start of the 20th century. Then there's modern science, modern medicine, and more -- all with their own concepts of the word "modern."

Purveying Words Responsibly

So now we have two leading purveyors of words, NBC News and Merriam-Webster, both playing with words. The news organization's editors appear either to be deceptive or not so competent. The online dictionary seems just plain wrong. Both are doing a significant disservice to their audiences. They offer us all an example of what not to do.

Many of us rely upon Webster's, and it is shocking to see its online version falling into disrepute. A dictionary is supposed to be reflective of usage and not a prescriptive vehicle. That was made clear by its own editor-in-chief, Frederick Mish, a noted scholar, writing in the September 1989 issue of Editors Only. Mish explained, "Most modern lexicographers see the dictionary as, above all, a record of the vocabulary of our language, and especially the vocabulary current when the dictionary is published."

Unfortunately, Mish passed away in 2010, and his successors who maintain the online offering do not seem to embody Mish's level of wisdom and professionalism.

Certainly NBC News should receive credit for exercising the traditional watchdog duty in covering government. And there is much for mainstream news to cover, given the unusual communications style of our current president.

Elsewhere in this Editors Only issue, Peter Jacobi expounds on respect for words. He quotes playwright Tom Stoppard: "If you look after them, you can build bridges across incomprehension and chaos. They deserve respect." But the editors at NBC News disrespected words. They took the low road when they jumped the gun on the Trump/Christmastime story. And they sank lower when they tried to paper over their mistake.

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

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Use Your Voice, Part II

Posted on Saturday, December 29, 2018 at 12:08 AM

Without you, nothing matters.

By Peter P. Jacobi

A love of words: Dylan Thomas, the amazing poet who lived life to the fullest and wrote to the fullest, had a philosophy of shooting for the bull's-eye, using every trick at his individualistic disposal. He had the ability. He had the willingness. He had voice.

Among his writings, one finds this, and pardon me if I've shared these thoughts before: "I fell in love -- that is the only expression I can think of -- at once, and am still at the mercy of words, though, sometimes, now, knowing a little of their behavior, I think I can influence them slightly and have even learned to beat them now and then, which they appear to enjoy....

"There they were, seemingly lifeless, made only of black and white, but out of them, out of their own being, came love and terror and pity and pain and wonder and all the other vague abstractions that make our ephemeral lives dangerous, great, and bearable. Out of them came the gusts and grunts and hiccups and hee-haws of the common fun of the earth. And though what the words meant was, in its own way, often deliciously funny enough, so much funnier to me, at that almost forgotten time, were the shape and shade and size and noise of the words as they hummed, strummed, jiggled, and galloped along."

Respect the Words

Dylan Thomas loved words, loved what he could do with them: manipulate them, give them the three-dimensionality of a life on their own. Playwright Tom Stoppard deeply cares for words, too, advising: "If you look after them, you can build bridges across incomprehension and chaos. They deserve respect. If you get the right ones in the right order, you can nudge the world a little or make a poem which children will speak for you when you are dead."

Getting the right words in the right order: there is the beginning of creating a voice for yourself; using the language appropriately and with grace, with eloquence and elegance, with gusto and flamboyance, if that's your game, as it was often with Dylan Thomas, with subtlety and calm, with mystery and magic, with whatever issues that come from your inner self and writer personality, with whatever your imagination begs for.

Finding Your Own Voice

Creating and mastering voice is profoundly hard. And consider the disturbing fact that you, as writer, will need to come up with more than one. There is, of course, the voice I've been discussing: your own, which must pervade your copy throughout your manuscript. But what you are writing may call for the presence of additional voice or voices.

If you are writing a story populated with people, and those people are characters of importance in your story, each of those characters must possess a voice, a personality, a way of acting and interacting and speaking that distinguishes him or her from others in your copy. Each must contribute an atmosphere, a mood, a glow, a sense of being. These are part of voice, meant to show the impact this person has on what surrounds him or her.

This goes whether you're giving a fictional character a biography or character to a nonfictional real-life figure. Your voice becomes multidimensional: part all yours (the you in you), parts in characters you're building seen as only you can see and build them, thereby also giving believable validity to the lives and personalities of others that inhabit the story. In other words, there is the needed canvas of your own writer's voice recognizable and distinctive; there are the voices created (in fiction) or captured (in nonfiction) by you for human elements in your manuscript that make them individual, singular, true to life.

Good playwrights succeed at that. It is critical for their work. The plot, the subject matter, the environment -- coming from a strong writer, all these will make known or reintroduce the writer's craft and artistry, his or her artistic voice. The characters will plead their own case for attention if you've rewarded them with voices of their own.

Creating voice takes sensitivity and obeisance to what you are striving to achieve. Here are some goals to aim for, blended, now and then, with readings to exemplify what I'm asking of you.

Know the Basics

Voice: Even before you search for that you in you, there is the basic matter of writing correctly, properly. Know how to use your language grammatically. Know your spelling. Know your punctuation. Know how to make sense. Know that you're saying what you mean to say, not what you think you're saying. Know there is flow in the writing, that you're moving smoothly and actually from sentence to sentence to sentence, paragraph to paragraph, idea to idea in logical progression. Know that you're practicing completeness and not leaving your reader dangling. Serve up the basics of good writing.

Read Aloud

All my professional life, as practitioner and teacher, I've preached a four-word commandment about what I've just told you, the very best way to lift the quality of writing all by yourself: READ YOUR COPY ALOUD.

I cannot tell you how many times I've sat down, one on one, with a student, going through his or her assignment, with the need to remind that student, "What have I told you again and again?" Perhaps the answer would come: "Read your copy aloud."

"And did you?" I would ask. "Yes, Professor Jacobi," would come the reply. Then, I'd force the miscreant to read a sentence from the turned-in copy. It would, of course, make no sense, or little sense, or create confusion. My student really had not obeyed.

Dear friends: Read your copy aloud. I don't mean mumble it or enunciate it just to yourself but in actual silence. Voice your copy to give it voice. Let the words ring. Allow yourself to hear as well as see the words. Eyes and ears together make for the best editing.

To have voice, your writing must also show purpose, a goal, a reason for being. I must sense that you, the writer, are writing for a reason, with some sort of goal in mind, with a need to fulfill, with heat in the belly. I'm not saying a crusade is required, but as your reader, I want to recognize that something urgent from within has propelled you into this project, that in some evident way, you have been drawn in by a story or a feeling or a person or happening that has come into your life and is pushing you to make artistic comment.

Purposes vary. Reasons for writing vary. Fellow writer Anne Tyler states her purpose this way: "I write because I want more than one life. I insist on a wider selection. It's greed plain and simple. When my characters join the circus, I'm joining the circus. Although I'm happily married, I spend a great deal of time mentally living with incompatible husbands."

I'm in full agreement with Tyler. We do live twice, the life of everyday experience and the life we share with those we create in words, whether those words are shaped into fiction, nonfiction, or poetry. It is the world we three-dimensionally live in and the world we make materialize on paper....

I had not intended to stretch my exploration of voice into still another part, but more needs to be explored. So please wait patiently for part three next month. And forgive me.

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 Fog Index

Posted on Saturday, December 29, 2018 at 12:08 AM

Assessing the readability of an NYTimes.com excerpt.

This month's sample text comes from a December 26 NYTimes.com essay ("One Giant Step for a Chess-Playing Machine" by Steven Strogatz). Here's the excerpt, with longer words in italics:

"The details of AlphaZero's achievements and inner workings have now been formally peer-reviewed and published in the journal Science this month. The new paper addresses several serious criticisms of the original claim. (Among other things, it was hard to tell whether AlphaZero was playing its chosen opponent, a computational beast named Stockfish, with total fairness.) Consider those concerns dispelled. AlphaZero has not grown stronger in the past twelve months, but the evidence of its superiority has. It clearly displays a breed of intellect that humans have not seen before, and that we will be mulling over for a long time to come."

Word count: 102 words
Average sentence length: 17 words (21, 11, 23, 4, 17, 26)
Words with 3+ syllables: 11 percent (11/102 words)
Fog Index: (17+11) *.4 = 11 (11.2, no rounding)

This sample surprised us. Often when we have a sample that falls within ideal range, we know going in that our score will be below 12. The sentences tend to be short, and there are few longer words to skew the score upward. In this case, though, the writing has some heft. We have 6 sentences that vary considerably in length, from 4 to 26 words. This technique gives the writing a nice rhythm when read aloud. (See Peter Jacobi's column in this issue for more on reading your writing aloud.)

We also have a proportionate percentage of longer words. In many cases, samples with longer-word percentages greater than 10 land outside ideal Fog territory. Here the percentage is 11. This contributes to the ideal Fog Index of 11. We don't need to edit anything here for our purposes; there is no Fog to cut through.

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Capitalizing on E-Commerce

Posted on Saturday, December 29, 2018 at 12:08 AM

In the news: How publishers are tapping into commerce opportunities this holiday season, and beyond, to boost revenue.

There has been a lot of buzz about commerce as a revenue stream for magazines this year, and this holiday season has put the trend in overdrive. Summing up the craze, Steve Smith of Foliomag.com writes, "Last year's predictable flow of holiday gift guides and affiliate links from major media brands has become a downright tsunami of deal brokering in the weeks before and after Black Friday.... Media brands are banking on their ability to poke through the holiday clutter with authentic editorial voices and curation."

E-commerce is nothing new in the media world, says Smith. But this year, publishers are ramping up their efforts to maximize its revenue potential. Read more about publishers' e-commerce strategies here.

Also Notable

Thriving Despite Tight Editorial Resources

A great editor is a great investment, asserts Cable Neuhaus in a recent Foliomag.com piece. Today's editors, however, must be prepared for changes in the nature of their role. Neuhaus says: "If you're a seasoned magazine editor, you will likely find yourself called into meetings to sit alongside your new cohorts: a conference manager, a social-media director, a podcast producer, an events coordinator, and the online editor-in-chief. That can be disorienting. While once you felt like you basically ran the brand, editorially speaking, you're now part of a team." He explores current editorial strategies of several prominent magazines. Read more here.

Digiday's 2019 Editorial Resolutions

Brian Morrissey of Digiday.com has released Digiday's editorial resolutions for next year. Among them: not blaming Facebook for its strategic failures, focusing more on diversity, and using fewer buzzwords. Read the full list of resolutions, which originally appeared in Digiday's latest quarterly issue, here.

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