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Making Writers Richer

Posted on Monday, October 29, 2012 at 1:07 PM

How you are more than merely a writer.

By Jan V. White

Forgive me, but I'm an art director who has the gall to dispense inacquiescent advice to writers. What do I know about writing? Well, in my 60-plus years in magazine-making, I've become as much editor as a graphics guy. Such seniority allows me to say anything I feel like, so I'll risk it: I hate to tell you that your profession as writer stinks! You don't get paid enough! Here you are, concentrating all your hard-earned effort on fine, clever writing -- even absorbing all those marvelous insights and wisdoms and techniques my honored colleague Peter Jacobi looses onto the verbal communicators' world. (If memory serves, we first met 34 Christmas cards ago at a Folio: conference in New York.)

Let's agree that you are doing a super writing job -- can't do any better. How can you make more money (assuming filthy lucre is a yardstick of happiness)? Stop cogitating and cerebrating. Shelve the technicalities of your trade. (Yes, we all agree that it is an "artform," but I'm going downscale in this article and calling it a "trade.") Cut to the practical and commonsense perspective.

However marvelous your writing may be, you are not merely a "writer." You are also a sales executive. In clearer English, you are a merchant. You are an idea-peddler, a retailer of thoughts. Those thoughts had better be saleable both in content as well as form. In your function of successful retailer, you have to understand more than just "writing." Your stock in trade is not just fuzzy ideas, but it is also crystallized into a visible object. Your fabulous piece is also a thing. An object. It starts as a simple manuscript on-screen that is then metamorphosed into an "article" -- a more complex "entity," a "thing" -- that can be sent out into the world in the form of an object. That thingness is usually ignored as obvious, secondary, and beneath your writer's professional or artistic dignity. Whoa! It is the key to success -- money!

The immediate and obvious way to achieve that metamorphosis is to "make it look more exciting!" NO. That's dumb. The "wow! factor" may attract fleeting attention, but it is superficial, whether it is verbal or visual. Forget weird words, enormous headlines, images in shocking contexts, cute puns, unexpected color, and especially forget eccentric fonts. Don't be confused by any of all that "wow"-ness, because it is a red herring (a will o' the wisp, in poet-speak). Leave it alone. Never add more stuff to create artificial excitement. Instead, cut out everything you can find that is probably un-essential, no matter how gracefully worded. Throw it out so you are left with the nuggets.
--That's editing.

Then you display the hell out of the nuggets.
--That's design.

Then you slot them into an organized publication.
--That's distribution.

Your precious writing only becomes a saleable commodity if its content is metamorphosed/transmuted/transmogrified (I told you I was a word-guy as well!) into a visible/tangible/palpable form within some sort of "publication" (be it printed or electronic). Your story is a thing slotted into a bigger thing, usually a group of segments. Like it or not, controlling the editing/designing/distribution sequence is an integral part of the writer's job. (Not "profession," but "job." There is a big difference.) It is not good enough to just write better or design better. You have to sell your distillation better.

Sales-thought 1: People don't want drillbits, but they need holes, so they buy drillbits. People don't want your publication, but they need your content. Those content-holes must be useful to your targets. How can you know that unless you find them, listen to them, and get to understand them, so you can direct your potential value to their interests. That is the "take-away" that they'll invest in.

Sales-thought 2: A foam-plastic cup is a technical marvel of engineering: light, cheap, easily stacked, sanitary, pretty with imprinting ... What is anybody's personal value but cup-makers? It keeps your coffee hot and your fingers cool. That's "WIIFM," the "What's in it for me?" factor. Anything for sale must have it, especially your intellectual product. "What's in it for me?" is their "take-away" that they must have.

Selling Begins When the Prospect Says, "No thanks"

Here are ten commonsense selling persuaders:

1. What creates interest?

Pictures. Stop being blind, orthodox word specialists. Stop accepting images as though they were secondary communication material -- making pretty or showing objects. Train yourself to accept the nonverbal stuff as being as valid, and often as valuable, as verbal stuff. Pictures create curiosity and pull emotion. They are always noticed first. Exploit that reaction by sequencing your story as 1) picture ... 2) headline ... 3) text. That is the natural logical sequence of your viewer's reaction; why not use it as presentation? Starting with a headline is newspaper tradition, but it is bassackwards. Never start with headlines if you have an image at hand. Always place the picture dominant, above the headline.

2. What sort of words are most captivating?

Cute headlines with puns in them? How boring! NO! The captions are the most exciting words! (Newspaper people call them cutlines.) Captions get maximum readership because the curiosity that a picture generates can only be assuaged by its explanation. Exploit your pictures to slip into the all-important explanation. Never, ever waste captions by giving just a boring name or identification. Expand the material in the captions in order to exploit them as hooks baited with your juiciest gobbets. Make them worthwhile. Irresistible.

Unfortunately, your habitual working sequence ruins your chances of taking advantage of your captions. Normally, you write your story as beautifully as you know how and carefully add a headline ready to hand in to the editor -- but, "Oops! Forgot the captions!" Inevitably, your caption becomes a quickie. Instead, write your captions first, while you are excited about the story. Those are the bits that should be the fascinating essence of the story. I know, it'll never happen in real life, because inevitably your caption will be shoved in as a last-minute footnote. And, of course, you didn't get the damn art too late. But try. It really works.

3. How much should you write?

Two hundred words max, said Al Neuharth, who founded USA Today. (Unless you are doing deliberate literature, of course.) There's too much to absorb for everybody everywhere. Long-appearing text-mass means trouble. It encourages being ignored or skipped. People like short bits because they get in-and-out faster. Your targets prefer to be free and uninvolved.

The unthinking solution: "Break up" the text! Let the columns flow, but insert a subhead every six inches or so (i.e., the archaic "dollar-bill" technique by which editors once measured distance between subheads in newspaper columns). The wording in boldface usually repeated a word or two in the following paragraph, which was so annoying that the interruptions were ignored. They were skipped. Nobody read 'em. Such artificial "breakup" cheats the reader. However, if the words are beguiling, the technique is perfectly valid. What is "beguiling"? "Useful."

4. Remember those deadening J H-S reports?

The primitive report-plus-headline format we ineluctably start with is not predestined just because we were taught that it was "correct." Instead, deconstruct your long pieces, but don't just slice 'em as lengths of kielbasa sausages. Imagine your thoughts visually, as though they were objects rather than just words written in those endless columns in the obvious traditional way. Separate them into deliberate rectangular segments as info-units. Now reconstruct them onto the page to tabulate the info-units.
--Example: Exploit space to organize the info-units. Pop them out separately but tied together under an umbrella headline. Clue readers by numbering the sections. Explain with lots of labels. The more headings the better -- the more opportunities to catch 'em. Messy-looking? Probably, but neatness doesn't count. Effectiveness does.
--Example: In a pro/con story, don't glue the "pro" onto the start of the "con." Arrange them alongside each other to show off the contrast. Point up the difference by typography.
--Example: In a Q/A story, don't make them like a stack of dark-type Q-layers above light A-layers. Instead place the Q's on the left and the A's across to the right so they "talk to each other" side-by-side.

(Notice that they are based on using the space, not just typography?)

5. Why should they pay attention?

Self-interest. (More common sense!) Plain reporting like "who-what-why-where-when" is okay. But plain information is not enough. The focus must be beyond a step beyond the "who-what-why-where-when," the step up to "so what." The "so what" is interpretation. Intelligence. "Who-what-why-where-when" is okay, but the "so what" (i.e. understanding) they'll pay for because that's what they need.

6. What is nearly as valuable as pictures?

White space! It isn't the wasted paper that writers believe it to be. It pulls the eye to what you want to display. It is a vital organizing tool. It organizes your tabulated units: wide space separate like moats, narrower spaces tie together like glue. Don't cram! Stop your suicidal habit of filling every square inch with words! Okay, you managed to squeeze more copy in there, but who wants to read it?

7. Have you heard of curb appeal?

Selling real estate depends on first-glance attraction. Just so, people decide to read in 2.5 seconds. Therefore, flaunt your nuggets and display them on top, noticeably, irresistibly. Emphasize your big ideas, dominant, vivid -- so readers notice them and realize they need them. "Wow, I gotta read this now!" Deliberately prepare, organize, write, edit, lay out, to show off your value.

Example: Every time he checked heads, my editor always asked "So what?" out loud. He was thinking beyond the inevitable self-fascination of our own story and forcing himself to imagine what the reader might get out of it. That's what matters.

Example: He would probably add a few words to make absolutely sure that the headline's point was clear. Shortness in heads usually doesn't work well enough to achieve the persuading. Potential readers will only pay attention if they sense a reward. You need the requisite words.

8. What is the mood?

The magic word "you" and its implications are irresistible in display and text. And always spin the story so it is positive, because good news is more desirable.

Example: Al Neuharth fired the writer who submitted the headline that said, "Death rate drops." Obviously, "death" as the first word is death. But even more important: "Death rate drops" should have been rewritten to show the optimistic result, "We're living longer." Same idea, but happy.

9. Why think product?

Remove your wordsmith blinkers and multiply single-story thinking. Each article is just a component of the whole product. Control the whole, because that is what the recipient gets. Look and judge it as a totality so you can tweak it to bring out contrasts, patterns, and repeats in more interesting sequences. To make the most of a publication's sequential capabilities, the art director -- together with the editor as a team -- must imagine it as a flowing product like a movie.

10. What about "design"?

Very few people buy a magazine because it is pretty. They buy it because it is useful. Visual clarity (not beauty) reveals that usefulness. Usefulness makes money. Forget catchphrases like "I like it" or "good taste," or "making it pleasing." Serious and functional design is precisely analogous to writing/editing. It manipulates content-ideas exactly the way the words do. Writers must be as comfortable with arranging thoughts visually as the designers have to be comfortable with understanding the words! "I don't know anything art but I know what I like" is contemptible nonsense. As professional communicator, you are just as responsible for the visual success of your product as its intellectual content. They are a composite amalgam. So open your eyes and cooperate. Admittedly not easy, but do try with a cherry on top. (The cherry is the visual blandishment. See how easy it really is?)

Writing as communicator is only a component of a far more complex process. Don't specialize in an academic career as Great Writer, but widen, broaden, and enjoy the context within which your writing is placed so you can control it. Successful periodicals establish their own style and then repeat it, so both their content and their "look" become a familiar, recognizable friend with their own personality and character. That implies restriction and discipline. You don't add to dilute, but subtract to concentrate. "Less is more." Unfortunately, designers loathe "less is more" because they believe that they must stick in "creativity" in order to fulfill their function. Writers/editors also loathe "less is more" because they believe "variety keeps readers interested." Variety of content, of course! Variety of form, absolutely not. It disintegrates the product. Instead, simplify-simplify-simplify and repeat-repeat-repeat.

Example: The most primitive technique is to use just one font to blend your typographic matter together. It will brand your product by virtue of being recognizable. It will contrast with the ads. Furthermore, when it is seen all-of-a piece, it shows off how much you've given them. If the content is interesting, then this familiar, friendly product persuades itself as valuable. So they'll want to buy it! So the publisher makes more money ... and the writer gets an extra cut. It'll never as big as it ought to be, but think of the fun you are having. QED.

Jan White lectures worldwide on the relationship of editing to design. He tries to persuade word people to think visually and visual people to think verbally. He is the author of Editing by Design, 3rd Ed, and a dozen books on publishing techniques. Contact him at janvw2@aol.com.

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