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Saving Space for Decks

Posted on Tuesday, May 30, 2017 at 2:05 PM

Give your readers a smoother hello.

By Peter P. Jacobi

Shall we title this column "The Practicality of Decks" or "The Enrichment from Decks" or, perhaps, both?

I'll opt for both because decks are both practical and enriching.

The argument against them, particularly from editors of space-short newsletters, can assume staccato form: "They take too much room. They take too much room. They take too much room."

I accept the complaint, fully understanding of that position. But I have a counterargument: "They help clarify the message you're trying to promote. They help you get your message across. They help the reader choose to read what you have to say and, then, to understand the message.

What you're doing through use of a deck is offering a three-part entrance to the copy: a headline or title, a subhead or subtitle, and a lead. That can mean a smoother hello.

Hey, even book editors and publishers are increasingly doing the three-move shuffle into what the writer has put together, easing the way to get in.

Intriguing Deck

Here's an example. A stark white cover features small but distinctive letters in black. There's the title: Schubert's Winter Journey. There's the subtitle: Anatomy of an Obsession. You're teased by just four words into opening the book to read next the sales pitch on the front flap of tenor Ian Bostridge's fascinating analysis of a Schubert song cycle. The flap material begins: "An exploration of the world's most famous and challenging song cycle, Schubert's Winter Journey (Winterreise), by a leading interpreter of the work, who teases out the themes -- literary, historical, psychological -- that weave through the twenty-four songs that make up this legendary masterpiece." And on it goes.

It is the subtitle, Anatomy of an Obsession, that intrigues and, thereby, I believe, walks us more comfortably into a book that is little in size but thick, a book of 504 pages, all about a set of songs. Gorgeous they are, but how about that?

Informative Deck

Or take one of my books. Title: The Magazine Article. The subtitle: How to Think It, Plan It, Write It. The flap contains this opening paragraph: "Your job as a writer is to captivate your audience by making what you have to offer of great interest or importance. This is where your creativity comes in -- it's where you make the most of a subject by being original and inventive." And on it goes.

The subtitle suggests that the book contains steps in a process, steps designed to clarify how that process works. Again, doesn't that add to your earliest knowledge about a book you're asked to consider buying and using?

Bargain Deck

Switch to the magazine Chicago. Because I lived in the neighborhood during high school and college years, I was immediately attracted by the title: "This Is Rogers Park." Being so familiar with that neighborhood, I didn't need the subtitle but could respect the need for it by readers without that close knowledge: "Chicago photographer Joshua Lott captures daily life in the city's most diverse community."

The story's lead reads: "Over the last two decades, documentary photographer Joshua Lott has lived everywhere from New York City to Detroit to Phoenix. But Lott says that no matter where he landed, his childhood neighborhood of Rogers Park always felt like home. 'It's just comfortable here,' says Lott, who moved back in 2015. 'My mom's side of the family is from Belize, and that's fitting because a lot of people who immigrate to this country end up establishing their lives in Rogers Park. The diversity is one of the big things that drew me back.'"

The deck enables better movement from a turn of pages within Chicago to being immersed in a fascinating neighborhood that still beckons about 65 years after I moved away. And after all, how much room does this deck actually take? The subhead is a bargain.

Descriptive Deck

Lauren Collins' Reporter-at Large story in the February 27, 2017, print edition of The New Yorker follows a thrifty title that by itself does too little for the important story that follows. "The Children's Odyssey," it says. There's hardly a clue in that. But a savvy editor added a subtitle, short but tremendously helpful: "Europe is supposed to protect young, unaccompanied refugees. Why is it failing them?"

I'm beginning to get it as I move to the story's opening, which covers a couple of paragraphs, the first of which reads: "Wasil awoke to the sound of a knife ripping through nylon. Although he was only twelve years old, he was living alone in a small tent at a refugee camp in Calais, France, known as the Jungle. Men entered his tent; he couldn't tell how many. A pair of hands gripped his throat. He shouted. It was raining, and the clatter of the drops muffled his cries, so he shouted louder. At last, people from neighboring tents came running, and the assailants disappeared."

I might have missed reading this gripping story, had I not had the benefit of the informative subtitle. As I wrote in my opening paragraph: decks are practical and enriching.

Concise Deck

A news story on the front page of The New York Times early in March begins the necessary task of reminding the readers where we were on that particular day: "Unity Is Elusive as G.O.P. Presses Health Overhaul." Two decks are efforts to bring the reader up to date: "Trump's Stance Vague" and "Rules for Tax Credits Are a Sticking Point for Conservatives."

The presence of those decks, both concise, made my entry into the story considerably easier: "President Trump's address to Congress on Tuesday night buoyed House Republican leaders who were hopeful that his leadership would unite fractious lawmakers around a plan to replace the Affordable Care Act. But fundamental disagreements still divide Republicans on one of the central promises of their 2016 campaigns: repealing the health law."

Getting me updated step-by-step is a practice I'm always grateful for. The Times obliged me. You can do that for your readers, if you can just convince yourself that small bits of space reserved for decks can vastly expand the reader's comfort level and desire to read. If you haven't done so, try it. Then ask your readers how they feel about the change. I think they'll benefit and recognize so. I think you'll come to benefit and recognize so.

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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