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Three Mighty Useful and Interesting Books

Posted on Wednesday, September 29, 2010 at 1:28 PM

Aids for writers that you can put to use in your editorial department.

By Peter Jacobi

I bring to your attention three books that might prove mighty useful and, lo and behold, they proved mighty interesting to read.

A Dictionary for Writers and Editors

That may seem unlikely with a new dictionary for writers and editors, but the title of this particular lexicon is Bill Bryson's Dictionary for Writers and Editors (Broadway Books). Bryson, whether he's writing an essay or a full-length nonfiction book or a work of fiction, always gives free access of his personality and imaginative mind to enrich whatever he tackles.

The opening paragraph of his preface tells you what to expect. In part, it says: "This book is intended as a quick, concise guide to the problems of English spelling and usage most commonly encountered by writers and editors. How do you spell supersede and broccoli and accessible? Do I write archaeology or archeology? What's the difference between a cardinal number and an ordinal number? ... Doesn't Calcutta have a new name now? (It does -- Kolkata.) What do we now call the Chinese river that I knew in my school days as the Hwang Ho?"

You'll find out, from Aachen to Vladimir Zworykin. And a punctuation appendix follows.

If you want to try the word "enormity" for size, don't. Bryson's dictionary says: "Enormity does not, as is frequently thought, indicate size, but rather refers to something that is wicked, monstrous, and outrageous ('The enormity of Hitler's crimes will never be forgotten'). If what you require is a word denoting large scale, try 'immensity' or 'vastness.'"

Queen Elizabeth II gets this treatment: "(1926-) Her formal title, though seldom used, is Elizabeth the Second, by the Grace of God, of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and of Her Other Realms and Territories, Queen Head of the Commonwealth, Defender of the Faith. She became queen in 1952; her coronation was in 1953."

It's a great guide, amazingly inclusive (continual/continuous, entente cordiale, hara-kiri, Illinoian, Mafeking/Mafikeng, mutual/common, Poseidon, sangfroid, saccharin/saccharine, tautology/redundancy/pleonasm/solecism, Teatro alla Scala, whether or not, zeitgeist). The answers or solutions are there, simply put, absolutely clear.

Debunking the English Language

Along also comes Origin of the Specious, subtitled Myths and Misconceptions of the English Language, this by Patricia O'Conner and Stewart Kellerman (Random House). O'Conner is known for her bestselling Woe Is I. Kellerman is her husband, a former editor for The New York Times.

The two set about to debunk a book-full of "beloved ideas about English" that, they say, "are bunkum." They defend, for instance, a recent resident of the White House: "Nobody ever said the W in George W. Bush stood for Wordsmith. But our former President doesn't deserve the knuckle rapping that many wordies have given him for his famous pronunciation of 'nuclear.' The word has been mispronounced so often and so publicly that NOO-kyuh-lur is gaining a foothold in dictionaries." A thorough and brightly considered discourse follows.

Further along, amidst the profusion of set-straights, O'Conner and Kellerman state: "Perhaps you dis the verb 'disrespect,' snubbing it as a gangsta interloper from the world of hip-hop. Well, chill. This so-called bad boy is getting a bum rap. 'Disrespect' is a perfectly respectable verb that's been around since the 1600s." So, too, respectable, they insist, are other "African-American slang words that have come in off the streets and enriched the language" and "don't deserve to be dissed," such as "chill," "cred," "phat" (first-rate), "bling" (flashy jewelry), and "gangsta."

I'll share one more debunk, the initial paragraph in still another whack at grammar traditionalists: "If my email is any indication, half the English-speaking world lies awake nights, grinding its teeth because the other half says 'I could care less' when it means 'I couldn't care less.' If your enamel is starting to wear down, my advice is to care less. It's true that the original phrase was 'I couldn't care less,' which makes more sense. But since when do idiomatic expressions have to make sense?"

You get the tone employed, I'm sure: it makes for easy reading, and pleasant, even when you might disagree, as I do now and then, with the point being made. The points are numerous: acronyms, "crap," gender, foreign words and phrases, "paint the town red," "niggardly," malapropisms, spoonerisms, "octopi" vs. "octopuses," "irreligious" and "nonreligious," "ain't," and on and on.

Literary Quality Writing

Stephen Pyne's Voice & Vision, A Guide to Writing History and Other Serious Nonfiction (Harvard University Press) assumes a more serious style, but stuffy it is not. And although it focuses on the writing of history, author Pyne passes along recommendations that we all can use to our advantage. To write history requires scholarship, yes, but a historian, says Pyne, also must write literature.

Well, journalists create a form of history, an immediate one, and -- to gain and keep an audience -- they must, we know, aim for literary quality, for writing worthy of being read. Voice & Vision provides commendable assistance.

"There are only two rules specific to nonfiction," states Pyne. "The rules are nonnegotiable: you can't make anything up, and you can't leave out something that really matters -- meaning something that, if included, would alter our fundamental understanding." Need I say we work by the same rules?

Pyne, later on in the chapter, sums up his exposition. "Don't invent," he warns, "and don't leave out what needs to be in. Beyond these, rely on prudence, humility, boldness, wit, common sense, and a recognition that theme and design have to support each other. If one is wrong, it will pervert the other. A theme at odds with its expression will be unconvincing, even ridiculous."

We've spoken on a number of occasions about thesis/theme, development, and structure. That's what Pyne is arguing for. He also argues the importance of transition. It should occur "at all levels, in the movement from one sentence to another, one paragraph to another, one scene to another, one chapter or part to another." Does that sound familiar to you, my readers?

Aha, and further along, the author reminds us: "Drama is what keeps readers turning pages. The slickest transitioning, the wittiest voice, the most elegant phrasing will not hold their attention for more than a few sentences. What matters is their urge to know more, to see what comes next, to understand how the narrative or argument works out ... They must care what comes next. Why did that happen? How? What's the point? So what?"

Pyne doesn't simply pose these issues. He digs into them and gives us ways and means. Again, I think you'll find value.

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 Elements of Story

Posted on Monday, August 30, 2010 at 1:12 PM

A reference book that is rich in advice it is and a pleasure to read.

By Peter P. Jacobi

I enthusiastically recommend for your reference The Elements of Story, Field Notes on Nonfiction Writing, by Francis Flaherty (Harper). It is wide and yet also deep in coverage.

Flaherty, an editor at The New York Times who specializes as "story doctor," includes in the book's 280-or-so pages a welter of points designed, if we follow the advice, to improve our own writing and that of folks who write for us. Each point, to add value, is given sufficient specifics so that the reader might gain a firmer grasp on the lesson.

Instructive Wisdom Throughout

Chapters begin with a well-phrased and summarized expression of the instructive wisdom that is to follow. For instance, "A writer must regard his story through theme-colored glasses" is the nugget leading into Chapter 6, titled "Bang the Drum Strategically," a section devoted to descriptive techniques.

Sounding Out

"The sound of words and the rhythm of sentences are a language wholly apart from the dictionary. Make sure your story not only says what you mean but 'sounds' what you mean." That's the prelude to Chapter 7, "What Babies Know," an argument about the importance of sounding out your copy, this to determine the potential impact of written words on the emotional membranes of the reader's heart or mind.

The Important Verb

"Verbs are the most important words in a story, and the most important verbs are those that reflect the main theme. They are verbs with a capital V." Flaherty offers that nugget for Chapter 8, "Temptation Alley," his discourse on how verbs should be selected and for what distinct and differing purposes.

Five Senses

The author reminds us in later pages that "The five senses are a writer's most formidable tools;" that you should "Look until you see something new, for the writer is the watcher of the world;" that "Writing is an act of assertion and judgment" and, therefore, you should "not evade that part of the job by hiding behind bland language or others' words."

The Lead

In a chapter on beginnings, he argues: "No words are more important than the lead. Invest the time to compose, and compare, several possibilities." He then offers factual (straight) and anecdotal (feature) leads for three stories, accepting all for having been written well but revealing his choices and the reasons for them.

A Must-Read Book

He addresses nut graphs and transitions, organization and empathy, humanization ("Every story, even the driest, has a human face") and endings ("the bow on the package" that "can also be something more substantial"). He deals with movement, pace, and symbols; with theme, story unity, and accuracy of detail. He even covers "The Big Type," meaning titles and subtitles, which Flaherty identifies as "turbocharged text ... your work distilled."

Samples abound, from nonfictional and fictional sources. "Sometimes in this book," he explains, "I quote from real, published stories and then invent an alternative to the published version to make a point. Other times, I sketch wholly imaginary articles, many but not all inspired by subjects that have been addressed in the City Section" to which he is assigned.

This is a help book I wish I could have written, so rich in advice it is and so pleasurable it is just to read. But there's no envy in that statement because, fortunately, Francis Flaherty did write The Elements of Story. It is available now for us all to use, and the "us" certainly, happily includes 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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Classic and Contemporary

Posted on Wednesday, July 28, 2010 at 2:51 PM

Two books that equal a complete guide to better copy.

By Peter P. Jacobi

Let this serve as a re-introduction to a classic and an invitation to become familiar with a flamboyant, worthy-of-your-attention contemporaneous response.

The classic: The Elements of Style by William Strunk and E.B. White (4th edition, Longman).

The response: Spunk & Bite, A Writer's Guide to Bold, Contemporary Style, by Arthur Plotnik (Random House).

A Complete Guide

Separately, each provides a multitude of useful hints to make you stronger, as writers and editors. Together, they're as complete a guide to better copy as you're likely to find. And, in totality, they're really not contradictory, despite Plotnik's stance that Elements is "geriatric." He may argue with one or another of the rules that dominate Strunk and White's short and informative handbook, but he also validates them by using his predecessors' wisdoms as a springboard for his own musings. He simply begs for the addition of "ambience" in the use of language, as supplement to "correctness," which he judges is the principal lesson imparted in Elements.


Plotnik also points out that Strunk, White's English teacher at Cornell, determined that "the best writers sometimes disregard the rules of rhetoric. When they do so, however," he continued, "the readers will usually find in the sentence some compensating merit, attained at the cost of the violation." And White would later admit, this years after he added his thoughts to the Strunk original (a compressive text that he used to hand out to his students): "I felt uneasy at posing as an expert on rhetoric, when the truth is I write by ear, always with difficulty and seldom with any exact notion of what is taking place under the hood."

Read the Classic Again

You would do yourself good as writer or editor by reading or re-reading The Elements of Style. You will remind yourself to "omit needless words;" to aim for "definite, specific, concrete language;" to "avoid a succession of loose sentences;" to "choose a suitable design and hold to it;" to "write in a way that comes naturally;" to "write with nouns and verbs;" to not "explain too much;" to "make sure the reader knows who is speaking;" to "be clear," and to "not take shortcuts at the cost of clarity."

By sifting through the pages, you will come upon this passage, as part of White's summation: "Style takes its final shape more from attitudes of mind than from principles of composition, for, as an elderly practitioner once remarked, 'Writing is an act of faith, not a trick of grammar.'

This moral observation would have no place in a rule book were it not that style is the writer, and therefore what you are, rather than what you know, will at last determine your style. If you write, you must believe -- in the truth and worth of the scrawl, in the ability of the reader to receive and decode the message. No one can write decently who is distrustful of the reader's intelligence, or whose attitude is patronizing."

Locution, Freshness, Diction

Plotnik's emphasis is on "locution" ("a particular mode of speech -- the use of a word, the turning of a phrase in some stylistic manner"). It is on "freshness" ("Readers love surprise. They love it when a sentence heads one way and jerks another. They love the boing of a jack-in-the-box word. They adore images that trot by like a unicorn in pajamas."). He addresses diction (for writers "always purposeful, always a costume donned for one effect or another"). He spends a chapter on the thesaurus, how to find a good one, how to use it (and not use it).

Attribution gets a chapter, too, focused sharply on attribution and the verb "said." Plotnik counsels flexibility: yes, "said" is probably the most useful way to attach a quote or piece of dialogue to its speaker, but he is accepting of other verbs, depending on situation and appropriateness.

Leads and Closings

He gets around to leads ("'I promise that something will stimulate you if you continue reading.' Do your opening sentences make that promise? Do they wow to scratch the reader's eternal itch for sensation?"). And to closings, too, he gets (he urges a "three-point landing").

Punctuation and Grammar

Like Strunk and White, Plotnik deals with matters of punctuation and grammar: hyphens, semicolons, sentence fragments, and the shape of sentences ("Like the protagonist of a moral tale, a sentence sets out in earnest pursuit of truth and beauty. But soon it finds itself set upon by corruptive elements, which must be vanquished before the glorious end punctuation is attained.").

Two Books That Complement Each Other

Plotnik strays occasionally into the hyperbolic, but Spunk & Bite in execution matches the book's title. It complements The Elements of Style, even when in contradiction. I'd therefore recommend the combination for acquaintance and re-acquaintance.

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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A Lesson from Nonfiction Writers

Posted on Friday, June 25, 2010 at 1:51 PM

Many lessons to learn from the pages of The Writer's Notebook.

By Peter P. Jacobi

Some sections of The Writer's Notebook, Craft Essays from Tin House (Tin House Books), focus exclusively on issues of fiction, which we're not in the business of. However, this collection of essays, based on craft seminars offered by those who publish the journal Tin House, is packed with nuggets worth the attention of nonfiction writers, too.

Let me share a few as a way of inducing you to look more deeply into the book's content.

Read It Aloud

Rick Bass, a Montana writer with a passion for environmentalism, has contributed "When To Keep It Simple." He discusses how to extricate oneself from the "too wrapped up in a lofty thought" situation: "Say it straight; literally. I'll try to speak the thought out loud, as if in conversation -- unaided by the treachery and guile of words on paper and speaking it as if in explanation, as when someone asks what it is you're working on, and you use plain language to tell them the synopsis rather than using high-octane dream lyrics."

How often have I preached the "read it aloud" path toward clarity and flow? Bass builds an entire essay on that potent piece of advice.

Keep It Authentic

Dorothy Allison, a Northern California-based novelist, feminist, and professor, focuses on "Place;" that's the title of her piece. She pleads for knowing detail, pointing to self experience as the means for the gathering and using of such. "I grew up among truck drivers and waitresses," she says.

Therefore: "I can give you detail. I can describe for you the tile they use in most truck stops because truckers have a horrible tendency to puke after having drunk great quantities of beer on top of chili. I know the colors of those tiles. I know, in fact, why 7-Elevens are designed the way they are. I've worked there ... Those places are real places for me. You probably read my stories to learn more about diners. And waitresses. And truck drivers. And I read to learn about the Jews in Brooklyn, the fishermen of Maine, and the combine drivers in Iowa."

Allison is encouraging authenticity, another issue I've addressed over the years. She asks us as writers to know and understand what we're writing about by using our own background or, short of that, doing careful fact finding, all to offer our readers meaningful detail.

Jim Shepard ties in to the above thought. He's a novelist and short story writer who teaches at Williams College. In his essay, "Generating Fiction from History and/or Fact," Shepard says: "The writers I admire take the world personally. It isn't true that only people who live in South LA can write about South LA: people who care enough to learn a bout South LA can write about South LA. If you can convince me of the reality of something, you have gained an authority."

Non-fictional Dream

Anna Keesey, a short story writer headquartered in Oregon, writes about "Making a Scene." She refers to John Gardner's classic text, The Art of Fiction, and his efforts to create the "fictional dream." It's "a kind of trance," she explains, "in which people read and they forget they're reading and they see the thing in front of them as though it's actually happening. They drop through the letters on the page into the imagined world and they respond to that world emotionally as if its events are actually happening."

That goal applies for nonfiction writers, too. We don't aim to get the reader into an "imagined" world, but if we can get the reader to "drop through the letters on the page" into the actual world we're trying to re-create, then we've done our job. It's a goal devoutly to be striven for.

Effective Writing

Margot Livesey, an author of fiction who serves as writer in residence at Emerson College, adds "Shakespeare for Writers" to the Tin House collection. She supplies sixteen useful lessons, among them, the following:

--"Begin dramatically."
--"Don't keep back the good stuff."
--"Consider beginning in the present."
--"Remember the power of appropriate omission. We don't need to take every journey with the characters, make every cup of coffee."
--"Don't over explain."
--"Be aware that form and tone govern content."
--"Be ambitious with your language."

Livesey expands on the above and others on her list, and -- in total -- they make for a mini-course in effective writing. But then, the entirety of The Writer's Notebook holds value. Don't be frightened off by the preponderance of fiction writers. There's much you can learn from these pages.

Revising Your Work

Take as a final example what memoirist and short story writer Chris Offutt covers in "Performing Surgery without Anesthesia." He deals with revising your copy and how to go about handling the completion of one's first draft, with which often comes the feeling of having "written something of absolute brilliance." As he puts it: "I love that feeling. It lasts until the next morning, when I look at the work again and realize it's a piece of crap." At that point, he explains, distancing becomes critical, brought on by the needed passage of time and the
re-emergence of objectivity about one's work.

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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Recommended Reading

Posted on Friday, February 26, 2010 at 2:00 PM

Here are three books for sharing.

By Peter P. Jacobi

One -- Wisdoms That Are Strong and Instructive

The Art of Column Writing by Suzette Martinez Standring (Marion Street Press). Sandring is a working columnist, syndicated with GateHouse News Service.

Normally, I don't favor books that cover too much and, consequently, too little. Standring's 200-page paperback would be more useful had the author used the full stretch of the book to deal with the how of writing those columns, instead of also including issues of copyright and syndication, of blogging and the ethos of the field.

But her work gets my approval because the "how" pages are strong and instructive. They're well thought out and beefed by "insider secrets" from the likes of Art Buchwald and Pete Hamill. They address point of view and voice and the importance of telling the story. Standring includes a number of columns to help make her points. And along the way, just for instance, Robert Haught, Washington columnist for The Oklahoman, tells us that, in his work, he follows a "4-S" formula: make what you write short, simple, sound, and sing.

Leonard Pitts, the Pulitzer Prize winning columnist for The Miami Herald, contributes a rousing lecture about responsibilities. "The world is complexities and it is conundrums, moral compromise and amoral contrivance," he says. "And the price of being allowed to use what my editor used to call the vertical personal pronoun, the price of having that little mug shot next to your name, is that you are expected to be able to provide context and perspective, to make it make sense. Or to comfort and amuse them as they struggle to make sense of it on their own."

The Art of Column Writing contains wisdoms.

Two -- A Practical Reference Book

The Craft of Research by Wayne Booth, Gregory Colomb, and Joseph Williams (Third Edition, University of Chicago Press).

This is a classic in the field designed, as the authors say, to "guide you through the complexities of turning a topic or question into a research problem whose significance matches the effort that you put into solving it," and to make the results usable, readable "with the understanding and respect it deserves."

For readers of this newsletter, the content may go beyond normal needs, but every facet of research is explored. And advice critical to us all is doled out carefully, clearly, and completely.

The importance of consolidating your findings is emphasized. According to the authors, the search for information and the note taking should be followed by the process of more formally writing a report, thereby to remember, understand, and test your thinking.

And just as much as writers are required to know their audience, so, too, we're admonished, should researchers. The book suggests we pose questions: "Who will read my report? What do they expect me to do? Should I entertain them, provide new factual knowledge, help them understand something better, help them do something to solve a practical problem in the world? How much can I expect them to know already? How will readers respond to the solution/answer in my main claim?"

Practical hints abound: quoting, paraphrasing, and summarizing appropriately; integrating direct quotations into the text; showing readers how evidence is relevant; thinking like a reader; revising.

The book deserves a spot on your reference shelf.

Three -- Language History Lesson

I Love It When You Talk Retro -- Hoochie Coochie, Double Whammy, Drop a Dime, and the Forgotten Origins of American Speech by Ralph Keyes (St. Martin's Press).

Keyes is author of previous helpful volumes: The Quote Verifier, The Writer's Book of Hope, and The Courage to Write. Here, he questions how far we dare to go in using references that might do little more than puzzle younger readers, such as French or Latin phrases, such as descriptions like "Perry Como calmness," such as allusions ("Alphonse and Gaston," "drinking the Kool-Aid," and "Mrs. Robinson").

Drop the act, Keyes suggests. Those references don't communicate.

As Keyes argues, he also loads his intriguing book with language history. He tells us how expressions and popular culture references came to be, where they came from. So, if you're interested, as I happen to be, in discovering the origin, say, of top banana or talking turkey or limelight or not worth a tinker's damn, I Love It When You Talk Retro is a construct for you.

Red herring, to offer an example, comes from Elizabethan England, "where smoked herring, a pungent comestible of bright red color like that of smoked salmon today, was dragged along the ground by fugitives to throw pursuing dogs off the scent." Thus, red herring in usage today: defined as "something used to divert attention from the real issue or matter."

Again, it's the sort of book I like having around.

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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Book Review

Posted on Wednesday, October 28, 2009 at 4:01 PM

The Magazine from Cover to Cover (2nd edition), by Sammye Johnson and Patricia Prijatel

The Magazine from Cover to Cover combines two previous editions: Magazine Publishing and The Magazine from Cover to Cover. This comprehensive edition is a must-have for magazine newbies and professionals alike, with coverage of editing, design, management, industry history and research, circulation, and many other topics. The authors have also added sections pertaining to new media and current advertising issues. Editors and publishers of various publication types (from consumer to association) will find this book a valuable addition to their bookshelves.

Of particular interest is the wide array of research pertaining to the magazine industry. The book includes data, case histories, anecdotes, and historical overviews of American magazine publishing.

The Magazine from Cover to Cover is published by Oxford University Press (416 pages, paperback). It is available for $38.00 on the Editors Only "Books" page under the "Books on Publishing" heading.

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Lessons from Books

Posted on Wednesday, October 28, 2009 at 1:38 PM

Some useful tricks from what the experts say and how they've mastered their craft.

By Peter P. Jacobi

It's been awhile since I focused on books. Permit me to do some catching up.

The Best American Magazine Writing

Each year, the American Society of Magazine Editors (ASME) publishes a volume devoted to The Best American Magazine Writing. It contains the winners and finalists of the society's annual awards. I'd like to use the 2007 edition as an example. And as per usual, it contains sterling examples, which you (as did I) can enjoy in the reading and from which you (as again did I) can glean lessons. The book is published by Columbia University Press.

Cynthia Leive, editor-in-chief of Glamour and president of ASME, writes in introduction to the nearly 500 pages that follow: "For my money, we have the Oscars beat, and the book you are holding in your hands is the reason why. Magazines produce some of the most lovely and lasting writing of our time; though it's true there's nothing better than a quick dip into a magazine when you're stuck on the cross-town bus in rush hour traffic, the best magazine pieces also stand the test of time, working their particular brand of magic years after their time on the newsstand is gone."

Marlene Kahan, ASME's hard working executive director and administrator of the awards, says the pieces in the anthology reflect "moral passion, vivid characters and settings, zealous reporting, and artful narrative that transforms information into a compelling story."

We may not always have the time or opportunity or the appropriate platform to do all that Leive and Kahan speak of (nor perhaps also the level of talent exhibited), but within our limits, it's critical we do the utmost, striving for the best within our reach. Reading the likes of the included articles can inspire, as well as instruct.

There's the lighter material, such as Vanessa Gregoriadis' rollicking portrait of "Karl Lagerfeld, Boy Prince of Fashion," prepared for The New Yorker. "What can one talk about while waiting for Lagerfeld?" she writes. "Lagerfeld, of course. 'Karl has the energy of...what? Twenty-five thousand Turkish elephants!' says socialite Anne Slater, wearing her big blue glasses and grinning up a storm. 'He's magnetic and powerful. I think he's absolutely, devastatingly attractive.'"

There's the serious coverage of news behind the news, such as William Langewiesche's "Rules of Engagement" for Vanity Fair, a reconstruction of events leading up to the massacre by U.S. Marines of Iraqi civilians. It begins so calmly with description: "The Euphrates is a peaceful river. It meanders silently through the desert province of Anbar like a ribbon of life, flanked by the greenery that grows along its banks, sustaining palm groves and farms, and a string of well-watered cities and towns. Fallujah, Ramadi, Hit, Haditha. These are among the places made famous by battle -- conservative, once quiet communities where American power has been checked, and where, despite all the narrow measures of military success, the Sunni insurgency continues to grow. On that short list, Haditha is the smallest and farthest upstream."

The scene is set for the tempest and terror to come. Langewiesche will not only detail the tragedy but use it as symbol for the larger picture of what he sees about the status of events in Iraq.

Esquire first published "The School" by C.J. Chivers, a harrowing account of the three day siege staged by Chechen terrorists of a school in the Russian town of Beslan. Take this moment, in an article comprised of such: "Karen Mdinaradze slipped in and out of consciousness. Once he awoke to see a woman over him, fanning him, another time to find children cleaning his wound with a cloth soaked in urine. He awoke again. A teenaged girl thrust an empty plastic bottle to him and asked him to urinate in it.

"'Turn your eyes away,' he said, and he pressed the bottle against himself and slowly peed. He finished and handed the bottle back. The girl and her friends thanked him and quickly poured drops to wash their faces. Then each sipped from the bottle, passing it among themselves, and returned it to him. Karen's dehydration was advanced; his throat burned. He poured a gulp of the warm liquid into his mouth and across his tongue, letting it pool around his epiglottis. The moisture alleviated some of the pain. He swallowed.

"He looked at the bottle. A bit remained. A very old woman in a scarf was gesturing to him, asking for her turn. He passed the bottle on."

Grim coverage of victims in despair: the details make the story hard to forget.

Before I leave the ASME collection, and I realize this column, as a whole, will turn out to be out of balance, with far more space allotted to the above than to the books that follow, but in that always-with-us question concerning the power of words versus that of pictures, here are thoughts from a commentary by Christopher Hitchens titled "The Vietnam Syndrome," written for Vanity Fair.

"To be writing these words," he says, "is, for me, to undergo the severest test of my core belief -- that sentences can be more powerful than pictures. A writer can hope to do what a photographer cannot: convey how things smelled and sounded as well as how things looked. I seriously doubt my ability to perform this task on this occasion. Unless you see the landscape of ecocide, or meet the eyes of its victims, you will quite simply have no idea. I am content, just for once...to be occupying the space between pictures."

The New Kings of Nonfiction

Ira Glass, the producer and host of the radio/television program "This American Life," has edited a volume called The New Kings of Nonfiction (Riverhead Books). It is a collection of writing he's saved across the years, pieces he couldn't bear "to throw away." Glass insists ours is an era of "great nonfiction writing." He speaks of the pleasure in reading some of this "great" writing, the "pleasure of discovery, the pleasure of trying to make sense of the world."

It is for each of us, of course, in our own way, to cause our readers to discover, to help them make sense of the world. The authors chosen by Glass surely make the effort. They include some bigwigs in the writing industry: Michael Lewis, Malcolm Gladwell, Susan Orlean, David Foster Wallace, Lee Sandlin, James McManus, among others.

There's Mark Bowden, too, whose contribution, "Tales of the Tyrant," first ran in The Atlantic in 2002. The piece is about Saddam Hussein and begins with this trenchant and sharply crafted paragraph: "The tyrant must steal sleep. He must vary the locations and times. He never sleeps in his palaces. He moves from secret bed to secret bed. Sleep and a fixed routine are among the few luxuries denied him. It is too dangerous to be predictable, and whenever he shuts his eyes, the nation drifts. His iron grip slackens. Plots congeal in the shadows. For those hours, he must trust someone, and nothing is more dangerous to the tyrant than trust."

The profile that follows is remarkable. But then, so are other selections in The New Kings of Nonfiction.

I mention James Wood's How Fiction Works (Farrar, Straus and Giroux) despite the fact that the author's focus is on fiction, which is not our game. But the author happens to be one of this era's most influential literary critics. Consequently, his book has received an inordinate amount of attention. It deserves yours.

Granted, there is discourse that seems a distance removed from what you and I must deal with. But this gentleman has a keenly analytical mind, and he's got a verbal manner that can startle a response out of you.

At one point, as he turns to the subject of metaphor, he states: "Metaphor is analogous to fiction because it floats a rival reality. It is the entire imagination process in one move. If I compare the slates on a roof to an armadillo's back, or -- as I did earlier -- the bald patch on the top of my head to a crop circle (or on very bad days, to the kind of flattened ring of grass that a helicopter's blades make when it lands in a field), I am asking you to do what Conrad said fiction should make you do -- see. I am asking you to imagine another dimension, to picture a likeness. Every metaphor or simile is a little explosion of fiction within the larger fiction of the novel or story." Metaphors, of course, are an imaginative touch just as usable in nonfiction as in fiction.

The Art of Column Writing

Finally, if you do the column writing thing, there's Suzette Martinez Standring's new book, The Art of Column Writing: Insider Secrets from Art Buchwald, Dave Barry, Arianna Huffington, Pete Hamill and Other Great Columnists (Marion Street Press). Sandring writes columns herself for The Boston Globe and The Patriot Ledger in Quincy, Massachusetts.

She's produced a solid "how to" guide, built on her own experience but heavily also on the advice of those in the book's title. I'm less interested in the who-these-people-are parts of the book than the how-things-are-done elements, but you can learn some useful tricks from what the experts say and, through samples, how they've mastered the craft.

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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Book Review

Posted on Wednesday, September 30, 2009 at 2:32 PM

Magazine Editing: How to Develop and Manage a Successful Publication, by John Morrish.

Magazine Editing explores the multi-faceted magazine editing profession--including "the role of the editor both as a journalist, having to provide information and entertainment for readers, and as a manager, expected to lead and supervise successfully the development of a magazine or periodical" (Amazon description). It is written by John Morrish.

The book helps would-be editors to enter the industry and existing editors to polish their skills. Chapter topics include:

--How magazines work
--Editorial strategy
--Leader and manager
--Money matters
--The right words
--Pictures and design
--Managing production
--Where the buck stops
--Becoming an editor

The book also explores the ethical aspects of magazine editing, with appendices containing the National Union of Journalists Code of Conduct and Press Complaints Commission Code of Practice. Figures throughout the book offer insight into budgeting, scheduling, and production.

Magazine Editing is published by Routledge (288 pages, paperback) and is in its second edition. It is available for $31.69 on the Editors Only "Books" page under the "Books on Editing" heading.

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Posted on Wednesday, May 20, 2009 at 3:49 PM

Reference books for editors and writers.

It is important for any publishing professional to have access to the right style, grammar, and writing guides. We have compiled a list of some of the most useful, comprehensive books out there for publishing professionals. Visit our Books page to see the complete list.

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