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The Serial Comma: Endangered Species?

Posted on Wednesday, July 27, 2011 at 10:50 PM

Weighing in on the recent Oxford comma controversy.

By Meredith L. Dias

Recently, the University of Oxford came under fire for doing away with the serial comma. From Twitter to Facebook, users voiced their anger over this alleged grammatical catastrophe. Oxford later debunked the rumors (though they did drop the serial comma from staff communications and press releases), but the debate rages on.

One particularly buzz-generating response came from Heather Anne Halpert (@blurryyellow) on Twitter: "Are you people insane? The Oxford comma is what separates us from the animals." Popular indie rock band Vampire Weekend's 2008 song "Oxford Comma" enjoyed renewed popularity.

Scores of writers and editors have responded to the basic sentiment behind @blurryyellow's tweet, some lauding the Oxford comma as an exercise in clarity and others dismissing it as a vestige of a more prescriptive grammatical past.

So what are some arguments for the use of serial commas? According to supporters, the comma ensures clarity in lists of three or more items, and it punctuates a place where a speaker would naturally pause.

Those who don't use the serial comma cite instances when the comma actually obfuscates meaning or occupies valuable space in tight text spaces.

In all likelihood, a lot of your publications adhere to AP style or some variation thereof. AP has dropped the serial comma from its stylebook, but Chicago, the American Psychological Association (APA), MLA, and others continue to use it. So we'll turn the conversation over to you, editors: Does your publication use the Oxford/serial comma?

Meredith Dias is senior editor of Editors Only.

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Posted on Monday, February 28, 2011 at 10:14 AM

Practice editing that also exploits the visual dimension. It will accelerate your communication!

By Jan V. White

"Nobody reads any more" eh?

They will, if they realize that the thing is worth bothering with.

Is it obviously Great Literature?

Is it clearly Useful Poop?

Is it glaringly Fascinating Insight?

The key words in this context are obviously, clearly, glaringly. They are visual techniques when you see them on the page. Trouble is that we take anything so "obvious" for granted and assume they demanded no thought. They are, in fact, the result of extremely clever editing.

By definition, "obvious" and "clear" provoke immediate reaction -- as fast as as you can get. That's vital for us as editors, because we serve people whose excuse not to read is their claim that they "don’t have time." Hence the need for speed.

Obviousness, clarity, glare, are the result of clever editing-and-designing. Don't think of them as "design," because that word daunts word-people. Think of them as editing-that-also-exploits-the-visual-dimension.

Here "design" has nothing to do with Art or Prettiness, but everything with efficiency in getting that irresistible sales-point off the page into the reader's mind. No, not reader but the viewer's mind. The viewer is just a potential reader whom we need to persuade to read by what we show and demonstrate at that quick level when they just glance down at the page. The first things we show them to notice are crucial. Noticing is visual. Becoming interested (i.e, curious) is verbal. The two must work together.

Four Slow Preliminary Steps

Step 1: The key is to pop out what we know that our potential readers will cotton to. We must make it conspicuous. Its inherent interest requires no analysis or cogitation from them -- just an immediate reaction. How do we know what those potential readers might cotton to? The very reason you decided to run this piece in the first place. (Remember?) Now the job is to distill that What'sInItForMe value into easy, direct language. That's your "display".

Step 2: Discuss the story with its author as well as the designer, so the well-defined and agreed-on value-to-the-reader is honed and polished and enthusiastically understod so it can be sparkingly displayed. Clarity of thought is vital. Shortness is thought to be good, but the final must be as long as necessary to get the thought across vividly.

Step 3: Edit out verbose introductions, complex off-the-point contexts. Avoid duplications of any kind, so never, ever repeat, duplicate, redouble or echo. Anywhere. Especially in the display leading into the text. Get on with it.

Step 4: Encourage the designer to interpret the message using type as tone of voice, and/or adding another dimension with images. Ideally, combining them both into a one-two punch. Its purpose is to expose the story idea clearly for its first-glance value. Immediate understanding. Reaction. Impact. Curiosity. The Wow! factor. This does not only apply to the headline and display, but to the handling of the entire package.

Ten Common-sense Visual Techniques to Accelerate Communication

1. It is not Who What Where When Why but the "So what" that readers cherish. It is just good salesmanship to allow it to be the dominant.

2. For heads use big black bold type, set tight, stacked with minus leading to concentrate the words into a black blob to which the eye is irresistibly drawn. Which typeface? Who cares? Its dominance and its message are what matters.

3. Show that signal off in generous white space. Space is not "wasted" if it succeeds in bringing attention to your prime selling-point.

4. Don't decorate or gussy up your message. Let it speak for itself forthrightly. It should not need side-issues or exclamation points. Avoid extraneous red herrings no matter how beguiling.

5. Don't waste space on anything that is not useful or significant to the thrust of the story. Keep to the point. The function of editing is to edit: cut cut cut. If there is sidebar material, be helpful and put it in a sidebar. Readers are grateful for such time-saving help, if they prefer to skip it.

6. Obviously, shortness is quicker than length, but make everything long enough to carry its point, especially the headlines: give them as many words as they need, because they are your prime salesmen. Perhaps even emphasize key words in some noticeable way.

7. Allow the substance of the piece to sell itself. It must be important enough to do that. If it isn't, should you be running it? Don't try to impress or startle with efflorescent graphics and colors in order to help it along. Suich transparent phoniness undermines your credibility.

8. Pouring text into endless flowing columns is deadening (unless you are presenting literature). Short bits get highest readership. Spoon-size shredded wheat is more popular than great big bricks'-worth. Construct pages out of discrete units of information.

9. Break up information into its components and organize it -- tabulate it visually. Stacking it all in neat columns is only slightly better than plain running copy, but not interesting enough. Place the units in a more random fashion to derive the most advantage from their smallness and shortness. Encourage the eye to skip from this unit to that one to find the most valuable element for that particular reader. Label each element with its own headline. Not with just a copout label, but a headline that sells: "why this thing is useful."

10. Nobody will ever read everything. (They never did.) The best strategy is to present a smorgasbord of lots of small-sized choices to be pecked at, because the little tastes lead to wanting more. Appetite grows by what it feeds on. Smorgasbords are also feasts for the eye, deliberately arranged to make the little dishes appear appetizing. That's functional "design" used by chefs. That is precisely the same professional cleverness that canny editors who know how to exploit the capacity of design use to make their intellectual smorgasbord irresistible. What is more, it isn't just irresistible. It is FAST!

Jan V. White is a communication design consultant and author of Editing by Design (3rd Ed.), Allsworth Press, 2003. He may be reached at janvw2 [at] aol [dot] com.

Fact-Checking Policy

Posted on Wednesday, January 26, 2011 at 10:15 AM

How does your publication handle fact-checking?

By Denise Gable

This month’s topic was prompted by the wide-spread media reports that falsely reported Congresswoman Giffords had been killed. As non-fiction writers and editors, we want readers to trust what they read in our publication. If they don’t, they may go elsewhere. But, with tight deadlines and limited budgets for dedicated fact-checkers, many mistakes can go unseen until they are in print. By then, our credibility has been tarnished. So, how do publications go about making sure what they say is the truth and that all the facts are correct?

Go magazine, published by Ink Publishing
Frequency: Monthly
Description: AirTran Airways’ onboard magazine provides an excellent marketing opportunity for America’s top businesses. Go is full of engaging articles, essential product information, fabulous vacation ideas and an extensive business section.

Brooke Porter, managing editor, “Before we fact check, we get a list from the writer that includes all of the sources they used or spoke to. We print out the story, highlight all of the facts, and verify them one by one directly with the source or using outside research when necessary (like for historical facts), checking them off once they’ve been verified as true or changing them if something is incorrect. Since we are a travel magazine, many times we are checking directly with an institution’s public relations contact, like a museum or restaurant.

“The only bad story I have is asking a PR person at a museum to verify some facts, only to find out after we went to print that something was wrong, This is why it’s important to also use other sources for certain types of facts.”

PrintWear magazine, published by NBM, Inc.
Frequency: Monthly
Description: PrintWear magazine covers every aspect and technology relevant to the business of apparel decoration. Offering tips, tricks, step-by-step tutorials and other insights from seasoned industry professionals, each month covers disciplines of embroidery, screen printing, heat-applied graphics and direct printing, and trends in apparel and promotional products.

Emily Andre, editor, “We use traditional methods of fact-checking (cross referencing between sources, confirming with industry associations and other authorities, etc.) but since our reporting is mainly technical in nature, the most valuable resource to me in this capacity is my network of industry experts. These members of my unofficial board are on my speed dial. Any time something questionable or controversial comes across my desk, I get on the phone or on email and have had some really interesting conversations as a result. These often lead to other topic ideas, or are used to spark a debate on our LinkedIn group. Knowing the dynamics of the industry also helps me to recognize a good counterbalance, where I can make two phone calls on one issue to find the middle ground/truth. I've definitely fielded some less than even-tempered calls after publishing something that should have been investigated more thoroughly. But those were actually huge opportunities for me -- both to practice my grace as well as to expand my network. You quickly discover who is paying attention and who really knows what they're talking about when you publish something questionable. Not that I recommend that as a method to establishing contacts.

“Establishing these relationships and having such conversations has also eliminated fact-checking in certain circumstances, where I have become so intimate in the processes we report on that I can dismiss or confirm certain data off the top of my head. As a bonus, I'm always in on industry gossip and have actually established a personal relationship with many of my contributors.

“One other note on preventative measures: I find it essential to do thorough background research on any of my new contributors. Asking around, discovering their industry history and revealing potential biases has been huge to me as a preliminary to fact checking.”

EE Times, published by United Business Media, LLC
Frequency: Online, unspecified

George Leopold, U.S news director, “The reality is that editorial staff cuts place a greater onus on reporters in the field to check and double check facts in stories. Then, embattled story and production editors must, as always, look for inconsistencies and unsubstantiated claims in stories and circle back to reporters (who of course want to move on to the next story) to nail down a fact or an assertion in a story. Anything controversial of course requires independent confirmation from a second source.

“The decline in media accuracy is driven by the reality that reporters often post their own stories so as not to be beaten to the punch by competitors. There is a ‘better to be first than accurate’ mentality out there.

“In short, there is virtually no time for reporters and editors to think and reflect, only to react. This is a bad way to inform the citizenry, and will only get worse as bean counters squeeze editorial operations. That's why we, and many others, have adopted a pay model so that our "content" will generate the revenue needed to sustain our reporting staff.”

Additional Comments

“We don't have dedicated fact checkers, and in fact never have. We put the onus on the reporter to do what it takes to get it right, with the editor(s) serving as an additional gatekeeper.” --David Zoia, editorial director, WardsAuto.com

“We do peer review with two reviewers, one editor, and an editor-in-chief.” --Hans IJzerman, founding editor, In-Mind magazine

“Fact checking is largely on the shoulders of the reporters. We don't have a separate fact checking process other than the standard editing/copy editing process.” --John Dix, editor-in-chief, Network World

“We rely on the expertise of our editors to make sure that all information is correct before publication. Each article is read by at least three editors with various, complementary skill sets and technical/professional backgrounds (and one of the editors is specifically a technical editor). We are also trained in the art of discovering plagiarism.” --Doug Peckenpaugh, managing editor, Food Product Design

Denise Gable is managing editor of Editors Only.

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"We do our best to fact-check because our writers and editors have domain expertise, but so does our readership, and we hear about it when we're wrong. We use multiple readers, and if anything sounds 'unproven' or 'off' we do a detailed fact check." --Walt Boyes, Editor in Chief, Control and ControlGlobal.com.

Positive Anticipation

Posted on Wednesday, January 26, 2011 at 10:15 AM

Tips on how to include the emotion of anticipation in your publication.

By Pat Friesen

Do you anticipate receiving birthday cards, leaving on vacation, or heading out the door on Friday afternoon? Of course you do.

Anticipation is a wonderful emotion. It literally has us looking forward, not backward, focusing on the possibility of good things to come.

Creating anticipation is a worthwhile job for all writers, designers, and editors whether they're creating content for traditional print or for digital media. Here's why this emotion is so important: anticipation leads to reader engagement.

What are you doing to build anticipation with your readers? My own work is in direct response copywriting. I'd like to share with you some of the techniques I've used. They may suggest some ideas for things you could do in your own publication.

Tips to Try

Helpful hints. These are what made Heloise famous and her column highly successful. So take this tip and create a regular column in your publication that offers helpful hints. Readers will look forward to each successive column. You'll delight readers with this and they'll await future issues with positive anticipation.

Looking for resolution. When you do an Internet search, and land on a website, what are you anticipating? Nine times out of ten, you're looking for the answer to a question or solution to a problem. Can your publication offer readers solutions to problems that they face? Let them anticipate finding resolutions regularly in your pages. Give them content that will quickly provide what they are looking for or will point them in the right direction.

Familiarity feeds expectation. It makes my day to see the familiar words Robert Genn Twice-Weekly Letter in the from line of my email inbox. I always look forward to reading what artist Genn has to say. Likewise, your readers will look forward to receiving issues with content from people they know and trust.

Pre-announcements. In marketing, tests show that advance announcement messages significantly increase response, as much as 30 to 40 percent. Try this technique with your publication. You can use a prior issue, your website, or email. See for yourself how pre-announcement will leave your readers watching for that upcoming feature.

Create that special feeling. Use words and phrases like "exclusive," and "just for readers of... " to make your reader feel extra-special. They create anticipation by suggesting your reader is about to have a unique experience unavailable to the general public.

Hook 'em on a series. My last tip is to use a highly interesting article series to build anticipation. Here's an example of the underlying concept. Every week, I drive though the Flint Hills of Kansas. Just outside Lehigh, there's a sign at a farm that changes daily. The copy is always short -- just two words. Early in the season it changes from Just Planted to Now Sprouting, then Not Yet. After that, it shifts to one of these: None Today, Ready Now, Darn Rabbits, or Bumper Crop. I suspect that your article series will be more wordy, but you get the idea.

I only stopped once to buy that farmer's sweet corn. Just as I did, they changed the sign. It read Sold Out. Oh, well. But, you can see that the series concept worked!

Pat Friesen is a direct response copywriter and creative strategist, writing for online and traditional media. She can be reached at 913-341-1211, pat@patfriesen.com, or at www.patfriesen.com.

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Reader Solidarity

Posted on Wednesday, January 26, 2011 at 10:14 AM

Strengthening your publication's bond with readers.

Some magazines have readers who think of themselves as part of a group. They relate to one another in some sort of way. Other magazines seem to lack that kind of connection. The magazines that engender reader solidarity may have something going for themselves. Not renewing a subscription becomes tantamount to leaving the group!

What makes the difference between magazines that have reader solidarity and those that don't? A tactic used by a number of magazines is to carry content that allows readers to get to know one another.

It doesn't take a degree in psychology to recognize -- and understand -- the fascination held by some readers for learning what ever they can about the feelings, attitudes, and lifestyles of others with interests similar to their own. When given the opportunity to share their thoughts on the topic or to divulge something personal about themselves, many will likely jump at the chance. That's because many readers want to see themselves as part of a group.

One technique for promoting solidarity involves celebrities. Not necessarily the Hollywood kind, but people in your field whom readers know and admire. Quotes from such well-known people or opinion leaders can be a point of interest. Guest articles from them can be popular, too. An editor told us, "Our readers are always interested in the leaders in our field. They want to know about them. They can relate to them because these people are real, and share some of the problems and concerns of us all."

Readership surveys are also an excellent way of garnering solidarity-building content. They are one of the best ways to satisfy the penchant readers seem to have for achieving a sense of group identity. Articles based on readership surveys help to give readers a chance to see where they fit into the group.

A comprehensive survey can be a considerable project, however. One editor who recently completed one told us, "Putting one of these surveys together can be a very involved process. Ours took months to do. First you have to come up with this survey. You have to make sure that it's a statistically sound survey. Then, you've got to gather all of the responses, and have them evaluated. The whole thing has to be written. It's very complex."

But, she added, "it's very worth doing."

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WikiLeaks Hits Home

Posted on Tuesday, December 28, 2010 at 1:36 PM

How would you handle your own WikiLeaks conundrum? Many editors find serious ethical and legal implications in the scandal.

By Meredith L. Dias

What if you or one of your freelancers stumbled upon top-secret information of significance to your readers? Would you publish the information or keep it classified? The WikiLeaks scandal has raised this ethical question, and many others, for journalists and editors everywhere.

We recently approached editors with a hypothetical situation: What would they do if presented with classified/sensitive information that could make or break a story? Would the information involving foreign governments have any bearing on their decision? The response was as passionate as it was varied; editors discussed everything from the First Amendment to legal issues to journalism ethics.

The Measured Response

A lot of editors we spoke to didn't take sides. Instead, they pointed to a host of considerations a publication ought to take before releasing sensitive information to the public. "For me, the decision would be based on the content of the material," says editor and journalist Carolyne Gould. "I would need the information to in some way benefit humanity (i.e., save lives, prevent a war). If it were what we used to call 'yellow journalism,' I would not release it."

Other editors supported a similar approach. "It would depend on the content that was leaked, and what the repercussions of making it public would be," says technology industry editor and writer Charles Masi. "For example, recent leaks have provided information that would be embarrassing to certain governments. In that case, so what? They're big guys and can stand a little embarrassment. On the other hand, I believe some leaked information has included names of agents who might be compromised -- as in killed. I wouldn't want to be responsible for making that public."

Masi also emphasizes the importance of the public domain in the dissemination of information, noting that some leaked material was associated with published research. "The flurry of leaked emails regarding IPCC [Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change] scientific documents was highly embarrassing to the U.N., but, generally, all documentation backing up published research should be public domain, anyway. It would have been easy to decide to publish that content."

Ben Martin, editor-in-chief of The Father Life, takes nationality into consideration. "If it's a foreign government, I wouldn't think twice. Run that story! If it's my own government, that becomes more complicated. Are there legal ramifications? Are there national security ramifications? Those would have to be carefully weighed."

The Case Against Dissemination

Other editors who responded to our survey were vehemently against the publication of classified information. "Printing knowingly leaked classified material is fatally irresponsible," says one editor, who wished to remain anonymous. Another remarked, "I never went to j-school, so I've never been indoctrinated in the freedom of the press."

Some survey respondents tempered their opposition a bit. One editor associated with the U.S. government said that he "would always err on the side of not upsetting the interests of the [government] if there was some national security concern, due to my own values as well as my employer's."

David Gewirtz, publisher and editor-in-chief of Zatz Publishing, agrees. Like the anonymous editor above, he works with national security professionals. "I would immediately contact my colleagues in the U.S. government national security command authority, report the incident, and related details. I would not publish."

The Case for Dissemination

Other editors, however, note the ethical and constitutional roles of the press. "The proper role of the Press is to 'comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable,'" says Curtis Phillips, senior technical editor of Wine Business Monthly and Wine Business Insider. "If more journalists were doing this rather than kowtowing to their corporatist masters, we wouldn't need WikiLeaks. Domestically, it is a straightforward First Amendment issue. Either we have freedom of the press or we don't."

Brian Carlson, editorial director and editor-in-chief of CIO Online, shares his case for dissemination: "As an editor and writer, and American citizen, I support the U.S. Constitution and the First Amendment. If the content I received was of interest and I deemed it to be important material to my reader base, and publishing that material was in the scope of my editorial mission, then, yes, I would release that information. It would be my duty and responsibility to my readership and the values and ideals of a free democratic press to do so. First Amendment rights of the press have a long history and precedence, especially in cases such as the Pentagon Papers; that protects my right to provide information to the populace. If I did suppress that information due to pressure from said government body, I would be negligent in my duties as an editor."

An Unanticipated Consensus

As illustrated in this article, there is no ideological consensus when it comes to hot-button issues like the role and parameters of the press and freedom of information. There are simply too many variables for that. The consensus lies in the reaction. Regardless of position, editors and journalists across the board were on fire over the WikiLeaks scandal.

We often discuss the changing nature of content delivery in Editors Only and our sister newsletter, STRAT. That discussion has taken on a new dimension with the WikiLeaks scandal. Editors and journalists have at their fingertips access to information previously unavailable to them (or, at the very least, information once difficult to obtain). But there are a host of factors to consider when deciding whether or not to publish. For one, is it something the public needs to know? Is it unethical to share leaked information in the press when average readers could access the information on their home computers? Is national security an issue? Does the benefit to your readers outweigh the potential cost of dissemination?

(And, by the way, editors: Is it WikiLeaks or Wikileaks?)

Meredith Dias is senior editor of Editors Only and STRAT.

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Posted on Tuesday, December 28, 2010 at 1:34 PM

A chronological design, based on time or order, can solve approach issues in a wide range of assignments.

By Peter Jacobi

Dann Denny is an award-winning feature writer for the Herald-Times in Bloomington, Indiana. The city is where I live. The newspaper is one I serve as part-time freelancer, providing readers with a Sunday column called "Music Beat" and about 150 reviews of musical events annually. Dann Denny is a full-time staffer. Most every story he contributes can probably offer a lesson of value about writing and/or reporting. But I was deeply moved recently by a particular effort which, deservedly, ran on page 1. "Tribute to a hands-on Dad" was its title, and it retraced the embracing, nurturing relationship of a father, who had just died, and his writer son paying tribute.

The feature is a series of memories, starting with the earliest: "I was 3 years old, maybe 4. Dad would place his powerful hands beneath my armpits and hurl me high into the sky. Even at the apex of my flight, suspended in midair, I never felt fear. I knew his hands would catch me upon my descent."

Dann moves forward: "I'm 5. I'm in a swimming pool with my Dad, and his hands are beneath my stomach holding me above water ... I'm 7. I'm watching Dad, who's on his back peering at the underbelly of our leaky dishwasher ... I'm 9 ... I'm 11 ... I'm 13 ... I'm 17 ... I'm 20 ... I'm 30. I'm at my wedding rehearsal dinner. Dad rises to his feet, holding a glass of champagne in his right hand. He says he wants to make a toast. In a quavering voice, he says he hopes I light up Kim's life in the same way I have lit his. Then he sits down and starts rubbing his eyes ... I'm 38 ... I'm 39 ... I'm 58..."

This is the final paragraph: "It's March 24, 2010. Dad died today, more than a half century after he first tossed me into the air. His hands are resting now. But I can feel them still."

A love story has been shared. I'd encourage you to look up the whole piece (March 28, 2010) to be inspired by an account of two entwined lives lived so positively, so productively, so beautifully.

Chronological Years

Dann Denny's memories suggest the course of familial unity and devotion. In format, they also draw attention to a structural technique always available to you as writers and editors: chronology. Not that you want to overuse any story structure, but a chronological design, one based on time or order, can solve approach issues in a wide range of assignments.

Chronology: giving substance to a recipe. Chronology: explaining how a bill becomes law. Chronology: going back-of-the-scene to describe the conceptual origin and development of an art exhibit. Chronology: the steps that must be taken toward a healthier lifestyle. Chronology: a day in the life of someone or something. Chronology gives order to a series of events or to a process. Order, in turn, gives comfort to a reader striving to understand a topic with multiple elements.

Chronological Days

The New York Times recently ran, on its first page, "Diary of a Queens Pay Phone, Where a Link to Life Costs 25 Cents." Manny Fernandez, the author, reminds us that the public pay phone is a dying entity. "And yet," he notes, "this grimy phone -- in a silvery booth that Superman would have skipped over, for it is door-less and not fully enclosed - survives and, in its own nickel-and-dime way, thrives."

He continues: "Those who stepped into the booth last Thursday and Friday provided a snapshot of New York's pay phone user... They were mostly men, as young as 18 and as old as 62. They were Hispanic, black, white, Arab. Several said they were unemployed and could not afford a cellphone. Others owned a cellphone but did not have it for one reason or another ... .They called their mothers. The machine served not so much as a lifeline as a simple landline, with life."

The story follows use across those two selected days, from Thursday morning to Friday night. You'll have to read the story (February 13, 2010) to get details of those who called and whom they were trying to reach and what they said and why. The story will move you; it will intrigue you. And it comes to you in chronology.

Chronological Hours

I'll go back a couple of years -- to July 25, 2008 -- for an "American Idol top 10 hit the road to stardom" feature in USA Today, by Marco R. della Cava. Again, the article has been laid out in chronological form. This time, the coverage deals with just part of a day, specifically starting at "1 p.m., when a convoy of unmarked luxury tour buses pulls up to Allstate Arena, disgorging 10 American Idol finalists in search of a career." The arena is in Rosemont, Illinois.

At 1:40, according to a subtitle, "Mobs of fans greet their arrival in Chicago." At 2:30, it's "Time for a quick bite to eat - and a few quick laughs." At 4:10, there's "More meeting, more greeting, more signing." Rehearsals follow at 5:25. At 7:24, "It's showtime, and the livin' ain't easy." "Archuleta brings the show to a crescendo" at 8:55. At 10:50, the entertainers entertain "More fans" with "more autographs." And come 12:05 a.m., they're "On the road again."

Yes, it's a "day-in-the-life-of" piece, like so many others I've read across the years, each one effective, at least if and when the specifics employed for substance have resulted in individuality: "A Day in the Life of a Department Store Santa," "A Day in the Life of a Newsstand." "A Day in the Life of Hollywood," "A Day in the Life of China," "72 Hours in the Life of a College Team," "Seven Days in the Life of the City," "A Week in the Life of a Day-Care Center," "Seven Days and Seven Nights Alone with MTV," "Murder, A Week in the Death of America," "A Year in the Life of a Painting," and "An Hour in the Life of a Retail Manager."

Narrative is Chronological

As I state in my book, The Magazine Article: How to Think It, Plan It, Write It (Indiana University Press):

"A narrative is chronological. It happens in time. Even if you employ flashbacks, you offer a series of events or happenings that become consecutive. If you have a story to tell, an event to relate, chronology becomes your means from a beginning to an ending.

"How-to articles also lend themselves to chronological treatment. They involve sequential activities. Therefore, think chronology, the technique of the storyteller."

Yes, think chronology.

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 Tuesday, December 28, 2010 at 1:30 PM

Assessing the readability of a Time.com excerpt.

This month, Editors Only calculates the Fog score of a December 17, 2010, excerpt from Time.com ("Drug Companies Await FDA Guidelines for Online Marketing," by Steven Gray):

"Surprisingly, it's the pharmaceutical industry that's been at the forefront of moving the FDA to issue social-media rules. The companies realize their traditional websites and advertising strategies are no longer sufficient tools to promote products in a competitive marketplace in which doctors, pharmacists and consumers aggressively trade information about medicine on blogs. The companies are also aware that "if they can't fully participate in the social-media conversation, they get marginalized," says John Mack, publisher of Pharma Marketing Blog, which attracts about 25,000 industry readers a month. One impetus is to protect companies' credibility in the face of rogue online outlets selling dubious goods. Part of the push is to resolve practical challenges, like how to sufficiently explain a drug's risks within the bounds of a 140-character tweet. Or a sponsored Google ad's roughly two lines of text?"

--Word count: 137
--Average sentence length: 23 words (18, 34, 34, 17, 24, 10)
--Words with 3+ syllables: 24 percent (33/137 words)
--Fog Index: (23+24)*.4 = 18 (no rounding)

This passage could use some trimming. Both the average sentence length and percentage of longer words are quite high. Let's see what we can do to bring down this Fog score:

"Surprisingly, the drug companies want FDA social media rules. Their websites and ads are no longer enough. With so many doctors, pharmacists, and clients discussing medicine on blogs, they know that 'if they can't fully participate in the social-media conversation, they get marginalized,' says John Mack. Mack publishes the Pharma Marketing Blog, which attracts 25,000 readers each month. Companies want to gain trust despite the rogue online outlets selling shoddy goods. They want to convey drug risks in a 140-character tweet or sponsored Google ad's two lines of text. This is no easy task."

--Word count: 94
--Average sentence length: 13 words (9, 8, 29, 12, 13, 18, 5)
--Words with 3+ syllables: 12 percent (11/94 words)
--Fog Index: (13+12)*.4 = 10 (no rounding)

We were able to eliminate 43 words from the original excerpt. Average sentence length fell by 10 words, and we cut the percentage of longer words in half. The biggest challenge here was reducing the percentage of longer words without losing meaning or context.

(Note: There is one minor change to our Fog policy. We no longer consider words made 3 syllables by an "-ing" suffix in our longer word totals -- e.g., "discussing." In the past, we have only exempted words made 3 syllables by "-es" or "-ed" endings.)

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Lead + Title + Subtitle = Complete Package

Posted on Monday, November 29, 2010 at 5:23 PM

Writer's leads and editor's editions produce a winning formula.

By Peter P. Jacobi

The magazine Smithsonian, in its September 2009 issue, featured an inviting and informative section devoted to "Top Travel Writers' Dream Assignments." The six articles included led me to think once again about leads:

1. How to choose a lead, so as to introduce and drive a suitable approach for the story;

2. How to fit a lead, so as to suggest with it the purpose of and forthcoming content in the story;

3. How to enhance a lead by paving the way toward it with collaborative title and subtitle.

On the third item above, I'm using the labels "title" and "subtitle," designations for editorial matter used atop feature stories and magazine articles to guide a reader into what follows through some form of enticing suggestion about those inches of copy that follow. Were you to be writing a straight news story, then the appropriate labels would, of course, be "headline" and "subhead," which serve to succinctly summarize the copy that will then complete the editorial package.

The authors employed by Smithsonian will be familiar to many of you; they're topnotch writers: Susan Orlean, Francine Prose, Geoffrey Ward, Caroline Alexander, Frances Mayes, and Paul Theroux.

Let's look at several of their contributions and how the editors of the magazine led into the leads.

An Inviting and Educating Package

The Orlean piece was given "Where Donkeys Deliver" as title, supported by this subtitle: "The author returns to Morocco to explore the animal's central role in the life of this desert kingdom."

Orlean begins: "The donkey I couldn't forget was coming around a corner in the walled city of Fez, Morocco, with six color televisions strapped to its back. If I could tell you the exact intersection where I saw him, I would do so, but pinpointing a location in Fez is a formidable challenge, a little like noting GPS coordinates in a spider web. I might be able to be more precise about where I saw the donkey if I knew how to extrapolate location using the position of the sun, but I don't. Moreover, there wasn't any sun to be seen and barely a sliver of sky, because leaning in all around me were the sheer walls of the medina -- the old walled portion of Fez -- where the buildings are so packed and stacked together that they seem to have been carved out of a single huge stone rather than constructed individually, clustered so tightly that they blot out the shrieking blue and silver of the Moroccan sky."

Title and subtitle prepare me for surprise, for an unexpected journey. The lead paragraph takes me there. The author becomes a personal "I." The reader becomes a personal "you." The TV-laden donkey set against the ancient buildings offers the metaphor that symbolizes the contrasts of experiences facing those who live in Morocco and the distinctiveness of place that will embrace the visitor. The package invites and begins to educate. Success achieved, at least for this reader.

Setting the Mood

Francine Prose writes about "Serene Japan" where, according to the subtitle, "On the western coast, far from bustling Tokyo, tradition can be found in contemplative gardens, quiet inns and old temples."

She shares this introductory observation: "At the Buddhist temple of Gesshoji, on the western coast of Japan, the glossy, enormous crows are louder -- much louder -- than any birds I've ever heard. Crows are famously territorial, but these in the small city of Matsue seem almost demonically possessed by the need to assert their domain and keep track of our progress past the rows of stone lanterns aligned like vigilant, lichen-spotted sentinels guarding the burial grounds of nine generations of the Matsudaira clan. The strident cawing somehow makes the gorgeous, all-but-deserted garden seem even further from the world of the living and more thickly populated by the spirits of the dead. Something about the temple grounds -- their eerie beauty, the damp mossy fragrance, the gently hallucinatory patterns of light and shadow as morning sun filters through the ancient, carefully tended pines -- makes us start to speak in whispers and then stop speaking altogether until the only sounds are the bird cries and the swishing of the old-fashioned brooms a pair of gardener are using to clear fallen pink petals from the gravel paths."

One could argue con and pro about the length of Prose's sentences: "con" that they can be considered overwhelming in detail and, perhaps, meandering in development; "pro" that they establish a mystic aura, appropriate for a burial site and temple, and also that they make room for an author's flight of imagination, fostered by those noisy, seemingly protective crows in a serene and otherwise silent environment. The contemplative writing reflects the "contemplative gardens" listed in the subtitle and paves the way for what, yes, turns out to be a contemplative article. The mood is set.

You can read for yourself and gain much from reading the above pieces fully, as also "Saving Punjab" by Geoffrey C. Ward ("My wife says I suffer from an 'India problem.' She's right."). And from Caroline Alexander's "Captain Bligh's Cursed Breadfruit," about Jamaica ("An hour out of the maelstrom of Kingston's traffic, the first frigate bird appeared, and then, around a bend in the road, the sea."). And from Frances Mayes' "Under the Polish Sun" ("In 1990, when my husband, Ed, and I bought an abandoned villa in Tuscany, we hired three Polish workers to help us restore a major terrace wall. They were new immigrants, there for the money, and not happy to be out of their homeland.").

Smoothly Paving the Road

The sixth author, Paul Theroux, deals with "The Long Way Home," about which the subtitle says: "The noted world traveler fulfills a boyhood dream -- to drive across America in the spirit of Kerouac, Steinbeck and other poets of the open road."

Here's how Theroux begins: "The mixed blessing of America is that anyone with a car can go anywhere. The visible expression of our freedom is that we are a country without roadblocks. And a driver's license is our identity. My dream, from way back -- from high school, when I first heard the name Kerouac -- was of driving across the United States. The cross-country trip is the supreme example of the journey as the destination."

Theroux realizes his dream and, for us, he recounts it. The title/subtitle/lead combine smoothly paves the road, paves the way thematically. Adventures await me, from Los Angeles to Cape Cod. Theroux does not disappoint.

Look for the above issue of Smithsonian. See what writers' ambient leads can do. See what editors' sensitively crafted additions can do. The do-good things and all for the reader.

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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Tablets and E-readers: The Next Wave?

Posted on Monday, November 29, 2010 at 5:21 PM

Examining the results of the Harrison Group/Zinio digital reading survey.

By Meredith L. Dias

Editors everywhere are responding to the explosion of tablet computing and e-reading devices. Tablets and e-readers are poised to make an even bigger splash in the coming year, reveals a September 2010 Harrison Group and Zinio survey. "'We are forecasting that tablet-based devices and e-readers together will exceed 20 million units in the next year," says Harrison Group's vice chairman, Dr. Jim Taylor, "and they may well be the Christmas gift of 2010."

The survey results, however, tell a more modest story about digital readership that editors ought to consider before making any sudden moves. According to Harrison Group/Zinio, 28 percent of respondents read digital magazines or books. While this constitutes nearly one-third of the survey respondents, it means that over two-thirds of the 1,816 18- to 64-year-olds surveyed are not yet digital readers. The percentage of digital readers is likely to explode in coming years, but the survey results tell us that, for the time being, there is still a significant contingent of non-digital readers.

What's more, Harrison Group/Zinio quantifies the aforementioned 28 percent of respondents as "up from less than 10 percent in 2008." This is a somewhat misleading statistic. It is like saying that 2010 car model sales have boomed because more people are driving 2010 cars than they were two years ago. The digital technology has changed significantly since 2008. Back then, there were fewer e-reading devices on the market and tablet computing was still in its infancy.

In the press release, Dr. Taylor claims, "'[Tablets and e-readers] are associated with substantial increases in adult reading.'" However, the survey results simply tell us that 58 percent of tablet and e-reader owners "are reading 'more digital content than [they] ever thought [they] would,'" Does this mean that e-readers and tablets are creating more avid readers, or could it mean that avid readers are more likely to purchase the devices?

The press release also reveals that "33 percent [of tablet and e-reader users] acknowledge that they are spending more money on buying things to read." True, these device users are spending more on reading material, but the survey doesn't tell us whether they are actually buying digital, print, or both -- or even whether or not they actually read what they're buying.

In an October 6, 2010, article on Folio's website, Jason Fell leads with another statistic from the survey: "Consumers who own tablets and other e-readers generally spend 50 percent more time reading magazines (presumably on those devices) than consumers who do not own those devices.'" Can we infer conclusively from the data given that these readers are reading their magazines on their tablets and e-readers? The survey speaks simply to the increased time spent consuming magazine content -- but, again, not the mode of content delivery.

When developing a strategic plan for smartphone and tablet editions, it is important to look at the hard numbers and ignore any unsupported postulation. We can make assumptions based on available data, but we can't bank our publications' futures on them.

Meredith Dias is senior research editor of Editors Only.

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Participial Phrase Abuse

Posted on Monday, November 29, 2010 at 5:20 PM

Don't cheapen your copy with needless or incorrect participial phrases.

Participial phrases, defined by About.com as "a word group consisting of a present or past participle and any modifiers, objects, and complements," can be troublesome for writers and editors alike. They lend themselves to a host of grammatical ills, including dangling participles and chronological impossibilities.

Dangling Participles

The most common problem associated with participial phrases is the dangling participle. Here's an example:

Swimming in the ocean, the cool water refreshed him.

This sentence, as written, tells us that the water is swimming in the ocean. Let's fix it:

Swimming in the cool ocean, he felt refreshed.

Or, more simply:

Swimming in the cool ocean refreshed him.

Chronological Impossibility

Consider the following sentence:

Walking down the hallway, he stopped to tie his shoe.

"Walking down the hallway" functions as a participial phrase. However, keep in mind that a participial phrase happens simultaneously with the main verb. Someone cannot walk down the hallway and stop to tie his shoe simultaneously, so this sentence needs revision.

A possible fix:

While walking down the hallway, he noticed his shoe was untied and stopped to tie it.

Another option:

Walking down the hallway, he noticed his shoe was untied. He stopped to tie it.

Another example:

Turning off her alarm clock, she fell back asleep.

Unless the subject has a highly irregular sleep cycle, she cannot simultaneously turn off her alarm and fall back asleep. She must first turn off her alarm and then fall back asleep.

A simple revision:

She turned off her alarm clock and fell back asleep.

Recasting the participial phrase as an independent clause allows us to make this sequence of events chronologically possible.

Summing It All Up

Use participial phrases with care, and use them sparingly. Participial phrase abuse is a common bad habit for newbie writers, so it falls upon us, the editors, to break them of this habit. When you come across one of these tricky phrases, ask yourself two key questions: (1) Does the action expressed in the participle link up with the main clause correctly? and (2) Can these two things occur simultaneously?

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If I Were Your Editor, I'd…

Posted on Tuesday, October 26, 2010 at 4:52 PM

My checklist of 13 points for editing your pieces. Try using it yourself!

By Peter P. Jacobi

If I were your editor -- aside from carefully copyreading your written submission to catch grammar, spelling, and punctuation problems along with obvious errors -- I would evaluate the work against a checklist of thirteen critically important points I’ve made in columns past.

Therefore, to head off a negative response from me, I’d urge you -- before turning in your material -- to test it first against this same list and make the changes deemed necessary. For you not to do so would represent, in my mind, a dereliction of duties (or, at least, your loss of an opportunity).

When tackling your manuscript, I would seek to determine whether or not you offered me the following.

#1 -- Anticipation

With an article that enhances the scope of coverage in your publication, this by providing something of a more timeless, lasting nature than the usual timely, print-now-or-never stories. Did you?

#2 -- Focus

Planning your article so that its approach matches reader interest, that its slant suits a particular audience and occasion, and, really, only that audience and occasion. Did you?

#3 -- Insight

Providing coverage that passes along to the reader material not available elsewhere because of the sources you’ve managed to exploit and the depth of information you’ve garnered through your research and reporting. Did you?

#4 -- Structure

Causing your facts, theme, and developments to bond so that the article unifies, makes sense, and moves ever forward. Did you?

#5 -- Context

Surrounding the critical details of your article with sufficient background, an environment that gives full meaning and import to the point you’re trying to get across. Did you?

#6 -- Perspective

Shaping a point of view, a means for the reader to understand a subject or an issue the way you want him or her to understand it. Did you?

#7 -- Epiphany

Seeking a “see the light” life changing moment for your central character because in such an event there’s drama or a lesson the reader can take away and perhaps use in his or her own life. Did you?

#8 -- Zoom

Locating a metaphoric situation that casts a spotlight on your entire subject, one that in compressive form clarifies everything you’re trying to say. Did you?

#9 -- Completeness

Providing all necessary information and shaping it in such a manner that the reader is satisfied with the provided substance and yet retains a curiosity for more. Did you?

#10 -- Reality, Spontaneity, and Visibility

Giving what you write a sense of presence, of creative spark, and of sensual power. Did you?

#11 -- Flow

Making your words an unbroken stream. Did you (read your manuscript aloud)?

#12 -- Resonance

Supplying the sort of substance and/or the sort of writing that reverberates in the reader’s mind and heart, that jars his or her sensibilities and, thereby, makes what you’ve prepared more likely become the stuff of memory. Did you?

#13 -- Voice

Individualizing your copy, making it yours, giving it a distinguishing personality that only you could have contributed because of who you are and how you practice the process of writing and in what manner you use the language. Did you?

The above words are significant. Your making them real in your writing is even more so. So, as you self-edit the piece you wrote this morning, judge yourself. Did you?

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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Digital Reading Terminology

Posted on Tuesday, October 26, 2010 at 4:51 PM

A handy glossary of digital reading vocabulary for editors.

By Meredith L. Dias

There are a great many devices available for reading digital content. You may already be using some of them at home or in your editorial department. However, for many, the technology can be a bit confusing and overwhelming. This month, we have compiled a glossary of devices and terms to help identify and differentiate between portable digital reading devices.

Digital Reading Terminology

E-reader: A computing device, usually a unitasker, engineered specifically for consumption of e-books and digital magazines and newspapers. E-readers come in a variety of sizes and offer a wide range of features, from annotations to 3G connectivity. (Examples: Kindle, Nook, Sony Reader)

Laptop: A portable personal computer, often with similar specifications to a desktop computer. Characterized by its ability to sit on a user's lap. (Examples: Toshiba Satellite, MacBook, HP Pavilion, Dell Inspiron)

Mobile device: A blanket term that describes any pocket-sized computer (e.g., iTouch), PDA, or smartphone.

Netbook: A smaller version of a laptop with lower specifications, often geared toward Internet browsing and on-the-go word processing. Netbooks are engineered for longer battery life than their larger laptop counterparts. (Examples: Acer Aspire, HP Mini, ASUS Eee, Toshiba Mini)

PDA (personal digital assistant): A palm-sized computer or smartphone that allows users to manage information (e.g., appointments, contacts, etc.). Many modern smartphones have integrated PDA functionality, so there is some overlap between PDAs and smartphones. (Examples: iPhone, iTouch, Palm Pre, Blackberry)

Smartphone: An advanced mobile phone with Internet connectivity via Wi-Fi or 3G networks. Other advanced features include PDA functionality, on-the-go word processing, social networking, and email. (Examples: iPhone, Android, Blackberry)

Tablet computer: A portable computer characterized by touchscreen maneuvering and virtual keyboard. Some models offer traditional keyboards users can plug into USB ports. (Examples: iPad and the upcoming Blackberry Playbook)

For Your Consideration: A New Term

All of the devices above share an important feature: portability. While some are more unwieldy than others, any of the above devices can be transported to and fro' with relative ease -- unlike, say, a desktop computer. We find that there is no commonplace term to categorize all of the devices -- the laptops, the netbooks, the smartphones, the tablets -- that facilitate on-the-go digital reading. For simplicity's sake, Editors Only has devised a new term for this purpose: portable digital readers (PDRs). You will likely see this term pop up again in our future coverage of mobile and tablet publishing.

Why the New Term?

We felt that a blanket term like "PDR" was necessary, particularly given the wide range of digital reading devices and the development of non-portable technology like Google TV. We wanted to differentiate between the devices that anchor readers to the nearest outlet and those that run on battery power and can be taken virtually anywhere, much like a print magazine. PDRs include not only the dedicated devices like the e-readers, but also devices capable of various other functions. Essentially, any portable device upon which someone may read a digital book, magazine, or newspaper qualifies as a PDR.

There is overlap between some of the terms on the list (e.g., between smartphones and PDAs), but there doesn't seem to be one term to unite all of these portable reading devices. For instance, while the term "mobile" applies to the pocket-sized devices in our glossary, it doesn't apply to the laptops, netbooks, e-readers, and most tablets. Similarly, the term "e-reader" doesn't really fit the other devices on the list, which tend to be multitaskers. It is the word "portable" that unites them all.

So which PDRs do you use? I remain faithful to my rather large (but, oh, so slick) 17-inch Toshiba Satellite, reading digital galleys of books for review while the graphics processor warms my lap. Someday, my schedule may demand a shift to an even more portable device that allows me to read digital content while on my lunch hour or during my commute. For the time being, though, I like to leave the Internet at home or in my office. But thanks to the Editors-Only-coined PDR classification, I can feel like a part of the rapidly expanding digital reading culture rather than a total Luddite!

Meredith L. Dias is senior research editor of Editors Only.

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Posted on Tuesday, October 26, 2010 at 4:51 PM

Using type to engage your readers, and avoiding some common missteps.

By Jan V. White

In our context of commercial publishing type is not an art form but a lubricant for ideas. It is not "artistic" but journalistically functional. That's why you -- yes, even you, Editor -- can control it with confidence!

Face it: Regardless of whether it is Centaur or Univers, Times New Roman, or Helvetica, to readers type is just "PRINT" and they see it either too damn much, or too damn small.

Unfortunately, few journalists and editors are more sophisticated than their victims. (They gave up "art" in high school -- remember? Type is part of "design" and, therefore, Art. Ugh! Cop out and pass it to someone else.) To writing-people, the content of the words is uppermost, of course. Any necessary "Artistic Decisions" they are forced to make are based on ancient newspaper axioms passed down as Revealed Truth, which is usually what was in place wherever they got their first job. That is deemed correct -- whether it makes sense or not. Furthermore, the choice of Font (what used to be called "face") is what editors are most worried about. They stick to the safe tried-and-true because they lack confidence in their own judgment in an area where they fear inferiority. Stop! Relax! Let's be REALISTIC about this whole business (See how the look of the type has helped here?) and list some facts:

Readers' reactions

Before settling down to read, all potential readers weigh the cost/benefit ratio of effort expended versus intellectual advantage gained: "Does this interest me enough to invest this much effort?" The way the piece looks at first glance helps that decision. We make up their mind up if the type looks too small or the piece too long. "I think I'll come back to it later" is their excuse for rejecting it.

At the same time, they also decide "what's in it for me." If there is something, their curiosity may tip their reluctance to read. So they look at a piece twice. First, they scan the pages fast, in an erratic sequence of jumps mostly in a north-to-south direction. Then, if something has tickled their curiosity, they follow in slow, east-west flow -- i.e., actual reading!

As clever journalists/editors/communicators, we must understand this psychological kinetic geometry in order to take advantage of both speeds (fast then slow) to persuade the unconvinced hesitators to become readers. We must win them over, and then keep 'em. We must understand the five verbo/visual streams that affect working typography:

1. Type as speech made visible This affects display type headlines, decks, captions, pullquotes etc., where we catch their interest. So type has to be handled subtly, not just big and black. The way it is arranged visually can mirror what it says by its phrasing, breaking for sense, shouting, whispering.

2. Type as story-telling This is the steady, slow text. Like listening to speech, reading is sequential and lineal. A speech can be lively and fascinating in its delivery, or it can be monotonous and boring. That is directly translated into its visible form.

3. Type as explanation Organizing facts, analyzing, listing, cataloging information for easy and fast understanding, and retrieval. Think of this as tabulation, organized charting.

4. Type as image Playing on the emotions and curiosity of the viewer/reader. Not just concrete poetry, but the interaction of words and images so 1 + 1 = 3.

5. Type as technology Pixels enable us to meld the pictures with type, just as Medieval scribes blended images with words (but they used paint on parchment). It was Gutenberg who split the mechanically-set words away from the images. The images were then relegated to secondary status as "illustrations" that were dropped in. That divided us into two fighting professions: the "wordsmith" intellectuals and the "artist" page-decorators. The war between writers and designers has gone on for 500 years.

We can and must return to the intellectually/visually integrated way of communicating that the Medieval monks used. Not because it is "beautiful" or "innovative" or even "creative," but because it works better, and so helps us stay in the race for the readers' attention and preference. Not by amusement or ever-more-startling effects, but by better service.

Writing and editing are now as much visual skills as they are verbal skills. Word-people must have a feel for the type that expresses their words and the layout that presents those words. Journalists and editors must think visually while they are writing and editing. Equally, the visual people must have a feel for the words -- not just how much space they take, but what they say and what their significance is to the readers. Only that way can the intellectuals and the decorators become verbal/visual communicators who blend their efforts to make the most of both content and form.

Hooking 'em

They don't start out as readers, but as investors expecting a return on their investment of energy, time, and money. They are skimmers, looking for stuff worth bothering about. They are searchers. If the publication is free, they are uncommitted, uninterested, uncaring page-flippers. Whoever they may be, they are all first lookers. (Visual reactions! Not verbal. Sorry, Editor!)

We must seduce them into the text, which contains the substance of the story. We must achieve that at first glance. They must want to get in there with "Wow! I gotta read this now!" They must then understand the information (which is a function of blending the editing with visual organization) ... and then, if the story jumps off the page into their minds vividly, they will remember it ... and as a result of feeling well-served, they will think of our publication with appreciation, pleasure, and loyalty.

Persuading 'em to read

Reading is deemed hard work. Many excuse their reluctance to read by saying, "It's hard to read." What they mean is that it is hard to get into … hard to understand … hard to find what they are looking for … and, most important, hard to know why they should bother at all.

Which fonts are easiest to read? All normal fonts in general use are "easy to read." It is how we misuse and maltreat them that robs them of their friendliness. The best type is so comfortable and obvious that it is unnoticed ... invisible ... transparent. The reader should never become aware of the act of reading, for if they notice what they are doing, they stop.

Formulas for "Good Type." There aren't any. There is no such thing as "correct" or "incorrect." There are no laws or rules, except common sense. If it works well, it is "correct." If it doesn't work, it is "incorrect." Everything is relative. Type's flexibility is limitless, its possibilities endless.

Think of type as speech made visible. Open your eyes and listen to it -- literally. Read it out loud, using the clues it gives, because the way it looks reflects a tone of voice: loudness by boldness, whispering by smallness, shouting by bigness, emphasis by comparison, dialect by the visual character. Type can even be onomatopoetic word-pictures and puns. If it follows formulas, it probably looks boring and "sounds" monotonous. If it is handled as the flexible medium that it is, it can help the transmission of thoughts as expressively as does the human voice.

Common-sense insights

Even communication professionals are like everyone else: short of time and patience. We are pulled in every direction by competing signals, and becoming aware of our own reactions can help us service our readers. We must trust ourselves. If we are a bit uneasy about something, we must change it; is that editorial instinct or experience? Who cares? Depend on insights. Not "rules," because those are rigid. On the other hand, once they are understood and absorbed, insights are flexible to allow variable contexts. Most are obvious -- but the obvious is valuable, because it is the basis for logical decisions:

1. Words flow lineally, one word after another, whether they are spoken or translated into type. There are no shortcuts. We hope to push the reader along from start to finish, but they enter wherever something interesting catches their eye.

2. Reading is horizontal, flowing from left to right, in an endless strip. That is an inconvenient form, so we arbitrarily cut the strip into a series of short bits, which we stack as "lines" one below the other in vertical "columns." Alas, the column shapes take over and dictate everything, even though they are nothing but a convenient construct. Encouraging that horizontal flow of thoughts in the horizontal lines is more important.

3. Reading comfort depends on the ratio of 1) line length, to 2) type size, to 3) spacing between the lines. All three have to be in balance. Who judges that comfort? We do (and there are no rules). If we feel uncomfortable, so will our reader. To improve comfort, we must make the type bigger, the lines shorter, or add space between the lines in some combination. As you get older, you say, "All of 'em please!"

4. Type size does not depend on arithmetical point-size with which it is specified. Its appearance depends on the x-height. Everything depends on the proportions used in the design of the font. Forget generalizations that say that "ten-point type is ideal for text." Set a sample, print it out as close as possible to the finished product, examine it, and judge it visually.

5. Readers' habits affect their feeling of comfort. They'll stay with us if they feel at home. Departing from the normal costs us. We should do it when it makes logical sense, with deliberate purpose, but never for the fun of it, to show off, or to be different.

6. All-capitals are hard to decipher in bulk. A few words for special emphasis or character are, obviously, fine. But avoid using them in bulk because that precious info you emphasized in all-caps will be resisted and skipped.

7. Italics, just like all-caps, are uncomfortable in bulk. People find them less friendly, so why risk alienating them? Use italics sparingly.

8. Sans-serif type is harder to read than serif type, though readers are becoming used to it since it is being used more. Make it is easier by adding extra space between the lines to compensate for the lack of serifs (which help move the eye along from left to right).

9. Sizes. Big type implies important thought; tiny type equals footnote. Use the contrast to emphasize what is essential and play down what is secondary or supportive information. You have interpreted the material and thus made the piece more understandable. If this is so obvious, why do we use it so seldom and instead homogenize our thoughts in those monotonous grey columns?

10. Bold type stands out best in contrast to pale type. No news. Exploit its capacity, so pick fonts that yield good contrast of "color."

11. The context. Type is not an independent standalone entity, but one component of a cluster of related elements. Whether type is reader-friendly or -unfriendly is not merely a factor of the type itself, but of how it fits into its context. Again, there are no rules other than visual awareness. Here is a list of the major variables to be aware of in printed pieces, because they affect the way the type is perceived:

--the page size
--the number of pages
--the language used
--the 'muchness' of the type to be read
--the way the text is broken up
--the way the printed piece is held in the hand
--the weight, color, texture, shininess of the paper stock
--the color and shininess of the ink on that paper
--the quality and resolution of the printing

Bad habits to reject

Substituting traditional folk-wisdoms and clichés for analytical thinking is quicker, safer, and less work. But reflex habits get between your message and the reader.

1. Up-And-Down-Style Capitalization of Initials in Headlines That Robs Us of the Capacity to Allow Proper Names and Acronyms to Stand Out Clearly, Which Makes the Message That Much Harder to Understand and Hopeless to Scan Fast. Not a big problem in any one instance, but multiply it by the number of headlines in your issue, and it certainly becomes a problem. Current trend is all-lowercase, except for first initial, proper names, and titles and acronyms.

2. Centered symmetry may look dignified and traditional, but neat balance is dead, ideal for tombstones. Asymmetrical layout encourages not only kinetic motion and activity on the page, but also that vital left-towards-right flow of words to persuade the reader to continue reading.

3. Arbitrary arrangements where the visual overwhelms the message. The medium is not the message, the message is the message -- despite what the designer may claim as "original solution" that will "attract attention." Will it attract reading? is the question. If it does that, then great, but if it is there merely for its own sake, throw it out, because it misdirects the viewer.

4. Standard formulas and unthinking treatment of anything. It is uninviting and unexciting.

5. Flowing everything into columns whether it is sequential or not. The three-column or two-column page is a prison into which we force our thinking. Break it and arrange the material in patterns appropriate to its structure, instead of squeezing everything into a format that was developed for the convenience of weekly news-magazines.

6. Playing with type just to be different, inventive, "creative." There may well be a good reason why something hasn't been done before.

Turning 'em off

1. Making lines too long. One line is no problem. Even two or three are OK. The trouble starts when you have more than three.

2. Making type too small. If you are uncomfortable, so will the reader be.

3. Irregular word spacing disturbs the smooth rhythm of eye motion along the flow of words. Anything that disturbs must be avoided.

4. Irregular character spacing attacks the way we "read" words, which we perceive as letter-groups, not as individual letters. Loose setting of characters makes words harder to recognize. Inconsistent letterspacing is a sin.

5. Competing against ourselves by making some type units in friendly texture and others less so. Shorter, easier-to-read units inevitably gain more attention than the difficult ones.

6. Using weird fonts, just because they are fresh or new. Only depart from what readers are used to where there is an overwhelming functional reason to do so.

7. Setting type vertically. If something needs to be deciphered, it won't be.

8. Messiness. Type on a background that vies for attention and disturbs the viewer's concentration -- or worse, hampers reading -- will not be read. Words must never fight their background, despite current fashions.

9. Ignoring the structure. The text written as a list should look like a list. Bullets should align above each other. Indentations should be visually/intellectually logical.

10. Nonsensical line breaks. Read what the words say to make the phrasing dictate the line breaks. The spoken language must control the way the thoughts are translated into visual format.

Inviting type

1. As you edit, keep in mind the type-as-it-will-appear-laid-out.
2. Use visual type as a logical extension of your intellectual thinking.
3. Make type so smooth and easy that the reader is unaware of it.
4. Make type big enough -- and then make it a size bigger.
5. Have ample doorways to welcome the potential reader.
6. Break up long, daunting-looking masses into short bits.
7. Organize the material for two-level readership: fast-scan and slow-study.
8. Exploit size to mirror importance.
9. Help the reader find those wonderful nuggets right on top.
10. Isolate elements in space for immediate noticeability.
11. Poke out display as hanging indents for fast scanning down-page.
12. Allow the reader to skip what they are less interested in.
13. Add blackness to focus attention and create rankings.
14. Marry the type with spacing to organize thoughts into zones
15. Use space (as moats) and rules (as walls) to separate or link material.
16. Relate elements to each other logically.
17. Don't think "design" ("What does it look like?").
18. Do think "function" ("Are we transmitting the thoughts clearly?").
19. Do order your copy of Editing by Design, 3rd Edition, by Jan V. White.
20. Get it from Allworth Press, www.allworth.com target="blank">. Less than $29.95!

Jan V. White is a communication design consultant and author of Editing by Design (3rd Ed.), Allsworth Press, 2003. He may be reached at janvw2 [at] aol [dot] com.

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Sloppy Editing Leads to Global Tiff

Posted on Tuesday, October 26, 2010 at 4:50 PM

Object lesson: what a misplaced paragraph break can do.

By William Dunkerley

An early October news story identified China and Russia as enemies of the United States. Media outlets quoted a U.S. foreign broadcasting official (Walter Isaacson, former managing editor of Time magazine). To many, Isaacson's comments sounded quite outrageous. But, when I looked into this story, I found that it did not have a factual basis. There was no such statement as carried by news outlets. That may be hard to believe since many of us heard the comments with our own ears in broadcast reports.

To elucidate, I'd like to detail for you my findings. They indicate how a simple mistake can distort a story and result in misleading headlines appearing around the world. Here are a few such headlines that I just found in a search:

"News Head of BBG, Voice of America, cites Russia and China as enemies of America"

"Broadcasting Board of Governors Chairman makes news by calling Russia's and China's official media America's 'enemies'"

"Globalist Mockingbird Media Attacks RT, Press TV as 'Enemies'"

"Russia Today television is on Washington's enemies list"

This all was the subject of an analytical report on Russia Today (RT, an English language TV service of the RIA Novosti press agency). It included a clip from an Isaacson speech that began, "We can't allow ourselves to be out-communicated by our enemies. There's that Freedom House report that reveals that today's autocratic leaders are investing billions of dollars in media resources to influence the global opinion. You've got Russia Today, Iran's Press TV, Venezuela's TeleSUR, and of course, China is launching an international broadcasting 24-hour news channel..."

Is Hearing Believing?

The foregoing quote certainly seems to support the headlines. But then I found and listened to the entire portion of Isaacson's presentation. Here's what I heard:

"All over Afghan and Pakistan, Voice of America and Radio Free Europe are achieving great successes. RFE's very popular Radio Azadi is the leading source of news in Afghanistan, and it hosted, as all of you know, in August [2009], the first-ever presidential debate to feature an incumbent in Afghanistan's history.

"When Jeff asked me to speak here, I asked who spoke last year and he said, Richard Holbrooke, so I almost said, no, I'm not sure I want to follow in Holbrooke's outsized footsteps -- (laughter) -- but I did notice how we stressed the role of RFE and VOA in the struggle in Afghanistan. We can't allow ourselves to be out-communicated by our enemies."

The speaker then went on to another topic, saying "There's that Freedom House report that reveals that today's autocratic leaders..."

Listening to the RT report, the "enemies" comment seemed to attach to the Russia-China commentary. Listening to the larger segment of the speech, it was clear that the "enemies" comment attached to the Afghanistan commentary. Isaacson was talking about enemies in Afghanistan. That attachment was clear from not only the speaker's pace and timing, but also from making more sense that way.

Who's the Editorial Culprit?

My first reaction was that whoever did the video editing of the clip at RT produced an unprofessional result. But then I looked further into that matter. I found a printed transcript of Isaacson's speech that was prepared by a private company called the Federal News Service. I read the segment in question, and it seemed like the "enemies" comment was again attached to Russia and China. Here's what the transcript said:

"...but I did notice how we stressed the role of RFE and VOA in the struggle in Afghanistan.

"We can't allow ourselves to be out-communicated by our enemies. There's that Freedom House report that reveals that today's autocratic leaders are investing billions of dollars in media resources to influence the global opinion.

"You've got Russia Today, Iran's Press TV, Venezuela's TeleSUR, and of course, China..."

Take note of the paragraph breaks. They clearly place the "enemies" comment with Russia and China, not with Afghanistan. I asked Isaacson's office whether they supplied FNS with Isaacson's prepared remarks complete with paragraphing, or whether FNS inserted the paragraphing. They claim the paragraphing was done by FNS. That makes sense because the sound of the spoken remarks seem at variance with the FNS paragraphing. FNS apparently transcribed the speech from Isaacson's audio, and they got the paragraphing wrong.

Where It Started

The Russia-China-enemies story seems to have been broken by Josh Rogin of Foreign Policy magazine (owned by the Washington Post Company) on October 5. He attached the enemies comment to Russia and China. Did he do that deliberately to mislead? Or was he merely working off of the FNS transcript, which presented a misleading version of Isaacson's remarks? I don't know. But it certainly seems plausible that Rogin, the RT producers, and others who covered the Russia-China-enemies story were working off the faulty transcript.

That one little mistake, a misplaced paragraph break, sure got a lot of bad press for Isaacson and the United States. The way in which this story emerged as so misleading is one for the textbooks.

The Takeaway Points

Lessons for editors? First, pay attention to little things. Even paragraph breaks. When done wrong, they can have a big impact. Second, try to get back to the original source. In this case, the FNS transcript was inaccurate. Relying upon the original video of Isaacson's speech would have been a better choice.

William Dunkerley is editor of Editors Only.

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The Scoop on Mobile Editions

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

Smartphones may overtake computers in popularity as early as next year. Is it time for a mobile edition of your publication? Find out what other editors are doing.

By Meredith L. Dias

Should you consider a smartphone or iPad edition of your publication? The magazine industry continues to evolve at meteoric pace thanks to widespread integration of smartphone and tablet computer technology. What was cutting edge a year or two ago is fast becoming passé. You don't want to be left behind.

Changing Market Demographics

Computer sales have long been on an upward trajectory, but a recent RBC Capital Markets chart indicates that smartphone sales will overtake computer sales by 2011! This, for many, is a daunting thought. Even more daunting, research suggests that mobile devices will become the primary Internet browsing devices within ten years.

Magazines have already undergone recent technological metamorphosis. They have had to develop functional websites, adapt to online writing and editing standards, design digital editions, and crack the online profitability cipher. Now, all signs point toward mobile devices as the next Internet wave. If magazines are to keep their readers, they must align themselves with their readers' preferred technology.

If you are already taking steps to establish a smartphone edition, you are ahead of the curve. If the projections hold and smartphones overtake computers as Internet browsing devices, all online magazines will need to be ready with mobile content.

Mobile Edition Design

Keep in mind that a mobile edition of your magazine can take many forms, some of which are fairly inexpensive and low-maintenance. While some mobile editions are full-featured, interactive apps with pictures and ads, others are simple digests of an issue's key material.

Nick Batzdorf, editor and publisher of Virtual Instruments, says, "We don't make the iPhone edition a big production. It's basic text and pictures with no proper layout." Some publications offer up similar digests on extensions of their home domains (e.g., http://mobile.columbusparent.com, http://mobile.informationweek.com, http://mobi.mufranchisee.com/news/features/, http://mobile.washingtonpost.com, etc.), where layout is optimized for smartphones.

"Simplicity is key," writes Steven Snell in Smashing Magazine for January 2009. "Because of the lack of space on the screen and Internet connections that are often slower, it's important for visitors to have access to what is most crucial, and as little else as possible." Small screen size necessitates the use of white space, an important design element for magazines on any platform. Though publishers of mobile editions face potential design challenges, programs like Adobe Creative Suite (including Adobe InDesign) can help simplify the process.

Reasons for Developing Mobile Editions

This month, we talked to various magazine editors about their mobile editions. Batzdorf tells us that the mobile edition of his specialized music industry publication has been quite successful. When asked about his reasons for developing an iPhone edition, he says, "When you go to the industry trade shows, there are maybe three people without an iPhone. [Having an iPhone edition] makes sense."

Other publishers, even those with no current plans to develop iPhone apps or editions, recognize the mounting popularity of smartphones and tablets. "We don't have any deliberate plans to create apps for our pubs yet, because I'm just dipping my toes in with eBooks," says Bridget Struble, program director for publications at the American Society for Parenteral and Enteral Nutrition. "Apps have even less universality, and apps are so expensive. But if people start asking for these in 2011, we'll have to consider them."

Peter Meiers emphasizes the importance of smartphone editions in the September/October 2010 issue of Signature: "The smartphone is really the primary, non-print publishing channel," he says. "The ubiquity of use -- and if you set it up correctly -- the ease of the publishing cycle is pretty easy to do. ... With a growth of 38 percent a year, it's a good bet that you're going to find an audience that way."

Even if your publication has limited resources, a mobile edition is still practical. "The fact of the matter is that it's very inexpensive," says Meirs. And, with smartphone and mobile device use undergoing such astronomical growth over the next ten years, it may be an investment many online publishers can't afford not to make.

When a Mobile Edition Doesn't Compute

Still, although smartphone use is rising and, as a result, more and more magazine consumers want mobile editions of their favorite publications, it may not always be advisable to launch a smartphone edition. "At this time, we have a limited new-media presence -- on purpose," says Kathy Storring, editor of Grand magazine in Ontario. "Our readers and advertisers seem to appreciate the paper product as is, so until we have solid prospects for additional advertising online, we are targeting our limited workforce to our paper product. Our website (www.grandmagazine.ca) promotes the current issue, highlights a few articles, and lists our advertisers. So we have no plans for iPhone publishing."

That said, Storring's parent publication, the Waterloo Region Record, "has a very active website and the editorial team is hoping smart-phone publishing will be in place very soon." A mobile edition makes sense for the newspaper, as its online presence is already thriving. In the case of Grand, whose online presence is much more limited, an iPhone edition would be of limited value to the audience.

A Simple Solution

Batzdorf has some advice for editors and publishers considering adoption of an iPhone edition: "Make it simple to put together. It doesn't have to be as splashy as a real magazine. Ours takes only a few hours to put together." Most important is keeping smartphone users engaged with content that is easily accessed and read on their mobile devices.

If you are a large publication, you may have the resources to design a splashy mobile edition with full-color spreads and interactive features. If not, that doesn't mean you can't create mobile content of value to your readers. A simple digest of your publication's current contents, with clickable links to individual articles, can be a nice bonus for mobile subscribers. Whether they are on their lunch break, on a plane, or at home, they will have perpetual access to your magazine.

Meredith Dias is research editor of Editors Only.

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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 Fog Index

Posted on Wednesday, September 29, 2010 at 1:27 PM

Assessing the readability of a book excerpt published on NPR.com.

This month, we examine a passage from NPR.com (an excerpt from Tom Bissell's book, Extra Lives: Why Video Games Matter):

"For a while I hoped that my inability to concentrate on writing and reading was the result of a charred and overworked thalamus. I knew the pace I was on was not sustainable and figured my discipline was treating itself to a Rumspringa. I waited patiently for it to stroll back onto the farm, apologetic but invigorated. When this did not happen, I wondered if my intensified attraction to games, and my desensitized attraction to literature, was a reasonable response to how formally compelling games had quite suddenly become. Three years into my predicament, my discipline remains AWOL. Games, meanwhile, are even more formally compelling."

--Word count: 105
--Average sentence length: 18 words (23, 20, 14, 32, 9, 7)
--Words with 3+ syllables: 22 percent (23/105 words)
--Fog Index: (18+22) x .4 = 16 (no rounding)

In this case, the average sentence length is within reasonable range. The 32-word sentence skews the average -- without it, average sentence length is 15 words. However, it is the high percentage of long words that makes this Fog score so high.

Let's try revising the sample to improve our score:

"For a while, I hoped that my trouble concentrating on reading and writing was the result of a charred brain. I knew my pace was unsustainable and figured my discipline had treated itself to a Rumspringa. I waited patiently for its return to the farm, contrite but refreshed. When this didn't happen, I wondered if my intense attraction to games and waning attraction to books was a response to how formally compelling games had become. Three years into my problem, my discipline remains AWOL. Games, meanwhile, are even more formally compelling."

--Word count: 92
--Average sentence length: 15 words (20, 16, 13, 27, 9, 7)
--Words with 3+ syllables: 13 percent (12/92 words)
--Fog Index: (15+13) x .4 = 11 (no rounding)

Overall, we were able to trim word count by 13. The language in the original sample was quite dense, so reducing our Fog score was largely a matter of eliminating longer words and trimming excess language.

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Managing Continuous Editorial Change

Posted on Monday, August 30, 2010 at 1:13 PM

The New Media landscape has put the job of editing into continuous flux. Here are 6 tips for coping.

By Carol Kinsey Goman, Ph.D.

A reporter once asked Dale Berra, son of baseball great Yogi Berra, and a major leaguer himself, if he was similar to his father. To which Dale replied, taking a page from his oft-quoted father, "No, our similarities are different."

I thought of this comment the other day when a client I had worked with several years ago contacted me about speaking at an upcoming leadership event.

"Sure!" I said, "I'd love to work with your organization again. But tell me, are you facing the same problems with organizational change as when I last addressed this audience?" He quickly replied, "Oh no, it's nothing like before. Sure, we are still trying to get people to embrace change, but the change is completely different!"

The Human Side of an Editor

Over 20 years ago, I began researching, writing and speaking about managing the "human side" of organizational change. At that time I thought it was a topic that would be a top priority -- for a few years (until we'd all mastered the strategies and techniques of change management) -- and then the focus would shift to more current organizational challenges.

I was wrong.

Two decades later, dealing with change remains the crucial organizational challenge. In many editorial organizations the situation is acute.

In a recent survey by the Conference Board, 539 global CEOs were asked to list their top concerns. In Europe and Asia as well as in North America, organizational flexibility and adaptability to change consistently ranked at the top of the list. Only revenue growth received a higher ranking.

What I overlooked in my assumption of change mastery is the radical way change would, well, change. Many leaders did become proficient in managing incremental change (continuous improvement) and the occasional (or annual) large-scale transformation. But managers today are facing a flood of continuous, overlapping, and accelerating change that has turned their organizations upside down. That's particularly obvious in the publishing business today. And managing people through that kind of change requires all the communication and leadership strategies we learned in the past -- and then some.

Editorial Practices Will Keep Changing

The shift from "a change" to "constant change" is more than just semantics. The increased difficulty lies in the fact that most people and processes are set up for continuity, not chaos. We're built to defend the status quo, not annihilate it. But the world is throwing change at us with such intensity that there is hardly enough time to regain our equilibrium or catch our breath. Nor is there much hope that the rate of change will ease in the future.

So, what does it take to manage people through continuous change? Here are some suggestions:

Tip #1

Realize that resistance to change is inevitable -- and highly emotional. This may not really surprise you, but understand that it is a very real result of our neurological makeup. Change jerks us out of our comfort zone by stimulating the prefrontal cortex, an energy-intensive section of the brain responsible for insight and impulse control. But the prefrontal cortex is also directly linked to the most primitive part of the brain, the amygdala (the brain's fear circuitry, which in turn controls our "flight or fight" response). And when the prefrontal cortex is overwhelmed with complex and unfamiliar concepts, the amygdala connection gets kicked into high gear. All of us are then subject to the psychological disorientation and pain that can manifest in anxiety, fear, depression, sadness, fatigue, or anger.

Didn't think as an editor you were hired to manage emotional turmoil? Think again.

Being aware of and responsive to the emotional component of change is now a prerequisite for effective leadership. This task is complicated by the fact that the emotional cycle of transition (denial, resistance, choice, acceptance, engagement) overlaps -- as one change begins while others are in various stages.

Tip #2

Give people a stabilizing foundation. In a constantly changing editorial organization, where instability must be embraced as positive, a sense of stability can still be maintained through corporate identity and collective focus of purpose. The leader's role here is to create stability through a constant reinterpretation of the publication's history, present activities, and vision for the future. And, by using the term vision, I'm not referring to a corporate-like statement punctuated by bullet points. I'm talking about a clearly articulated, emotionally charged, and encompassing picture of what the editorial organization is trying to achieve.

Tip #3

Help your staff/team/department realize that change really is the only constant. Never let people believe that once any single change is completed, the organization will solidify into a new form. Instead, help them understand that solidity has a much shorter life span than ever before. As processes temporarily manifest themselves in structures, we all should be getting ready for the next transformation.

Tip #4

Champion information access and knowledge sharing. As one savvy communicator put it, "My most important function is to feed back organizational data to the whole editorial organization. The data are often quite simple, containing a large percentage of information already known to many. But when an organization is willing to publicly present that information, to listen to different interpretations and to encourage the conversation -- the result is a powerful catalyst for change."

Tip # 5

Encourage the editorial staff to mingle. The new change-management fundamentals include an increasing focus on relationships and collaboration. Social networks -- not just Facebook and Twitter, but those ties among individuals that are based on mutual trust, shared work experiences, and common physical and virtual spaces -- are in many senses the true structure of today's organizations. Anything you as a leader can do to nurture these mutually rewarding, complex, and shifting relationships will enhance the creativity and change readiness within your team or throughout your organization.

Tip #6

Give up the illusion of control. Publication deadlines may be rigid. But, otherwise, the biggest obstacle to the organizational flexibility that top editors say they want may be their unwillingness to give up control. Rather than tighten the reins, leaders need to loosen their grip in order to align the energies and talents of their teams and organizations around change initiatives. No one likes change that is mandated -- but most of us react favorably to change we are part of creating.

A New Perspective on Change

Editorial leaders need to loosen their hold on information, as well. Transparent communication means disclosing market realities and the publication's inner workings to everyone -- not just to the upper echelon. It requires an unprecedented openness: a proactive, even aggressive, sharing of financials, strategy, business opportunities, risks, successes, and failures. Your people need pertinent information about demographic, global, economic, technological, consumer and competitive trends. They need to understand the economic reality of the business and why that reality is the driving force behind change. Most of all, people need to understand how their actions impact the success of change initiatives -- and how those initiatives impact the overall success of the publication.

I often tell audiences that "organizations don't change. People do -- or they don't." The similarities in today's continuous editorial change may indeed be different from change in the past. But here's one thing that has hasn't changed. People -- your editors -- are still the key.

Or, as Yogi Berra might have explained it: When it comes to the importance of the human element in change, "It's déjà vu all over again."

Carol Kinsey Goman, Ph.D., presents keynote addresses and seminars for management conferences and major trade associations around the world. She is an expert on helping individuals and organizations thrive on change. Carol is the author of nine books, including "This Isn't the Company I Joined -- How to Lead in a Business Turned Upside Down." She can be reached by email: cgoman@ckg.com, phone: 510-52601727, or through her website: www.ckg.com.

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Giving Up on Print

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

Editors weigh in on the idea of eliminating print editions.

By Denise Gable

The advantages and disadvantages to both print and web publications are vast. While the Web has the advantage of offering timely information, print is more portable and many prefer the "reading experience." Print magazines aim for one particular target audience and can be costly to produce. Online editions are cheap, but tend to be less stable. While some publications, such as PC Mag, have completely eliminated their print publications and concentrated solely on their online magazine, most are opting to offer both. This month, editors shared their strategy in dealing with the print vs. online dilemma.

Powergrid International, Pennwell Corporation
Frequency: Monthly
Description: Since its launch in 1996, Powergrid International magazine has been the electric utility authority on power delivery automation, control, and IT systems.

Kathleen Davis, senior editor, "While we have a number of high-tech boys and girls among our readership, a lot of engineers are 'old school' and like the paper. They enjoy getting the physical form of the magazine, and they tell us so in surveys. There's just something grounding and more personal about getting a magazine in the mail with your name on it."

Maximum PC and Mac|Life, Future US
Frequency: Monthly
Description: Maximum PC: Magazine featuring the latest technology news, computer mods, computer news and the latest computer and notebook reviews. Mac|Life: Up-to-date news, reviews, and information on the latest Apple products.

Jon Phillips, editorial director, "Print still plays a major role in the lives of passionate enthusiasts. As editors, the key thing to remember is that people who buy magazines are looking for an entertainment experience, meaning they receive entertainment from learning more about subjects that really interest them. They don't buy magazines for purchasing information. They buy magazines because the sheer act of reading about an interesting subject is entertainment in and of itself. Magazines won't survive if they attempt to solely satisfy information needs. The Web does this better."

ADVANCE for Occupational Therapy Practitioners, Merion Publications
Frequency: Biweekly
Description: Biweekly newsmagazine serving 60,100 occupational therapists nationwide. Dedicated to securing the future of occupational therapy by preserving the record of its unique contribution to allied health, educating others to understand that contribution, and helping therapists enhance their impact on the healthcare industry.

E.J. Brown, editor, "Though we are moving many things to the Web, we have no plans to abandon print. Our magazines are smaller, but they are intact. Most of the editors here agree that until electronic reading devices change, print will not 'go away.' People like to 'curl up' with magazines when and where they want to, to relax and read. Although electronic readers offer 'pages' that look like printed paper pages, they are still cumbersome and heavier than paper, of course. They do offer the capability of storing much reading material in a single place, which means you don't have to pack loads of reading material to take on a trip. But I believe that many advertisers still prefer print, and contributors would rather see their articles there."

Les Nouvelles Esthétiques & Spa (American Edition), Les Nouvelles Esthétiques, Inc.
Frequency: Monthly
Description: Dedicated to up-to-date knowledge in the world of spas, well being, and beauty. Encompasses all aspects of the spa industry: skin care, body care, makeup, spa therapies, and business management, with a high fashion feel to complement its contemporary nature.

Denise R. Fuller, editor-in-chief, "Due to the specialty of being a trade magazine for therapists, we have found that our readers value a print magazine over the online version. Estheticians, massage therapists, and spa owners feedback has been that they love sitting down with their favorite beverage and learning the newest trends and techniques that our magazine has to offer. We will not be discontinuing our print edition; it is a valuable commodity for our readers."

Denise Gable is managing editor of Editors Only.

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