Use Your Voice

Posted on Wednesday, November 28, 2018 at 10:40 PM

It is the writer who gives words life and meaning.

By Peter P. Jacobi

In Editors Only's most recent issues, I shared with you the content of a keynote address I gave to writers attending a Highlights Foundation workshop for nonfiction writers. The topic was suspense, used in its various guises. The point: Suspense can strengthen your writing, and its employment ranges far wider than you might think.

I mentioned along the way that I gave two keynotes, one for each of two groups gathered. So, this time around, I will highlight details from the other presentation, which has to do with the multifaceted benefits of voice. Let me get on with it.

No, it's not a new subject for me in these columns. Nor should it be. It is a repeat sort of subject, one that requires attention on a periodic basis for new readers as well as those of us who've been around but need reminding, not only for ourselves as editors but ourselves as writers and ourselves as mentors. If you find things familiar in what I tell you, so be it. I'm not apologizing. I'm saying: good. The lesson benefits from re-appliance and recirculation and repetition.

Without You, the Writer, Words Are Just Words

I initiated this lecture, as I did the other of last summer, through music, on this occasion with a short scene from a story familiar to most or all of you, either through the Peter Shaffer play Amadeus or director Milos Forman's film adaptation. Play and film are part nonfiction, based on the life of the immortal Mozart, and they are part fiction, serving up doubtful elements about the historic feud involving the young, up-and-coming Mozart and the older, then-more-established rival, Antonio Salieri.

Though Mozart, in those early Vienna years, was probably troublingly childlike, having been pampered by his doting parents while the prodigy grew up, he was not the pugnaciously childish personality often pictured in Shaffer's interpretation. And Salieri, though desperately envious of his rival's rising fame and disgusted by Mozart's against-accepted-custom behavior, was apparently not quite the devious villain as shown in the film. Both men have been somewhat vilified and, perhaps, even libeled.

Their relationship, however, was testy to be sure. And we see it in the scene I showed, one in which Mozart gains the spotlight, negatively from a man of political and religious power, the Archbishop of Salzburg in whose employ he was, positively from idolizing fans.

As the scene unspools, we hear Salieri's voice. He is looking at a score on a music stand, or is it a keyboard? Can't be sure, often as I've seen the scene play out. "It started simply enough," notes Salieri, looking at the score while listening to it being played, "just a pulse in the lowest registers -- bassoons and basset horns -- like a rusty squeezebox ... And then suddenly, high above it, sounded a single note on the oboe. It hung there unwavering, piercing me through, till breath could hold it no longer, and a clarinet withdrew it out of me, and sweetened it to a phrase of such delight it had me trembling."

Scientists tell us music is nothing more than a sequence of sound waves. How come that combination of sound waves struck a jealous Salieri so deeply?

The answer lies in what the title of my talk implies: "Without you, nothing matters ... without you, nothing matters."

The "you" in this case is the "he," Amadeus, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: his genius, his imagination, his craft, his ideas, his self, his individuality, that something within him, or set of somethings, that separates him from all others, just as your genius [dear reader of this column, dear listener to my lecture], your imagination, craft, ideas, self, and individuality separate you from all others. Tell yourself, as you work, and tell others who make contact with you as writers or editors or readers: "Without you, nothing matters."

What's in a Word?

One hears the question: "What's in a word?"

Come to think of it, a lot, but also nothing. Words are inert. Words do not animate themselves. They are raw materials that must be activated, energized, sculpted, and paired into content, into colors and rhythms, into melody and harmony, into links, into worlds of meaning.

It is the writer who gives words life and meaning, just as the musician does to single sounds, just as the painter does to dot or swatch. Again, words do not animate themselves. They must be forced into life, given birth like a baby, in form and spirit, and nurtured. What you are able to contribute to the basic substance of words makes all the difference. What you are willing to contribute through courage and creative energy makes all the difference.

It is you who makes the baby laugh or cry, squirm, take milk, fill diapers, clutch an adult finger, sleep. You give it being with how you prestidigitate words. You take possession of the word and the words as they are gathered and bunched. You give it, them, voice. Voice is what we're getting at in this conference coming-together: the presence of you in your writing.

Embrace Your Voice

Voice means releasing the you in your writing. Voice means locating and making use of and encouraging and honoring your individuality by allowing it to invade your manuscript. Know that because it is you who are wading into the thickets of a new assignment, you have the opportunity to inject it with what only you can bring to the task: your mind (how you think and imagine), your heart (the belief system that guides you, the views that motivate you, the principles that stir your blood), your background (from which and where you sprang, who raised you and how), your personality (the sum of mind, heart, background, personality uniting in one human being, one body and soul). The mix is yours alone, the garden that has been your existence.

Consequently, the flower that is your talent will differ from that of others. This becomes significant, if you have the courage to let yourself be you when you plan, prepare, and put into words your feature or essay or short story or novel or poem or play or news story, whatever your preferred genre, whatever your goal. Welcome and nurture and come to live comfortably with your voice.

We'll expand and explore the elements of and the opportunities that exist in one's voice next month. I have much more to pass along.

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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Storytelling by Way of Interviews

Posted on Wednesday, November 28, 2018 at 10:39 PM

Give your content a competitive edge by letting the experts do the talking.

By William Dunkerley

Journalist Galina Sapozhnikova took an interesting tack in writing her book, The Lithuanian Conspiracy and the Soviet Collapse. The technique she used is worth emulating in periodical publishing. Here's what she did:

Her book title uniquely provides insights into the various color revolutions that notably swept through former Soviet space in the late '90s and into the present century. She didn't deliver what some might consider a tedious narrative. Instead she worked from a series of interviews with people who had relevant firsthand knowledge and experience. The result is storytelling by way of interviews.

Editors Only columnist Peter Jacobi has long been a proponent of using storytelling in our publications. Behind the journalistic technique is also a lot of psychological substantiation for storytelling.

Writing in Psychology Today, Dr. Pamela B. Rutledge offers several psychological factors behind the power of storytelling:

--"Stories have always been a primal form of communication. They are timeless links to ancient traditions, legends, archetypes, myths, and symbols. They connect us to a larger self and universal truths.

--"Stories are about collaboration and connection. They transcend generations, they engage us through emotions, and they connect us to others. Through stories we share passions, sadness, hardships and joys. We share meaning and purpose. Stories are the common ground that allows people to communicate, overcoming our defenses and our differences. Stories allow us to understand ourselves better and to find our commonality with others.

--"Stories are how we think. They are how we make meaning of life. Call them schemas, scripts, cognitive maps, mental models, metaphors, or narratives. Stories are how we explain how things work, how we make decisions, how we justify our decisions, how we persuade others, how we understand our place in the world, create our identities, and define and teach social values.

--"Stories provide order. Humans seek certainty and narrative structure is familiar, predictable, and comforting. Within the context of the story arc we can withstand intense emotions because we know that resolution follows the conflict. We can experience with a safety net.

--"Stories are how we are wired. Stores take place in the imagination. To the human brain, imagined experiences are processed the same as real experiences. Stories create genuine emotions, presence (the sense of being somewhere), and behavioral responses.

--"Stories are the pathway to engaging our right brain and triggering our imagination. By engaging our imagination, we become participants in the narrative. We can step out of our own shoes, see differently, and increase our empathy for others. Through imagination, we tap into creativity that is the foundation of innovation, self-discovery and change."

Sapozhnikova skillfully wove her interviews into a coherent story, a mosaic. She didn't approach the interviews with a canned list of questions. Instead, her interviews were spontaneous conversations between her and the interview subjects.

A lot of interviews we see in today's magazines and newspapers focus on the interviewee. By contrast, Sapozhnikova's focus is on the theme of her book.

As her story progresses, she presents interviews with more than one person on a single point. As a result, readers are able to see for themselves the various discrepancies and patterns that emerge. That means Sapozhnikova's approach is not only storytelling but investigative journalism too.

In the online world our content constantly faces competition from endless other sources. To be noticed and remembered we have to make ourselves stand out. The use of storytelling by way of interviews can give some of your content an edge up.

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

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The Fog Index

Posted on Wednesday, November 28, 2018 at 10:39 PM

Assessing the readability of a TheAtlantic.com excerpt.

This month's Fog Index excerpt comes from a November 27 TheAtlantic.com article ("Everything on Social Media Is for Sale" by Taylor Lorenz). Here's the sample text, with longer words italicized:

"Noah wouldn't tell me exactly what he brings in every month from social-media promotion, but deals such as the ones he does can quickly add up. 'For a repost, depending on how long they want it up, it can go from $70 to $200,' he said. He charges $80 for an Instagram Stories swipe-up or a standard Twitter retweet, $100 to $150 for a quote tweet, and $150 for a tweet or a post to his Instagram feed. But everything is negotiable based on time: A post that's live for only three hours will be much cheaper than one left up for 48 hours. He currently has 33,000 followers on Instagram and more than 80,000 on Twitter."

Word count: 117 words
Average sentence length: 23 words (26, 20, 32, 26, 13)
Words with 3+ syllables: 5 percent (6/117 words)
Fog Index: (23+5) *.4 = 11 (11.2, no rounding)

The Fog Index falls within ideal range -- i.e., below 12. The writing fares well in both component scores: sentence length and percentage of longer words. If we wanted to reduce the score even more, we might split up the first and fourth sentences. We might be able to replace a few longer words too. But neither of these things is necessary here. The paragraph is heavy with figures, but the author breaks them up into digestible parts: The reader has several chances to take a breath between sentences. The longer words are necessary, not ornamental. So there isn't much to do here but sit back and enjoy the read.

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Just Launched: Marie Claire Edit

Posted on Wednesday, November 28, 2018 at 10:39 PM

In the news: A popular fashion magazine has teamed up with multiple brands to launch an e-commerce site.

This week, Marie Claire magazine launched its e-commerce site, Marie Claire Edit. According to Dan O'Shea of RetailDive.com, the new platform features brands such as Farfetch, Topshop, and Net-A-Porter. The site will also partner with Pinterest, encouraging users to create Pinterest boards highlighting their favorite products with the opportunity to win a voucher from fashion retailer Farfetch.

Summing up the wider implications for the magazine industry, O'Shea writes: "This type of endeavor might have raised eyebrows in the magazine world not so long ago, potentially muddying the waters between a magazine's editorial mission and its revenue interests.... Separating Marie Claire Edit from the core magazine site may mitigate concerns about sales links overloading editorial content or too much content getting in the way of sales efforts."

Marie Claire's fashion editors will power the site. According to Lucinda Southern of Digiday.com, "Six of Marie Claire's fashion editors will write daily features exclusively for the site, from which users can click through to other articles featuring products ranging from high street to designer."

Read more about the new e-commerce platform here and here.

Also Notable

Glamour Shutters Print Edition

Last week, Glamour magazine announced that it was shuttering its print edition after nearly 80 years in print. Citing Condé Nast's announcement, Lucy Bayly of NBCNews.com reports that "other than a few special issues to 'celebrate big moments,' the magazine will only exist online as of the February 2019 issue." According to the New York Times, as quoted by Bayly, editor-in-chief Samantha Barry has told staffers that the company was moving away from its print product to focus on video and social media content. Read more about the changes here.

Paywalls Making a Comeback

Several publishers have recently begun paywalling their content. In a November 12 piece on NYTimes.com, Jaclyn Peiser lists Bloomberg Media, The Atlantic, and several Condé Nast titles as publishers releasing content behind paywalls. Most recently, New York Media began doing this on NYMag.com and its affiliated network of websites (including Vulture and Grub Street). Read more here.

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