What's in a Word? Part I

Posted on Wednesday, November 29, 2017 at 1:26 PM

Language serves us best when we are honest.

By Peter P. Jacobi

The question often asked -- "What's in a word?" -- is worth thinking about. Mark Twain talked about the use of "lightning" and "lightning bug," and how very different any two sentences would be to make room for the presence within it of one versus the other.

Finding the right word or set of words is a critical part of our job as writer or as editor. Our language is huge. The choices are many. And yet, not really. There usually is at least one better choice for you, depending on the style of writing in your manuscript and what the subject is and for whom you are writing and for what reason you are creating the manuscript and for what you are trying to convey not only properly but effectively, efficiently, and even memorably.

Words That Are Clear, Attracting, and Appropriate

I offer a sample of words used effectively, efficiently, and memorably. They were written by a remarkable pianist, Jeremy Denk, whose career I have followed since he was a student in Indiana University's Jacobs School of Music and then a teacher there and, now, a widely admired performer who happens not only to dexterously handle a keyboard and play music on it with profound wisdom but has the ability to express what he does musically in language, in words that can stun for clarity and appropriateness.

Recently, one of Denk's it's-a-pleasure-to-read essays found its way into the Sunday New York Times under the title "Caressing Notes with a Purr." If I may, I'll quote a section of it to give you an idea of how masterfully he verbalizes what he wants and needs to say. There is perfection in his choice of words:

"A vivid memory from the early 1990s: My piano teacher was giving me hell for not observing some pedal markings in Chopin when he reached for his lighter, to smoke away the aggravation I'd caused. Mid-reach he stopped, suddenly inspired. 'Chopin was sensitive,' he said. 'Like a cat.'

"This teacher was Gyorgy Sebok, a great Hungarian piano guru with an unpronounceable name, who resembled less a cat than a sort of profound armadillo. As he spoke, he made his sausage-fingered hands walk across his desk, like nimble and graceful paws.

"Despite my suspicion of cats," Denk continues, "this remark struck me, as did an admiration for the subtlety of Chopin down in the foot-operated region of my instrument. He made the foot into a third hand, and brought the lowly pedal -- a tool for letting strings ring, for letting the piano resonate like the harp-in-a-closet that it is -- to an unimaginable level of refinement."

"Smoke away the aggravation I'd caused." "Resembled less a cat than a sort of profound armadillo." "Made his sausage-fingered hands walk across his desk, like nimble and graceful paws." "He made the foot into a third hand."

The words were cleverly, but never too cleverly, chosen. They are clear and attracting and appropriate.

Words That Paint a Picture

Manny Hernandez, writing in the New York Times about "Scenes Along a Houston Highway Show a City Determined to Recover," offers this cogent and potent passage, among many. It contains the right words to explain and describe a scene and situation: "The view from up here on the highway is unromantic and brutally efficient, not unlike the overall aesthetic of a city synonymous with air-conditioning and AstroTurf. It is all pavement, sky, Jersey barrier, billboard and Long John Silver's.

"But down below on West Road, another Houston goes largely unseen. A homeless man who lives beneath the overpass with his wife walked to a nearby dollar store. They had $8 between them. When he returned, they had $7. He bought a white-handled broom to sweep their patch of sidewalk. 'We stay here, man,' said Tracy Moore, 32, his belongings next to him in a Home Depot shopping cart. 'I don't want people to think that we're trashy because of all the trash from the flood.'"

What's in the words of the reporter? What's in the words quoted from the homeless man refusing to be a flood victim? The right ones, honest ones, words that bring the reader close and cause understanding. The facts chosen to express the nature of a flood-ravaged city. The words chosen to express the plight of a man who has experienced the disaster. Everything helps paint a picture of what has been happening.

On the Other Hand...

What about words that fail? That's a topic I'll lead off with next time.

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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Are Constant Surveys Time-Worthy?

Posted on Wednesday, November 29, 2017 at 1:26 PM

A reader's question: Why should I take time for interminable surveys when I'm struggling to get out each issue?

By William Dunkerley

Q. How do you think I'm going to find time to conduct some kind of reader survey every month? Your suggestion to "Start a Perpetual Reader Survey" is a sweet idea. But who's got the time for that? I edit a monthly print magazine. Our online counterpart gets updated every week. From the time I arrive at work early each morning until I leave at night, I'm fighting against deadlines just to meet my basic responsibilities. My staff works hard and there's no time being wasted. Meanwhile, if we miss our deadlines and an issue does not go out, I'll be out of a job. Please tell me how the idea of dong constant surveys is worth my time?

A. To invoke a popular Bill Clintonism, "I feel your pain!" The job of editor is vastly underrated and misunderstood in terms of the pressures of deadlines and constant demands for productivity. We work in a very unforgiving environment. So I can understand your sense of frustration when someone suggests that you take on yet another task.

The "Perpetual Reader Survey" that I floated last issue is not a very time-intensive thing, though. Once you set up a system for initiating the survey, we're talking minutes, not hours, to solicit the feedback. If you can't squeeze that into your busy schedule, perhaps some creative solution could be found. Would a staff member be willing to take it on as an outside chore for a stipend? Or can you get an intern to work on it? Perhaps there's even a reader who might take it on as a volunteer.

Is the time requirement really the bottom-line issue for you, though? In many cases, the prospect of any change in a work routine is automatically met with resistance. It's a very common reaction. It is more comfortable to do a job using established patterns that have proved successful in the past. It's almost like these routines get hardwired into us. And when we encounter something that perturbs those patterns, we tend to resist.

Torben Rick, a European change management expert, has explained this in psychological terms. He diagrams the process in the illustration shown here:


Classic psychological reactions to change.

I can attest to the reality of that phenomenon. Many times I've observed ad salespeople going through that exact same cycle when confronted with the necessity of learning new sales skills. They don't start to change until they hit bottom and feel a crisis.

The good news, however, is that we can avoid dire depression and crisis through understanding and enlightenment.

What's to Understand?

The key issue to understand is that, as editors, we are living through an unprecedented era of change. We live in a multi-device world, in which ink-on-paper is just one legacy "device." As a result, reading habits are changing, and they remain in a state of flux. On top of that, new and competitive sources of information are becoming widely available. Publications no longer have a near-monopoly on new information.

Economic uncertainty also figures into the picture. Even a recession, a normal economic swing factor in our economy, takes a serious toll on publications that are not agile in their response to a changing environment. Now, actual hot war in the world is being threatened by the US and against the US. The US president is pursuing a policy that, while welcomed by many, is strongly resisted by others. An active campaign for impeachment is under way. I mention all this not to make a political statement, but to underline the fact that we can't count on smooth sailing ahead wherein old ways of doing our jobs will be adequate.

Time to Understand

While the time required for the mechanics of a perpetual survey is minimal, there is also the matter of how much time must go into analyzing the results. That can be more onerous, and not something that can be passed off to someone else. But if we don't take time to understand the survey feedback, we may not adjust our editorial product in response to emerging audience needs and desires.

Sometimes editors compare their table of contents to the menu of a restaurant. It provides a description of what's in store for the consumer.

I have a favorite restaurant that revamps its menu every season: summer, fall, winter, spring. That allows the restaurant to adjust to food preferences that vary by season -- lighter fare in the summer, something heartier in the winter, for instance. But I've noticed that some menu items don't reappear in a subsequent year. That's because the chef gets active and irrefutable feedback from the cash register. Diners don't order things they don't like. She also tests new dishes that are offered as specials. And when a special is a really big hit, it eventually makes its way onto the regular menu.

Certainly there are a lot of differences between running a successful restaurant and putting out a regular publication. However, in both instances diner or reader feedback provides data that is vital to success. The chef is fortunate to get her feedback day by day from the cash register. We, however, need to take the initiative to seek relatively objective feedback as a routine part of our editorial duties. And that's where the perpetual survey concept can be enormously valuable.

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

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The Fog Index

Posted on Wednesday, November 29, 2017 at 1:25 PM

Assessing the readability of a Wired.com excerpt.

This month's Fog Index sample text comes from a November 24 Wired.com article ("This Stripped-Down Blogging Tool Exemplifies Antisocial Media" by Clive Thompson). Longer words are italicized.

"I call it antiviral design. Most platforms work in precisely the opposite fashion. They're casinos of quantification, designed to constantly tell us what's blowing up and what isn't. We peer at our feeble posts on Twitter or Instagram or LinkedIn and pray for likes, for hearts, for a big-smile emoji. Our attention is magnetically drawn to anything with a huge "share" number beneath it -- what psychologists call the social proof: If lots of people are paying attention to something, we figure it's worth our notice too."

Word count: 86 words
Average sentence length: 17 words (5, 8, 15, 22, 36)
Words with 3+ syllables: 13 percent (11/86 words)
Fog Index: (17+13) *.4 = 12 (12.0, no rounding)

We only need to cut one point from the Fog Index to fall within ideal range. There isn't much we would change about the writing itself, which is generally crisp and concise. So, in this case, we look to a simpler, more obvious fix: sentence length. At a glance, we see that the last sentence is significantly longer than the others. Let's see if a simple tweak does the trick:

"I call it antiviral design. Most platforms work in precisely the opposite fashion. They're casinos of quantification, designed to constantly tell us what's blowing up and what isn't. We peer at our feeble posts on Twitter or Instagram or LinkedIn and pray for likes, for hearts, for a big-smile emoji. Our attention is magnetically drawn to anything with a huge "share" number beneath it. Psychologists call this the social proof: If lots of people are paying attention to something, we figure it's worth our notice too."

Word count: 86 words
Average sentence length: 14 words (5, 8, 15, 22, 14, 22)
Words with 3+ syllables: 13 percent (11/86 words)
Fog Index: (14+13) *.4 = 10 (10.8, no rounding)

We got a lot of mileage out of our small edit to split up the last sentence. It cut our Fog Score by 2 points. The takeaway: When cutting through the Fog in your writing and editing endeavors, you don't need to start from scratch to make the text flow better. Sometimes, it takes only a few keystrokes to clean up your syntax and clarify your argument.

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Meredith Corp. Acquires Time Inc.

Posted on Wednesday, November 29, 2017 at 1:25 PM

In the news: Will Meredith's acquisition of Time Inc. bring a shift in editorial focus?

This week, Meredith Corp. announced that it would purchase Time Inc. According to Meredith's press release, the deal was valued at $2.8 billion ($18.50 per share). Perhaps most noteworthy about the deal, however, is that a sizable portion of the financing -- $650 million, according to the release -- comes from Koch Equity Development, owned by the Koch brothers.

The Koch-backed deal has some media pundits worried that Meredith's publications, now including the traditionally left-center Time magazine, will shift their editorial content sharply to the right. Per the press release, "[Koch Equity Development] will not have a seat on the Meredith Board and will have no influence on Meredith's editorial or managerial operations." Read the press release here.

Also Notable

Video Content Boosts Social Engagement

In a November 20 Foliomag.com piece, Steve Smith discusses the role video content plays in magazine brands' social media engagement: "The 'pivot to video' cliché? in media is starting to become self-parody. We've heard a number of legacy print publishers murmur that this gold rush may be dubious at best and yet another instance of chasing the social media dragon. But for the time being, it's hard to argue with consumer attraction to sight, sound and motion." For individual success stories from magazines reporting engagement increases thanks to video, read the full article here.

A "Pivot to Reality" for Video Content Publishers

Video garnered a lot of hype in the publishing world this year, and it has certainly paid off for some publishers in terms of social media engagement. But for some publishers the execution has proven clunky in reality. Brian Rifkin, cofounder of JW Player, tells Lucia Moses of Digiday.com that many publishers haven't optimized their websites for video content delivery. What's more, the efforts aren't necessarily paying off in terms of revenue. Writes Moses: "Many digital media companies with sky-high valuations based on a bad set of assumptions also hungrily eyed TV deals.... In most cases, the production costs for doing TV shows are pretty equal to licensing costs, and unless you have a syndication deal, the profit is fairly low." Read more here.

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