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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.

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