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Stop Thinking as an Editor ...

Posted on Wednesday, May 30, 2012 at 10:09 AM

...start thinking as a reader.

By Jan V. White

Words are what you think with. Everything you value is verbal. Of course it is. You can take it for granted that your story starts with a headline of some kind because you are trained to think that way. For you, the words are what matters and if you have a picture or diagram or visual of some kind, it is merely a secondary "illustrative" element. It may well enrich your story, but words always come first, because our culture assumes the primacy of the Word. (See Genesis 1.1.)

You are absolutely right -- in the context of a self-contained "story," letter, report, essay, poem, article, whatever. With deepest professional empathy and sympathy, I submit to you that you're getting it bass-ackwards if that verbal effort you are concerned with is merely a segment of a concatenation of such pieces such as a magazine.

Trouble is that doing a superb writing job ain't nuthin' if you forget that you gotta sell the durned thing to the durned reader. Like it or not, selling your story is vital in our regrettably non-intellectual world.

Not worth mentioning?

This selling-process is so simple and obvious that it is never even mentioned in polite editorial society. Here's how it works:

1. The somewhat interested looker is flipping pages, glancing and searching for interesting stuff. Hurry! 2. All those grey words, words, words and even their interrupting boldfaced display. They demand cogitation, thinking. Hey, that's work. The reader will skip it. 3. Picture! Immediate emotional reaction, curiosity, finding answers, getting involved. Sure! Is this a bit oversimplified? Are there indeed stories that people want to read as text? Well, of course there are. Nevertheless, the undisputed fact is that readers look at pictures first.

Therefore, it follows that the pictures should come first in the vital attention-getting sequence of a story. Any story that has pictures. Yes!


Let me illustrate my point with two simple examples, one before, one after.


The editor's habitual presentation:

1. hed
2. txt
3. cut
4. cutline or legend

How am I supposed to know?

This following bit of text is "dummy type," but there might be something in there worth bothering to read. Heads are often assumed to be irresistible as a question. Maybe. Here I used a question because I want to compare this "before" to the "after" that follows. Yes, the vast majority of potential readers start at the top of the page, normally with a provocative headline first. A beguiling first sentence draws the reader into the story, then the rest of the guff follows below it. Then, way down below, comes a photo as a sort of added footnote. Why a "footnote"? Because it is at the bottom, and therefore it is in an unimportant place. Any stuff at the top is important, but stuff below it is less important. Stuff at the very bottom is the least important and a pathetic footnote. Yet the legend (or cutline), the most important wording on the page because it answers the question that the photo has raised, is downplayed down there. What a waste. What is the result of the piece? Just the normal report-like story, just like any other wordy essay. Yes, with a bit of a visual surprise down below, because the photo is supposed to make you smile. (In truth, it makes me depressed because I look so old, but ignore that.) The article depends 100 percent on the excitement of the questioning words at the top.

Who he? Some guy. Who cares? Not important. Forget it.


The canny editor's presentation:

1. cut
2. cutline or legend (optional?)
3. hed
4. txt

How am I supposed to know?

That's the guy who was credited to have invented that great new doohickey -- didn't he? This is a much more magnetic presentation, because the headline is also the caption to the photo. The two elements work together so that one plus one equals three. That gets you fast, immediate explanation, which will draw attention to your story. How? First comes the puzzling image that creates the reaction of curiosity. That curiosity is encouraged by the questioning image itself. The second of the one-two punch is the questioning headline explaining it (while it also acts as a sort of tickler-file). It acts as a cutline because the two elements (i.e., the picture and its headline) are a melded unit of thinking. The third element that flows out of the whole story is the irresistible answer to all that questioning, i.e., the article itself that you are reading right now, despite the fact that I've repeated the thinking because I want to make this dummy type a bit longer. The first sentence could start flowing out of the questions in some way, as perhaps, "Well, he says he doesn't know, but he has a pretty good idea ... blah blah blah.


Here's the Point...

... put cut at top instead!

Jan White lectures worldwide on the relationship of editing to design. He tries to persuade word people to think visually and visual people to think verbally. He is the author of Editing by Design, 3rd Ed, and a dozen books on publishing techniques. Contact him at janvw2@aol.com.

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