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Words and Definitions Matter

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Recently I was having a conversation about current issues in migration with a 17 year old. I was talking about my experience as a volunteer with an organization that hosts migrants who have been released from detention.

In the course of the conversation, I realized that the word “detention” is probably not the best word to describe the experience of migrants in custody. The young woman I was talking with was not particularly up on current events, and she didn’t fully understand what detention meant. From her response, it seemed like she imagined detention as akin to being sent to the principal’s office at school.

I said, “It’s like jail, they are locked up, often for many months.”

“Wow, really?” was her response.

This conversation led me to ponder why we call this “detention” and not “jail”?

The Merriam-Webster definition of detention is a period of temporary custody prior to disposition by a court.

This is a true characterization of the current situation for many migrants. However, temporary is not necessarily short, as the time can stretch into many months.

The definition of jail is a place of confinement for persons held in lawful custody (awaiting trial or those convicted of minor crimes). This is as opposed to prison, which is a place of confinement, especially for lawbreakers.

So according to the definitions, detention and jail could be interchangeable terms, assuming they are held in lawful custody awaiting court action.

Would the policy debate regarding how migrants are handled by the legal system change if we called their custody “jail” instead of “detention”? Especially for young migrants, saying that they are being held in jails sounds different from saying they are being held in detention centers.

Of course, either word paints a much different picture than calling it “summer camp” for kids; terminology which has been recently used by some people to describe detention centers for minor migrants.

Word choice matters because the words we use to describe a scenario communicate values and perceptions. People who are in detention are locked up and are not free to leave. And they have to wait for a period of time outside of their control for a next step.

Some people in this situation are asylum-seekers, who are going through the legal process of applying for relief from a life-threatening situation in their home country. Others have crossed the border without permission. Either way, they are locked up for a period of time. Sounds like jail to me.

As I was reading differing definitions of terms and discussions over the nuances of language, this online comment caught my attention: “An old jail is a jail. A new jail is a detention center.”

My only hesitation is starting to use the term jail rather than detention center, is that saying that migrants are in jail makes them sound like criminals. People seeking asylum are not criminals.

Perhaps the word I will end on for these thoughts is “complexity” – one of the words that my daughter uses (along with “humanize” and “accompany”) in her work with people who are migrants.

 

 

 

 

 

Pointing out Mistakes

As an editor, I spot mistakes regularly – in the morning newspaper, on grocery store signs, on websites, and in brochures. Mistakes are everywhere.

Once I’ve spotted a mistake, I have to decide whether or not to point out the mistake. It is tempting to always point out mistakes, but that can make editors annoying friends.

If the mistake can be easily corrected, then I will point it out. Mistakes on websites are quick and easy to fix. When I saw an issue on a brochure that is going to be used for a year or more, I let the responsible person know so that when he reprinted it, he could correct the mistake.

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However, when there was a typo on a flier that would only be relevant for a few weeks, I let it go. The organization was not going to reprint the flier, so it wasn’t worth pointing out the error. But the mistake still bothered me – I can’t un-notice errors.

If there is a process improvement that will prevent future mistakes from occurring, then I do usually point out errors. I might even mention that I am available for contract work!

During a beach vacation, I spotted a glaring error in a message scrawled in the sand. I just couldn’t resist, I had to add the missing letter. My husband still teases me about never turning off my editorial brain.

Editing Out Loud

During a dinner table conversation, I read an interesting piece of copy to my husband. It was from an editorial project I’d worked on earlier in the day and I thought he would resonate with the topic. As I was reading the selection out loud, I noticed a typo. What should have been the word “it” was “if” in this first draft. Not a problem, because the article was still in the early stages of the edit and design phase and I could easily make corrections. But the experience reminded me of the value of reading out loud to catch errors.

Brains are amazing in speed and ability. Fluent readers quickly move through text and their brains process content so quickly that many small errors are smoothed over in the process. This is especially true if the reader is already familiar with the content. It is as if  the brain has an autocorrect feature – one that is much better than autocorrect on texts!

So how do we counteract this auto-correcting brain process and catch errors before they get to print?

First of all, having another person who is not familiar with the text perform a round of copyediting is important. Another reader will have fresh eyes and not be lulled into skipping small errors.

However, sometimes fresh eyes are not available for a project. In this case, taking the time to slow down and read the text out loud, pronouncing each word, can reveal lingering errors.

I also find that planning sufficient time for a break in my schedule improves the quality of my work. I try to finish up a project or chunk of work the day before it is due. Then I can give myself some space and let the project (and my brain) rest overnight. In the morning, a fresh round of edits will catch any errors that might not have been obvious at the end of a full day of work.

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Writing Short

Conversations among writers, editors and publishers about the state of publishing often turn to the short attention span of readers. While I understand the concern and realize that complex topics take more than 140 characters to develop, there are benefits to short, focused content.smartphone

Writing short forces the writer and editor to carefully focus the main idea and judiciously choose words, as extraneous details are cut. This results in clear, direct content.

Writing short gives the reader a clear takeaway. Rather than wading through multiple examples and ideas, the reader can access one memorable nugget.

Writing short allows space for additional graphics to carry a message. While writers and editors might consider themselves “word” people, they are communicators. Words and graphics together communicate. By keeping content short, there is space for graphic elements to reinforce the message.

Looking back at magazines I edited more than 10 years ago, word count on a page was often 800 – 900 words for an 8-1/2″ x 11″ page. Now my target is 500 – 600 words per page with much more space for graphic design. Did people read every word of an 800 word article and remember it all? Does the reader even notice that the content is shorter?

Short, focused content communicates! This blog is 215 words.

The Art of the Apology

Have you done something wrong and need to apologize? Whether an apology is in the professional setting or a personal setting, sincerity and brevity are keys to delivering your apology.

Keep your apology brief – state the infraction and express your deep regret. You can add any policy or personal changes that you are going to implement to keep from repeating the infraction, but never make excuses or blame others. Just apologize. Period.

Sincerity is important in an apology – but the way people receive your apology is based on established trust (or lack thereof). So the believability of your apology is judged over time. If you are apologizing for a repeated behavior in the past, is there any evidence that your pattern has changed? If not, then people won’t believe that you are sincere in your apology. And if future actions repeat the infraction  you apologized for, then people will assume your only regret was in getting caught, not in the actual action.

Keep brevity in mind, especially when giving a verbal apology. Just because someone gives you a microphone and 2 minutes, there is no need to keep going on and on. State your infraction, express your regret, and lay out your plan for moving forward.

Note: An apology for a mistake is different from a disagreement over opinions. See a previous post for responding to feedback.

 

 

What’s Your Angle?

TSA is in the news regularly now, with the summer travel season heating up and lines increasing at many large airports. Media outlets, along with social media, are sharing pictures and videos of long lines waiting to get through security. But how accurate are these reports?

I was at the Denver airport on the Friday before Memorial Day. My daughter and son-in-law had a 2 hour layover, and we were going to meet for lunch if the security lines weren’t too long. I had been watching the security time page on the airport website all morning, seeing times from 15-25 minutes, which didn’t seem excessive. When I arrived at the airport at 10:30 am there was NO line at one of the security checkpoint and a short line at another.

We saw a news reporter and camera person shooting out toward the side with the short line. I wondered out loud, “There’s no line on the other side. Are they going to take a picture of that side too?”

The reporter heard my remark and said, “You’re right.” camera angle

Later, when I headed back to my car, the tripod was empty on the side with the line. I do hope they went to the other side to film as well, to show a more accurate representation.

Angle matters – in visuals and in text. What if the photographer above is doing a photo essay about the treeless prairie? By shooting toward distant fields with his camera and omitting the shot of trees behind him, he can tell one story, but not the whole story.

Many of us still believe the old adage that “cameras don’t lie.” But even before digital manipulation, photographers had the ability to adjust exposure on film. And the photographer chooses how to frame the image, which impacts the “truth” displayed.

Writers and editors have the same power over the text, in choosing what it include and exclude for a story.

I am curious what story was transmitted regarding security lines at the airport. My guess is that short lines were not interesting enough to make the news, but perhaps the reporter and camera person waited around until the lines were longer, in time for the 5 p.m. news!

 

Where to Cut

I relish the challenge of cutting an article down to size. Not that there is anything wrong with 1,000 words, but usually I need to fit an article into a particular spot in a magazine. While writers have a word count with their assignment, they often go over their allotment. Even for online content, where space is theoretically unlimited, judicious trimming results in a tighter, more compelling piece. Good writers will make their own cuts before submitting articles, but it is easier for editors to cut because they are not wed to each word.

Before Cutting

Before I start cutting, I try to understand the big idea of the article. This will help me in the cutting process, as I identify extraneous ideas. If the big idea isn’t clear, then it is hard to determine what to cut, and the article might need a complete re-write to hone the main message prior to cutting.

Next I read through and make edits that add clarity and correct errors. This process might actually make an article longer, but is an important step. For example, if there is an abrupt transition that leaves the reader wondering, adding a few words or sentences can smooth the bump and help the reader follow along.

The Hatchet

If an article is significantly longer than the target, the first cut is with a “hatchet” to chop out entire sections. Perhaps the author gives five supporting examples for the big idea. Each example might be interesting, but the hatchet edit chops the article down to the two or three most important examples. The guiding question for this chop is to consider the reader and whether or not each example illuminates the main point for the reader.

Another area to chop is predictable prose. A great editor keeps the content that is original, but cuts out areas that have been overdone in other platforms. Content should add to the conversation, not just rehash tired thoughts.

In addition, as the editor, I may chop a section that covers content which is present in another article in the magazine. This is an edit that writers cannot make, since they are only aware of their article, not how the whole magazine fits together.

The Knife

I use the knife to cut away unnecessary words that don’t add meaning; words such as really, actually and basically are throwaways.

Watch out for lists that go on and on. While a bulleted list can add clarity for the reader, no one is going to read a list of 15 items. I will focus a list on four or five essentials and trim the rest.

Often I straighten out meandering sentences with multiple clauses. I rewrite such sentences into clear, emphatic prose. Not only will content be shorter, but it will be more compelling.

After the Cut

After chopping and trimming, I set the content aside and come back later with fresh eyes to consider whether any of the edits introduced errors or dead ends.  Then I enjoy the satisfaction of clear writing that hits the target.

Note: This article started at 555 words and I cut it down to 511 words.

Custom Content

A recent client project involved taking a magazine with national distribution and creating custom content for specific geographical areas. We created 5 issues for major metropolitan areas, plus a “general” issue that mailed to everyone else.

Custom content is an efficient way to hone a message for an audience segment. While this client chose to customize based on geography, you can customize content based on any attribute in your database, such as age or gender segments.

The Process

Customizing content begins with a strategy, not logistics. While there are many logistics involved, the overall strategy has to drive the editorial and design decisions. As we began the planning process, we met to affirm the purpose of the magazine and to consider how the magazine strategy would be strengthened by custom content.

Once the strategy was in place, then logistics were the focus. We generated several potential scenarios, getting bids from the printer and mail house. Eventually we settled on creating custom content for the first two and last two pages in the magazine. This gave each issue a custom cover and inside story, along with custom content on the inside back cover and back cover promotional space.

Another project I worked on had custom content for an insert, with the regular magazine going to the membership audience and the magazine with the insert going to the leadership audience.

Flow

ATL coverWhile the magazine team is aware of all the different custom components, the reader of the magazine only sees one version. So the editorial and design flow between the custom content and the core content has to make sense to the reader. The team dealt with content in chunks by custom issue; but we also had to consider the editorial and design flow between the custom pages and the core pages.

After our first issue with custom content, we decided that we had to draw more attention to the custom content on the inside back cover, so the reader would realize that along with a feature story on page 2, there was additional geographical content at the end of the magazine. In addition, some issues included a custom promotional space on the back cover, and others have featured a consistent back cover between all versions.

Measuring Results

The client can measure engagement by geographical area, based on responses they get from readers. For other custom content projects, reader surveys or online engagement can measure response.

Variety of Applications

There are many ways to make custom content work to accomplish strategic objectives. Custom content can take the form of a single custom page, such as a cover, back cover or advertisement. Another project might feature a custom insert or center section. Custom content has long been a tool of large organizations, but it can easily be applied to accomplish the goals of any communicator.

Fact Checking

Most days I read my local newspaper and the Wall Street Journal. And most days I find editorial errors in one or both papers. The errors often distract me from my reading. Some are obvious grammatical and spelling errors. But the errors I find most bothersome are factual errors.  These kind of errors cause me to wonder if there are other errors in the paper. Factual errors matter because if people make decisions based on information in the news, then erroneous information can cause poor decisions, especially in the Wall Street Journal.

The potential factual error in the January 13, 2015 Wall Street Journal was in an article about exercise, so no investment decisions were based on the article. But if the location of the park mentioned in the article was incorrect, was the information about U.S. bank earnings in another section correct?

Fact checking is difficult for editors, because it requires specialized knowledge or research into diverse topics. Fact checking takes time. However, the article in question was a feature about an individual, and if this person had carefully read the article draft, he could have corrected the error. Having a source review content is the first and most important step in fact checking.

Specialized knowledge helped me question a fact in the article because I am familiar with one of the two cities mentioned in the article. The person profiled has homes in Fort Worth and Seattle. The article asserted: When in Fort Worth, he walks from 30 to 90 minutes around the steep hills of Lincoln Park four to five days a week. The assertion caused me to pause in my reading. I know for certain that Seattle has a Lincoln Park that is hilly because I have walked around the beautiful park many times. I wondered if Fort Worth also had a hilly Lincoln Park. I did some fact checking on the Fort Worth parks department website (yes, like many cities, they do have a Lincoln Park). Then I looked up the park on Google maps, zooming in to the earth view. Lincoln Park in Fort Worth is a small neighborhood park, two blocks square, with a creek, some trees, but no hills, and probably only 15 minutes of exercise potential. If I was the editor overseeing this article, I would have sent it back to the writer suggesting that she confirm the location of Lincoln Park with the person profiled in the article. It is possible that my knowledge of parks and fact checking is inaccurate and there is a large, hilly Lincoln Park in the Fort Worth area. However, I also checked nearby Dallas for a Lincoln Park and did not find one. This particular fact probably only bothered people familiar with Fort Worth or Seattle.

Fact checking is the part of editorial work that still needs the human brain. At some point in the future, along with spell check and grammar check, there may be an artificial intelligence app that does fact checking. But for now, newspapers and other media platforms need actual editors to perform this essential step in the process. Because accuracy matters to this reader.

The Next Next Thing

What is the topic you are going to write about after your current project is completed? Not worried about that yet? Thinking about tomorrow’s topic can make you a better communicator today.

Communication is a process rather than a one-time interaction. So as a communications professional, you should always be thinking about the next next thing. Whether you are communicating via blogs, social media, websites, videos, magazines, newspapers or books, consider where your communications topics are headed. Today’s topic is the burning fire you need to address and get out the door. But the intentional progression of topics from today to tomorrow to the next day (month, year) builds a brand, and a body of work.

Recently, as I was working on a quarterly newsletter for a client, I penciled in the topics for their next two newsletters. I didn’t spend much time thinking about the details of the future topics, since I was focused on the newsletter that needed to get to print. I might not even be responsible for future newsletters; however, the overall communications plan is important for my client. The ability to think ahead to the next topic in a sequence means that the quarterly newsletter topics will build on each other throughout the year. Recipients of the newsletters will have a more complete understanding of the overall organization, rather than receiving random bites of information spread across time.

Educators have a term for this kind of planning: scope and sequence. When planning curriculum, they consider the objectives for the course (scope) and the components of content that students need to reach those objectives (sequence). I admit that I may have oversimplified this educational concept for my purposes; but considering scope and sequence can lead to great communications planning.

So as you are working on today’s project, keep a sticky note (or evernote) handy to jot down topics for the next project, and the next next project. This kind of planning will keep you moving forward in communications, rather than just reacting to the needs of today.

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