Category: Ideas

Make Mine Print, Please!

lists_bookstores_grumpy_listKerry Temple has been at the helm of the estimable Notre Dame Magazine for quite a while now. Two weeks ago he published a column titled “Out of the Office: The Science of Print.” I commend it to your attention.

Temple deftly weaves notes on how he reads print and pixels differently, is preferences, and neuroscience that has demonstrated the different outcomes of reading text on paper versus text on a screen.

I am more likely to skim online content — not fully engaged, cruising over text looking for highlights, bullet points, the pertinent “take-aways,” while also trying to ignore pop-ups, ads and other distractions. Some call this “information foraging,” not reading. I do a lot of foraging in a day.

So here at the magazine, when I read a manuscript sent to us for potential publication, I print it out. I make sure I read the hard copy, not the screen version. That helps me really read the words, pay closer attention, fully engage the story being told, be with it as I read it.

I do this because my job as an editor asks me to care about the depth and quality and nuance and substance of the stories we tell on our pages. I also do this because, as a writer, I know the labor put into crafting prose. The writer deserves my attention to detail; I honor the transaction with my thoughtful focus, by being fully present during the encounter.

I would not mind a bit an editor who brought that sensibility to a story of mine. Regarding some of the science:

“People understand and remember what they read on paper better than what they read on screen,” says Ferris Jabr, writing in Scientific American. “Researchers think the physicality of paper explains this discrepancy.” And according to the presentation, this applies to “digital natives” as well.

But the next step — that reading actively shapes brain development — deserves equal attention. Citing Proust and the Squid: The Story & Science of the Reading Brain by Maryanne Wolf, a neuroscientist and child development expert, the booklet explains: “The ability to derive meaning from abstract letterforms is not built into our neural circuitry; every generation has to learn it anew, and when we do it rearranges the way our brains are built. Reading and writing only happen when the brain grows the interconnected neural pathways for sharing information. And here it gets really interesting: the media we use to carry our messages have a lot to do with how those neural pathways get developed.”

The medium does not just carry the message; it helps shape the brain.

Temple wraps all of this up with a sentence that gladdens me:

Any enterprise hoping to last depends upon constant adaptation to shifting landscapes. But the qualities of reading still supersede the fast-food snacks gleaned from foraging.


Those Alumni Magazine Profile Blues

First word came from Erin Peterson‘s newsletter. Peterson wrote about how rare it is for a university magazine to write about failure. (True dat.) She cited two pieces by writers complaining about the profiles of over-achievers that alumni magazines had presented them. One piece, published in 2013 by Pamela Fickenscher in The Christian Century, is titled “The Spiritual Dangers of Alumni Magazines.” That overstates the content of the essay, in which Fickenscher seemed peeved that some unnamed university magazines ignore unsung heroes for sung — especially self-sung — heroes (heroes in the eyes of development, at least: the people the school most wants to be identified with). She began:

I went to two institutions of higher learning that were large enough to have glossy full color magazines (and another that was not that big). My husband went to two other institutions whose magazines are so glossy you practically need sunglasses. All four publications have an uncanny knack for arriving just at those moments in my life when I am feeling most unaccomplished, most detached from my dreams of earlier years, most stuck in the midlife rock-and-a-hard-place rut between family and career.

I’m pretty sure I’m not the only person who experiences Alumni Magazine Syndrome. I mean, we can’t all be tenured faculty at the places where we studied, start our own non-profits by the age of twenty-eight, or give a few millions dollars away.

She continued:

But what bothers me most about the flavor of many of these stories is the impression that most worthy work is either publishable or highly profitable, when a lion’s share of what holds the world together is neither.  Some of the most brilliant people in the world are working on Apple patents that they simply can’t talk about, or formulating poems that will not make the Times bestseller list.  Some of our most gifted diplomats, counselors and chaplains are professionally bound to not talk  — not even to their dearest friends — about the most interesting parts of their work. And legions of managers throughout the world are taking care of their employees and their institutions instead of spending a lot of time blogging about it or accepting interviews.

The reasoning here is sketchy in spots and doesn’t suggest a sophisticated grasp of what makes someone the center of a good magazine story. My take was a sort of alumni magazine–induced angst. The second story cited by Peterson, titled “Diverse Futures: The Myth of the High-Stakes Smithie,” appeared on the blog of a writer named Mo Daviau. Daviau was writing about dealing with the aftermath of an abusive relationship, and her post included this:

This extra layer of shame we create for ourselves when we fall down the hill becomes a barrier to reaching out to other women in our times of need. How many times have our classmates said, tongue not so firmly in cheek, that they don’t feel worthy of attending a reunion, or of sending in news to the Smith Alumnae Quarterly? That their accomplishments thus far had not earned them some illusive sense of permission, or that Smith’s classrooms, free of males taking up space and dominating discussions, were underground bunkers in which we were given the secret code for never, ever making a mistake.

Smith claims to have a commitment to honoring diverse backgrounds, but honoring diverse futures? Not so much.

Again, I found the reasoning spotty, as if the post had been written before the author fully thought through what she wanted to say, but it’s an emotional response and the emotion, not the logical rigor, carries it. No argument with that, and that last bit records a hit — I think Daviau is right in regard to most of our magazines. We do have an obsession with post-graduation accomplishment, especially any of us laboring under the senior administrative mandate of all brag all the time.

Daviau then fired a torpedo:

You have to remember this about the Smith Alumnae Quarterly: it’s a fundraising organ, targeted at women between the ages of 21 and 101. It has to please everyone, so it pleases no one in particular.

Ezra Pound has that line about aiming for the middle. That.

It is largely written and edited by writers and editors who are not alumnae. They are writing to please their employer. They are not writing from the soul of our collective experience.

It’s a pretty fabrication. It isn’t real. Read it or throw it in the trash the minute it touches your mailbox. It doesn’t matter. It’s all myth. So don’t feel a corrosive sense of failure if you fear you haven’t done something to get you in those pages. I’m not going to tell you that you’re enough out of some hippie self-help Oprah horseshit sense of obligation, as if some platitude from Mo Daviau is going to save you from yourself. I’m just going to tell you that the SAQ is plastic made-up garbage and nothing you should ever measure yourself against.


The core of Daviau’s post is her struggle to deal with past abuse, and it is not my intent to be churlish about that, in any way. It sounds like she experienced a lot of rough years, and that shouldn’t happen to anyone. But the way she brought Smith’s magazine into it fascinates me, and points to why favoring conventional alumni magazine articles over genuine stories, promotion over engagement, blows back in a magazine’s face. I am not picking on Smith Alumnae Quarterly here. I don’t know what sort of mandate senior administration imposes on the editors as SAQ, but it probably does not differ markedly from what most of us work under. What interests me, and what is instructive, I think, is what sticks in the craws of Fickenscher and Daviau and what that can tell us about how some readers respond to our work:

— The only people who university magazines ever write about are people who will, in the estimation of someone at the school, generate checks made out to development — and that’s the only reason they appear in the magazine. (Unless they’re in the magazine because  development wants to kiss up to a big donor.)

— The alumni magazine is only a fund-raising tool. That is, it’s not really a magazine at all.

— Alumni magazines do too little to capture the soul of a university, in all its inclusive complexity.

— The stories in university magazines repel readers by doing little more more than hoisting impossible exemplars into view.

I know nothing about either of these writers. Perhaps nothing would induce them to hold university magazines in more esteem. But I believe the best way not to create this sort of response, but to create the engagement that should be at the heart of the enterprise, is to eschew the bragging, ditch the superficial feature writing that reduces everyone to a handful of cliches, and as editors find and present the sort of stories that bring readers into contact with people, knowledge, problems, and attempts at solution in all their complicated, messy, contradictory, inconsistent, puzzling, bemusing, laudable, exasperating, human glory.

Cheer up, you only have 11,999 competitors

Gleaned online today:

According to the Association of Magazine Media, 91% of people read magazines, an all-time high.

“Newsstand numbers have gone down and some of the really large magazines have lowered subscription levels, circulation levels, because they couldn’t sustain the expenses as ad budgets got smaller,” said Sterner. For example, the circulation for National Geographic was close to 8 million in 2000. By 2009, it has fallen to 4.5 million, according to the Alliance for Audited Media. Reader’s Digest has dropped from 12.5 million in 2000 to 7.5 million in 2009.

But, there are more magazine readers because there are more magazines.

“There are more magazines than we’ve ever had in our entire history,” said Samir Husni, Director of the Magazine Innovation Center at the University of Mississippi.

In 1980, there were 2,000 magazines. Now, there are 12,000.

Digital makes up about 5 to 8 percent of the magazine market.

The thing is not to worry about whether anyone reads print periodicals anymore. The thing is to grow and sustain an audience for your print periodical by producing high-quality editorial content, well written and well edited and well designed, and get the word out to them that these professionally crafted stories were created just for them as members of your alumni base.

Why, yes, I do like the sound of my own voice

headshot-1This is self-aggrandizing, for sure, but…writer Erin Peterson, who publishes in several of our magazines, recently interviewed me for her newsletter, discussing the improvement of writing in university magazines. She put notice of it on CUE, but not everyone subscribes to CUE so I thought I’d point to the Q&A here.

I’ve abridged myself below; the whole conversation can be read here. Peterson will soon publish another interview, this one with Jeff Lott, and when she does I’ll make note of it.

From your perspective, what makes the stories you included here so strong?

Our strongest stories start with deep reporting. The writer has to put in the time: hours and hours with the central figure, multiple interviews with as many other sources as time will permit, lots of reading, lots of just hanging around taking notes. We encourage writers to tell the story that matters to them. I used to tell my writing students, back when I was the Hopkins faculty, “Write like you mean it.”

…I once profiled a horse trainer for The Penn Stater, and could have done it with an interview and a few hours of hanging out at the track. But I spent two full days, starting at 5 a.m., at the track and the trainer’s barn and in conversation with the trainer, and so was there when one of his horses broke a leg on the track and had to be euthanized right there. You’ve got to be present for that kind of stuff.

The story about George Kennedy is a 4,000-word piece — a length that many editors would never consider for a single profile. …Tell me a little about the actual reporting.

…As for the reporting, I spent about six weeks on it, interviewing George Kennedy about four times, interviewing his assistant coach, talking to numerous swimmers on the team and alumni who swam for George. I attended many practices, just hanging out, and also taking pictures because simultaneously I was working on a year-long project to photograph Hopkins athletes at practice. I researched articles in swimming journals — there are such things. I researched the history of the Hopkins program. Craziest thing I did was haul my sorry self in for 6 a.m. practices — I am not a morning person.

…Most stories that fail do so because of inadequate reporting. If you think two phone calls will suffice to produce a story, make 10 calls. Then make an 11th, because time and again I’ve found that the 11th call, the one I really didn’t feel like making, provides some clincher detail that makes a story. It’s perverse, but true. Hang out, hang out, hang out. Interview and observe your subject in a variety of settings, not just her office, but over coffee, over lunch, at her house, in her lab; watch her teach classes; watch her meet with grad students. Find out her dog’s name, look at what she has on the refrigerator door or the walls of her office, see how she interacts with her kids, have follow-up conversations by phone or email. Observe and take notes on everything. Read her writing. Talk to her colleagues. Talk to her rivals. Talk to her former doctoral students. Then, when you’re sick of the whole subject, call her again. It’s the only way.

Professor Naipaul


The novelist V.S. Naipaul’s rules for beginning writers, worth a look by non-beginners and editors:

— Do not write long sentences. A sentence should not have more than 10 or 12 words.

— Each sentence should make a clear statement. It should add to the statement that went before. A good paragraph is a series of clear, linked statements.

— Do not use big words. If your computer tells you that your average word is more than five letters long, there is something wrong. The use of small words compels you to think about what you are writing. Even difficult ideas can be broken down into small words.

— Never use words whose meanings you are not sure of. If you break this rule you should look for other work.

— The beginner should avoid using adjectives, except those of color, size and number. Use as few adverbs as possible.

— Avoid the abstract. Always go for the concrete.

— Every day, for six months at least, practice writing in this way. Small words; clear, concrete sentences. It may be awkward, but it’s training you in the use of language. It may even be getting rid of the bad language habits you picked up at the university. You may go beyond these rules after you have thoroughly understood and mastered them.

As advice, you could do worse.