Judge Not, Lest Ye Be Judged

I’m full of clichés today. I suppose since I can’t use them in my quality work writing, I will use them to torment readers today. But, wait, there’s more! You can take that judgmental nature with which you read and apply it to good use. Instead of just shaking your head and thinking “this poor woman needs a good editor,” you can help us out by judging the Azbees. If you’re not familiar with them, you can get the 411 here. http://www.asbpe.org/azbee-awards

We have more than 1,300 entries that require a critical eye from a quality editor for judging. The commitment to judging can be from two hours on a small category to around a dozen or more hours. We’ll give you the criteria and make it as easy as possible and you’ll have several weeks to get it done. The payoff? You’ve helped colleagues, just like yourself, be judged fairly by a B2B journalism professional. Think you’re up the task? Then, email me your contact information at tonieauer@gmail.com and I’ll follow up with you.

— Tonie Auer, ASBPE National Competition Committee Czar

10 Reality Checks To Test High-Value Headline Delivery

Howard Rauch

Submitted by Howard Rauch

High-benefit headlines always have been a high-priority item for B2B editors.  When it comes to digital, having an audience engagement message start right at the top is even more critical.

For the past few years, I’ve judged the Best Headline category in the AZBEE Awards and similar competitions.  While many entries were on target in terms of delivery, a few others missed an occasional step.  Based on previous reviews, I recently posted the following series of caveats on my Twitter page (@editsol):

  1. Hot headline is easier to write if lede’s first sentence expresses key story point within first ten words.
  2. Bad habit:  basing head on first paragraph of PR announcement.  There often is better angle further down.
  3. Perhaps hot headline you try to write doesn’t work because accompanying article should have been scrapped.
  4. News item’s first sentence must tell readers something new.  Repeating all or part of the head is not how to do it.
  5. Some headline writing suffers from an “echo” that occurs when head and deck sound identical.
  6. If few of your articles require heads with numbers, make more assignments designed to fill in the void.
  7. Remember that subheads used to break up articles must have all attributes of main head.  “Labels” not allowed.
  8. Headline variety is helpful attention-getter.  Asking questions and pulling hot quotes from articles are two ways to do it.
  9. Design that limits main headline length to three or four words is a bummer!  Editors must demand more leeway in their turn at bat.
  10. Good headlines tell readers what the writer discovered as opposed to what was covered.  There is a difference!

Of the above items, the one competition entries goof on frequently is #6.  This is a somewhat baffling observation, yes?  Significant numbers demand reader engagement.  Nevertheless, the number of heads including quantitative grabbers rarely exceeds five percent of total.

Another caveat not listed above – “cute” – often gets heavy flak when mentioned in a headline critique.  Despite being nagged about this in previous competitions, some editors continue to embrace the temptation to engage in clever word play.  This is especially self-destructive when the main headline uses three or four words.  Surprisingly enough, attempts to be amusing rather than instructive regularly lead off some editorial columns.  Instead, accompanying headlines should clearly reflect the author’s opinion.  Achieving that goal requires at least eight to ten words.

Finally, despite previous blogs and face-to-face exhortations, I’ve been unable to convince some editors to abandon “source first, news last” lede sentences.  This snafu’s most common form is beginning the article with a source’s very long title and company affiliation.  Before you know it, readers may be dragged through over a dozen word s wondering when the real story starts!!

Use Nine-Factor Scoring to Rate Performance of In-print News Sections

By Howard Rauch

Although conventional in-print news sections supposedly are slated for an overhaul, they remain alive, but not necessarily well, via existing formats. So a word to the wise, especially when you run your next competitive analysis match-up: Include a scoring system designed to identify and quantify news coverage strengths/weaknesses.

Recently I revised my system to include evaluation of nine factors (as opposed to the previous seven). In the future, I expect further revisions. Reason? Section content must provide an increased analytical slant. We also must dump all those “obligatory” puff blurbs in the interests of achieving a more authoritative focus.

For me, news section competitive analysis starts with a 20-factor scoring tabulation. I then narrow it down to the following nine-factor scoring system:

  1. Percent of news pages illustrated. Anything less than 100 percent is unacceptable.
  2. Percent of pages using infographics. The majority of news sections I’ve reviewed during the past year rarely use infographics. For many, one infographic per section is a big deal.
  3. Pages/graphics ratio. (Note: This is an addition to the previous system. You arrive at this indicator by dividing total illustrations section uses into total number of pages carrying news. Minimum target ratio is 1.5.
  4. Story-start ratio. You arrive at this number by dividing news section editorial page count (as opposed to total pages carrying news) into the number of articles run. Shoot for a story start ratio of 1.5-2.0. Ratios over 4.0 usually reflect an absence of depth.
  5. High-impact lead story. (Note: I’ll say more about this once the entire 9-factor list is presented).
  6. Urgency percent. Here we are evaluating the presence or absence of high-impact content. To get the current picture for your publication, divide total news section page count into total number of articles addressing a strong benefit or threat. The result never should be lower than 80.0%.
  7. Total end-user quotes. “End-user” refers to your key reader group. These quotes are tougher to come by, especially if your personal relationship with that group is severely limited.
  8. Average Fog Index for section’s first page. Everybody knows how FI works, right? If not, look it up via your favorite search engine. Preferred FI grade level range is 10-12.
  9. Five-factor headline evaluation. Sub-factors entering into this calculation include (1) headline story-telling value; (2) absence or presence of story-telling deck; (3) presence or absence of numbers; (4) overuse of “cute” low-value words/phrasing; (5) presence or absence of active verbs. Factor (3) is notable for its absence. Don’t we know that attention-getting numbers appeal to a B2B audience? Or do we just never insist that writers include hot numbers in their articles. (Hint: Create a staff hand-out listing several dozen questions that only can be answered with a number).

Every so often, I issue a client advisory concerning faltering news sections. My message usually identifies six shortfalls that require immediate upgrade:

  • An illustration on every news page.
  • A lead story that occupies one full page and includes direct quotes from three or four end-user sources.
  • More frequent use of follow-up stories. For example, in the case of regulatory developments, obtain industry reaction from end-users (as opposed to the usual, more easily accessible association and consulting organization sources).
  • At least one page per section using an infographic (preferably a chart).
  • A minimum of one direct quote in every article using three or more paragraphs.
  • Observation of Fog Index principles. At the very least, average sentence length per article should stay close to 20 words.

That covers everything for now. For additional quick tips on a variety of editorial topics, follow me on Twitter: www.twitter.com/editorialtype.