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The Body Beautiful

Transitions

Injecting Emotion

 
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THE BODY BEAUTIFUL
In the body of an article, you convey the majority of the information you have compiled, and the body is the prime territory for boredom. You have already stated the situation. All that is left are the details, which can be extremely tedious if not presented in an entertaining way.

We are all occasionally "headline readers." When time is short, we scan headlines of stories in the daily paper, perhaps even the lead paragraph, but that's it-unless the story is interesting enough (or well written enough) to make us want to read on.

Think of your audience as being headline readers. If your lead is strong enough, they may read the next paragraph or two, but if what lies beyond the lead does not draw them into the story and hold their attention, they will either go on to the next article, or worse, discard the magazine altogether.

Every reader you lose is one more you and the editor will have to win back. Keeping a reader "turned on" is a lot easier than retrieving one who's been turned off.

TRANSITIONS
In the body of an article, each thought must lead to the next in such a way as to keep the reader moving through the entire story. The technical term for this is "transition." Transitions are like the knots that hold together the sheets a prisoner uses to escape out the fifth-floor window. Without them he would not be able to reach his destination. If it takes five sheets to reach the ground, and he ties together only three, he will be left hanging too high to jump. Likewise, if he ties two sheets together, and then the other three, without joining the two sets, he still cannot reach the ground. The same is true when writing an article. If you tie the first two thoughts together, and then try to jump to the third, fourth or fifth, your reader will probably give up. The jump is just too far. Learning transitions is not difficult. As a matter of fact, it comes naturally to most of us in conversation.

Let's say you are having a discussion on politics, or duck hunting, or the difficulty of getting your kids to brush their teeth. You don't say, "I bought Jimmy a pretty dinosaur toothbrush, because he said he would brush more with it," and then jump to, "I once had gingivitis." If you did, your listener would probably be mentally scratching his or her head, because the term "gingivitis," is foreign to them and they have no way of knowing how it relates to the discussion of Jimmy's toothbrush. The actual discussion would probably go more like this:

"I bought Jimmy a red-white-and blue toothbrush, because he said he would brush more with it. I remember when my mom used to bribe me with promises of reading stories to get me to brush my teeth. The problem was that back then people didn't know the value of flossing and the importance of healthy gums as well as teeth.

I learned the hard way about flossing; I had a disease called gingivitis, and boy was it a drag. My gums would swell and bleed and eventually my teeth just started falling out. I have plates now: uppers and lowers. I don't have one real tooth in my head.

The toothbrush I got for Jimmy has a little flossing thing on the end, and I am already teaching him how to use it. That kid is not going through what I did. Not if I can help it, anyway."

The transitions here are obvious. They come naturally in conversation. Jimmy's toothbrush is tied to the second thought-the value of flossing-by the speaker relating what her mother used to do to get her to brush her teeth, and how that wasn't enough.

Transition to the second paragraph is accomplished by the first sentence: "I learned the hard way about flossing ("echoing" the word "flossing" from the first paragraph). This is then tied to the disease: "I had a disease called gingivitis, which leads to an explanation of the alien term. Finally, the last paragraph is tied to the first sentence through a description of the toothbrush.

I know this sounds obvious and trivial, but that is the point. Most transitions occur so naturally that we use them unconsciously when speaking. Writing, on the other hand, is another matter.

If you have not done any article writing yet, probably the most common writing you do is letters to friends and family. This has not taught you much about transitions because transitions are not necessary in most friendly letters. It is perfectly acceptable to jump from one subject to another. Most of us do. Informal letters, with the exception of the romantic type or those sent to the editor, are usually just lists of events and status reports on health, happiness, financial matters, and so on. Readers know this, and remain interested because they want to know what is on the list. With articles, your readers are strangers you have grabbed with an interesting tidbit of information. If you then ramble through a lot of seemingly unrelated facts, they will fade away as quickly as partygoers excuse themselves from a particularly boring guest.

Here is how not to write an article:

SWOLLEN EYE, SWELL CURE
If you've never been treated for a severe eye inflammation, the word uveitis probably won't ring a bell. It is responsible for about 10 percent of the visual handicaps-from poor vision to blindness-in this country. It covers a group of diseases that inflame the eye, many of which are difficult if not impossible to cure.

Posterior uveitis is perhaps the most dangerous, mainly because this swelling of the back of the eye has no noticeable symptoms at an early stage. Posterior uveitis involves the immune system. It is complicated to treat. The treatments-corticosteroids or anticancer drugs-often cause severe side effects and may not even work.

Robert Nussenblatt, MD, of the National Eye Institute in Bethesda, Maryland, has studied posterior uveitis in animals. T-lymphocytes appeared to be actively involved in causing the disease. He decided to treat the disease with a drug that is proving to be a boon in organ transplant surgery: cyclosporin A.

"Cyclosporin," says Dr. Nussenblatt, "was originally developed in the hope of adding another powerful antibiotic to the physician's arsenal, one that would complement such drugs as penicillin and Terramycin. Unfortunately, its antibiotic qualities were considerably less than expected, and cyclosporin was more or less abandoned, only to be revived when researchers discovered that the drug appeared to have an extraordinary ability to regulate the immune system."

Nussenblatt and his colleagues carried out a series of tests that proved that cyclosporin could turn off uveitis in animals.

"In our initial tests we treated only those patients who had received corticosteroids or anticancer drugs and had to discontinue treatment, either because of severe side effects or the failure of the therapy. Cyclosporin proved to be extremely effective in eliminating the symptoms of posterior uveitis in these patients with a minimum of side effects."

This is part of an article that was published, though not in the form shown above. Note that all the basic facts are there, but separated by dead-air spaces. The article jerks merrily along toward we don't know what, and by now, we certainly don't care.

Because it is a specialized subject and appeared in a health magazine, it may not be your cup of tea. However, written as it is above, even uveitis sufferers might have second thoughts about straining their eyes to finish reading it. Let's take a look at it one paragraph at a time.

In the first paragraph, we are told three things: first, if we have never suffered a severe eye inflammation we probably won't know what the word uveitis means; second, "It" causes 10 percent of the visual handicaps in the U.S.; and third, "It" is not one, but a group of eye diseases.

Even though the meaning of "it" may be clear, the lack of connective information is irritating. The sentences, though factual, stand alone, as if unrelated, and the paragraph does not flow. By adding just five words, and eliminating one "it", we can create transitions that make the paragraph much easier and more enjoyable to read:

SWOLLEN EYE, SWELL CURE
If you've never been treated for a severe eye infection, the word uveitis probably won't ring a bell, even though it is responsible for about 10 percent of the visual handicaps-from poor vision to blindness-in this country. The term uveitis covers a group of diseases that inflame the eye, many of which are difficult if not impossible to cure.

This is an example of transitions within a paragraph. They act as connective tissue, tying together the three separate facts. Most paragraphs deal with only one fact, but provide more information on that fact than can be conveyed in a short lead. More important are transitions between paragraphs. Beginning the second paragraph of the article with "Posterior uveitis" is not only abrupt, but it does not tie together with what has been said before.

Of course, the reader can probably figure out that posterior uveitis is one of the "group of diseases that inflame the eye," but it requires a split-second pause in attention to the article itself. Each time you make it necessary for your readers to work when reading, you move closer to losing them altogether.

The solution? Two words: "Of these." By beginning with this phrase, you tie the second paragraph to the first:

"Of these, posterior uveitis is perhaps the most dangerous, mainly because this swelling of the back of the eye has no noticeable symptoms at an early stage."

"Of these," refers to the "group of diseases" mentioned in the first paragraph, and lets the reader know right away that posterior uveitis is one.

The following sentence-"Posterior uveitis involves the immune system."-is equally abrupt. There has not been enough information given about why posterior uveitis is "perhaps the most dangerous."

Saying that it has "no noticeable symptoms at an early stage" may seem sufficient, but the average reader cannot, without some work, immediately see the consequences of this fact. To continue the flow, you must provide this information for them:

"Of these, posterior uveitis is perhaps the most dangerous, mainly because this swelling of the back of the eye has no noticeable symptoms at an early stage and can cause considerable damage before a professional is consulted."

To eliminate the abruptness of the following sentence, add the two words "Moreover, since" to the beginning, and combine it with the next, equally abrupt, sentence:

". . . Moreover, since posterior uveitis involves the immune system, it is complicated to treat."

Finally, to smooth out the transition to the last sentence, begin it with the word "And:"

". . . Moreover, since posterior uveitis involves the immune system, it is complicated to treat. And the treatments-corticosteroids or anticancer drugs-often cause severe side effects and may not even work."

Here is the revised excerpt. See if you can recognize the transitions that have been added in the remainder:

SWOLLEN EYE, SWELL CURE
If you've never been treated for a severe eye inflammation, the word uveitis probably won't ring a bell, even though it's responsible for about 10 percent of the visual handicaps-from poor vision to blindness-in this country. The term uveitis covers a group of diseases that inflame the eye, many of which are difficult if not impossible to cure.

Of these, posterior uveitis is perhaps the most dangerous, mainly because this swelling of the eye has no noticeable symptoms at an early stage and can cause considerable damage before a professional is called in. Moreover, since posterior uveitis involves the immune system, it is complicated to treat. And the treatments-corticosteroids or anticancer drugs-often cause severe side effects and may not even work.

Robert Nussenblatt, MD, of the National Eye Institute in Bethesda, Maryland, had been studying posterior uveitis in animals and noted that T-lymphocytes-the immune system cells responsible for the rejection of skin grafts and organ transplants-appeared to be actively involved in causing the disease. He decided to treat the disease with a drug that is proving to be a boon in organ transplant surgery: cyclosporin A.

"Cyclosporin," says Dr. Nussenblatt, "was originally developed in the hope of adding another powerful antibiotic to the physician's arsenal, one that would complement such drugs as penicillin and Terramycin. Unfortunately, its antibiotic qualities were considerably less than expected, and cyclosporin was more or less abandoned, only to be revived when researchers discovered that the drug appeared to have an extraordinary ability to regulate the body's immune system."

Using this newly rediscovered drug, Nussenblatt and his colleagues carried out a series of tests that proved cyclosporin could turn off uveitis in animals. Following this success the researchers turned to human trials.

"In our initial tests we treated only those patients who had received corticosteroids or anticancer drugs and had to discontinue treatment, either because of severe side effects or the failure of the therapy. Cyclosporin proved to be extremely effective in eliminating the symptoms of posterior uveitis in these patients with a minimum of side effects."

When you reread what you write, check to see if there is enough connective information to make it flow. Look for abrupt thoughts and phrases and try to grease the gaps with transitions. As with any facet of writing, however, you must guard against over doing it. As you can see, the transitions added to the previous examples are only a matter of adding a few appropriate words, and replacing those that create jerks.

Keeping an article flowing is one of the most important elements of craft you can learn, and transitions are the tools you use to accomplish this.

INJECTING EMOTION
The word "dry" is often used to describe certain writings, and there are types of writing wherein a kind of dryness is called for: research papers, scholarly dissertations, corporate memos etc. When writing articles, however, dryness must be avoided.

Webster describes the word "dry" as, among other things, devoid of interest or sympathy; barren; boring; cold; matter-of-fact; dull; plain or unemotional. In order to catch and hold your readers' attention, you must evoke some emotion in them, whether it be humor, anger, fear, empathy, wonder, desire, shock or any of dozens of other reactions. In the lead, one of the most important emotions the reader must feel is curiosity. You create curiosity, however, by subtly developing other emotions in the reader's mind.

Take the story "Toxic Migration" for example. If the writer had written, "Two men died of toxic shellfish poisoning after eating illegally harvested clams in Southern California," granted, you may have felt a slight sympathy, but probably not enough to make you want to know much more about the story. Instead, knowing that the title, with the word "Toxic" in it, essentially gave away the essence of the article, the writer lulled the readers with a seemingly innocent story of a pleasant afternoon, and then shocked them with the fact of the deaths.

There are several ways to make your audience feel the importance of what you have to say. With an article about an environmental, medical or military matter, for example, fear is usually the first emotion you invoke. This can be seen graphically in the headlines of the supermarket tabloids, but we are not talking about sensationalism. Fear is a legitimate emotion for a writer to evoke, especially if you are warning readers about something that might effect the health and safety of their families.

Other stories, such as those concerning new technologies, archaeological discoveries, entertainers and entertainment, or sports, rely mostly on wonder and desire for their emotional underpinning. If, for example, you are telling the story of how a housewife decides at age forty to go into training for competitive world-class bicycling, you must create a sense of wonder in the reader's mind at such a difficult undertaking. If all you do is relate the fact that she competed, came in twelfth, and went home to her husband and children, it wouldn't make much of a story, no matter how many words you used to tell it.

If you begin, however, by relating some of the history behind her desire to compete, and lead the reader through the training period in such a way that they feel the pain and inconvenience of her exercise regimen, and then show the effect it had on her family relationships (whether good or bad) so that the reader can identify with the situation, you have a good start. Finally, if you go on to tell of the actual race and how she nearly quit at several points only to find the fortitude to continue, the reader will experience a sense of wonder at her accomplishment. The fact that she came in twelfth then becomes insignificant; the perseverance that led her to train and actually finish the race will seem far more important.

For articles like this, some study of the art of fiction is beneficial. Training yourself to write fiction is a good way to understand the dynamics of emotion for human-interest articles. You do not have to be a fiction writer in order to use the tricks of the fiction trade, but studying books on the craft of fiction will help you to improve the articles you write in this vein.

Often, however, you will find yourself working with cold "dry" facts, and creating emotion may seem to be nearly impossible. Let's look at some examples.

Say you come across a story about a program for diabetics who want to have children. It is a fairly simple matter of constantly monitoring their blood sugar levels and adjusting them regularly during pregnancy. The results have been very positive. This would probably interest any diabetic woman of childbearing years. However, it may be of limited appeal to others.

If you were to have an assignment from a baby magazine to do this story, the readers with diabetes would probably constitute only a small percentage of your audience. How then, do you make the story interesting to the rest of the readers? Emotion.

Though the non-diabetic readers cannot know how difficult and traumatic the decision to have a child is for a diabetic, you can cause them to feel these emotions. You do this by creating empathy in the minds of other readers; that is, give them an idea of what they would be up against if they were diabetic and wanted a child:

GOOD NEWS FOR DIABETIC MOTHERS
Until recently diabetic mothers had only one chance in five of delivering a healthy baby. Pregnant diabetics often miscarried, and even those infants who were delivered successfully tended to be unusually large and plagued by a variety of medical problems. However, recent experiments at Cornell Medical Center in New York City have shown that close monitoring of blood glucose levels and comprehensive self-care can eliminate these risks.

In this instance the use of disturbing and little known statistics lets the reader know right away how difficult the decision must be for a diabetic. With this information up front, you create the emotion of empathy and, even the non-diabetic-who has probably come into contact with one or more sufferers of diabetes-will probably want to read on.

The use of emotion can be either subtle or stark. Statistics, if they are used properly, can shock or scare a reader into reading on, while the story format can lull a reader into following the story line. Here is an example wherein several of the methods mentioned so far are employed in a single story:

ACID AIR
Phil had lived all of his 32 years in the cold, polluted environment of Pittsburgh, working in the steel mills and raising his family under gray, ominous skies. Leaving friends and relatives to accept a lower-paying construction job in Jacksonville, Florida was difficult. But after getting a clean bill of health on his recent company physical, he felt as if it might be his last opportunity to start over in an environment relatively free of pollution.

Unfortunately for Phil, he was unaware of statistics that had puzzled National Cancer Institute officials for years: for some reason, Jacksonville citizens have more lung cancer than any other group in the United States.

Just four years after the move, Phil lay in a hospital bed, his body ravaged by lung cancer. He had been a heavy smoker, consuming about 1.5 packs a day, but there was another factor that ultimately may have contributed to his death: tiny particles of sulfuric acid, also known as acid air.

Here you can see a combination of story format, statistics, a mild shock factor, sympathy, and empathy. It is seldom you will find an opportunity to evoke this many emotions in one passage, and you should be careful not to over dramatize or put too much emotion into a story. However, the more emotion you can evoke without assaulting your readers the more involved they will become in your article.

Giving your articles an emotional quality is of utmost importance. If your audience can feel the importance of what you have to say, you stand a far better chance of holding their interest than if you simply relate the facts.

Because all the subjects you write about will be different, there can be no rules that tell you exactly how to emotionalize each one. Try reading books on the art of fiction and, in your nonfiction reading, look for the emotional mechanisms used by the writer. If you come across an article that seems dry to you, take a minute to study it and discover why, perhaps rewriting it yourself to add just the right emotional touch.

By using these methods, your writing will eventually take on a natural emotional quality. The techniques will become second nature, and your articles will sell.

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