Mix Mastery

Let’s say you’ve snagged an assignment to write an article about the best golf courses in the country. You do your research, ask the experts and craft a compelling roundup of 10 terrific courses that would challenge any golfer—all of them, as it happens, in the southeastern United States. Will your editor be happy?

Alas, no. You may have scored birdies with your research and writing, but you’ve hit a triple-bogey on that intangible essential that editors call “mix.”

Understanding the importance of mix can help you get inside editors’ heads and turn rejections into sales, assignments into acceptances. All it really means is an appreciation of that old saw about variety being the spice of life—and the savvy to apply that rule to your articles.

Check the spread

At first glance, this notion of mix might seem unfair—sort of the nonfiction writing version of quotas. Take our imaginary golf article, for example: A preponderance of the nation’s premier golf courses really are situated in the Southeast, some experts might say. Completely ignoring courses anywhere else (ever heard of Pebble Beach in California?) is an obvious error. But what if your roundup, while not utterly excluding the other three-quarters of the country, turned out seven Southern links out of 10?

Still, call your editor before hitting the “print” key. Warn him that your research is listing heavily southward and make sure that’s OK. Or does he want a wider geographical—here it comes—mix?

See, the problem your golf editor must deal with is that his readers, unlike your selection of courses, are scattered all across the country. If readers in Oregon are left thinking there’s nothing noteworthy within 2,000 miles, they may wonder if this magazine is worth getting.

The editor isn’t asking you to distort the truth. Almost any roundup feature like this, unless based on inarguable statistics, relies on an element of opinion and arbitrariness. Who’s to say what’s really “the best”?

Learn the art of the mix

But mix isn’t just a matter of geography. Suppose your city magazine wants a feature on a dozen up-and-coming local people in the arts. If your area happens to particularly shine in opera, your list may have more than one opera star-in-the-making. But deliver six opera personalities out of 12, and you can expect a testy phone call from the editor about “mix.”

What’s the right mix? There’s no all-purpose answer, and your articles don’t have to represent a scientifically random sampling. In your arts article, for example, you’d probably want to make sure to include at least one person from each of the art forms with a significant presence in your city. If that fills eight of your slots, say, you wouldn’t want to devote all of the other four to the same art form. Splitting the four “openings” among four art forms would be the safest bet; you might devote two of these to opera—for a total of three opera up-and-comers—if opera is indeed overwhelmingly prominent in your burg.

The same principle applies, if less mathematically obvious, to articles that aren’t roundups and lists. Editors will still be looking for mix in your selection of experts to interview, examples and anecdotes. If you’re explaining the latest biotechnology breakthroughs, unless you’ve pitched the story as all about biotech at the University of Nebraska, the editor will be unpleasantly surprised to read about nothing but Cornhusker scientists. Your article about swimming-pool safety may need three cautionary tales of drownings and near-drownings, but the mix will take your article under if all three anecdotes come from the same town.

Mix can be a problem in weird ways, too. If all three victims in your pool-safety story just happen to be 7 years old, or all coincidentally are named Brian, you have a mix mess. Are you trying to prove that 7 is a particularly dangerous age? That parents should avoid naming their children Brian to reduce drowning risks? If not, you need to fix your mix—you’re inadvertently making a point you don’t mean to make.

Here are quick tips to help you get the right mix in your article:

  • Your articles don’t have to represent a scientific random sampling, but they should reflect a city or area’s population.
  • Get the right mix by outlining a research strategy at the start. Charts can help you organize by race, gender, geography, etc.
  • Avoid relying heavily on one or two sources, or using most of your sources as window- dressing.
  • Ask your editor about any crucial variables you should know about before starting.
  • Getting the right mix can also mean juggling multiple variables. To return to our imaginary arts assignment, your job isn’t done once you’ve balanced your subjects among the city’s various cultural options. Suppose your arts allocation leaves you writing about a dozen white men? Or a dozen black women, for that matter? Unless your original assignment had a clear gender, racial or ethnic component (“12 Greek-Americans in the Arts”), the editor will expect a mix that, at minimum, roughly reflects the city’s population or its participants in the arts. (A similar roundup of star quilters might reasonably be all or mostly female; your feature on jockeys can’t be faulted for underrepresenting tall and portly people.)

    Do a research checklist

    Balancing all these factors may require some last-minute revision, but the right mix has to start with the right research. You can’t put in your story what isn’t in your notebook. So, even as you develop a research strategy, you also have to keep mix in mind.

    Here are some key points to remember as you research, to make sure you have a good mix when you sit down to write:

  • How many different sources do you have? Are they truly representative, or are your interviews unfairly skewed by geography, gender, professional specialty or other factors? You might want to sketch out a simple chart, showing whom you plan to talk to and how they stack up on factors important to your mix.
  • Within your mix of sources, are you relying too heavily on just one or two sources? Even if you mention a variety of sources, your mix can be thrown off if 90 percent of your article comes from one source and the rest are just window dressing.
  • If you’re writing a roundup, consider in advance where you want to insure variety. What subcategories are important to your subject? If it’s cuisine, you might list Italian, French, Mexican, Chinese and so forth. If you’re writing about baseball, you may need to strike a balance between infielders, outfielders, pitchers and catchers.
  • A grid can help you balance multiple mix factors. Write one set of factors across the top (opera, theater, visual arts, dance, etc.) and your other key variable (male or female, perhaps, or maybe a geographic breakdown) down the side. As you tentatively select subjects, mark where they fit in your grid. You’ll be able to tell at a glance if you have holes or overweighted clusters that will throw off your mix.
  • Don’t hesitate to get the editor’s take—before it’s too late. Make sure you and your editor are on the same wavelength about the importance of mix and what the crucial variables might be. The editor of an inflight magazine might worry most about spreading out the subjects among the airline’s various destination cities; a computer magazine editor might not care about geography, but insist on roughly equal representation for Dell, IBM, Gateway and other major manufacturers; a college alumni magazine editor’s job might depend on keeping the deans of various schools equally happy.

    Getting the right mix doesn’t mean all your article’s problems are solved, of course. You’ve still got to get good material and write it effectively. But mastering mix can keep you from revisions that require re-researching your whole piece, or from editorial ire that might take you out of the mix for future assignments.

    Variety, it turns out, is more than merely the spice of life. It’s also an essential ingredient in successful articles.

    This article appeared in the April 2002 issue of Writer’s Digest.

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