John McIntyre, whom James Wolcott calls "the Dave Brubeck of the art and craft of copy editing," writes on language, editing, journalism, and other manifestations of human frailty. Comments welcome. Identifying his errors relieves him of the burden of omniscience. Write to jemcintyre@gmail.com, befriend at Facebook, or follow at Twitter: @johnemcintyre. Back 2009-2012 at the original site, http://weblogs.baltimoresun.com/news/mcintyre/blog/ and now at www.baltimoresun.com/news/language-blog/.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

When do you stop?

No doubt it is psychologically necessary for writers to believe that someone will read their work, but our experience as readers tells us otherwise.

There was a telling newsroom moment some years back when a senior editor, offering drive-by praise to a reporter about a story, said, “I read it all the way through.” If he is not routinely reading stories to the end in his own paper, why would he or the writer expect that readers do?

In newspapers, in magazines, and online, we scan and skim, and it does not take much for us to decide to move on. It would surely benefit us as writers and editors to understand what readers identify as stopping points in our work. I have a few ideas, but I welcome your comments and contributions. So:

Throat-clearing:  Some writers, particularly inexperienced ones, think that they need to take the reader by the hand and lead him or her along a winding path of background information before establishing what the starting point of the article is. I suspect that if you do not make clear to the reader within a mere handful of sentences, a couple of paragraphs, what the focus of your article is, you are at high risk that the reader will never proceed long enough to discover it.

This holds true as well for the hackneyed convention of the anecdotal lead. If  the writer spends paragraphs describing people whose circumstances are as commonplace and banal as our own, that is supposed to seize our attention?

Obstacles:  Writers tend to go native: Police reporters start to write like cops; people writing about government mimic bureaucrats; business reporters echo management cant. All of this jargon can throw up impediments to the reader.

Writers who have spent a long time developing a major article become immersed in the subject, particularly if they have revised an article so frequently that they can no longer hear how it would sound. I once edited a longish article that had, high up, a paragraph of stunning impenetrability. Because the writer was one of our stars, I couldn’t touch it; I had to make my case in a meeting with the writer and a clutch of other editors. The writer glared at me across the conference table as I explained my misgivings and then said that the paragraph should remain as written. And it was so. The next day I asked three or four people what they had thought of the article, and all of them had dropped it on encountering that paragraph.*

Errors: If in reading an article on a subject about which you are informed, you discover an error of fact, I think that that may be enough to make you move on, because such errors diminish the credibility of the writer and the publication.

Some people stop reading out of irritation when they come across errors of grammar and usage, because such errors tell them that the writer is not really a professional. And yes, some of them may be, you know, English majors, or retired schoolteachers with a lot of free time, or peevers, but it’s not in the writer’s interest to sacrifice any readers unnecessarily.

The headline: As Hank Glamann used to tell us at ACES, if they don’t read the big type, they won’t look at the little stuff underneath. Now, especially since writers online, and increasingly in print, are expected to write their own headlines, keep in mind that if the headline is obscure, or tries too hard to be clever, or just looks dull, few readers will even get as far as the gripping opening sentences.

Over to you: Assuming, rashly, that you have gotten this far, no doubt there is more to be said. The comments are open.



*When your editor tells you that he has a problem in your text, dammit, pay attention.


11 comments:

  1. Re errors: Indeed!

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  2. John, I have trouble getting some students to understand these fundamentals. Thanks.

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  3. There is also the dull treatment. You can have a good story, well thought-out structure, flowing language, good fact checking and it still ends up flat. Uninspiring. Dull.

    It's the same as with a novel that you realize should be good - all the elements of goodness are there - but for some reason the author just fails to grip you. In the same way, an otherwise good journalist writing what should be a good piece just doesn't hit that elusive target where the facts and the language meld and create something we enjoy and want to finish reading. It's called a "story" for a reason.

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  4. May I also briefly point out that one of our "favourite" newsroom characters - the narrative writer who loves him/herself so very much - can ruin a good story with overembellishment. If it's a cops brief, we don't need to know what the fall air smelled like the day of the fender bender, thanks. I think most readers roll their eyes at this kind of treatment and move on.

    Convincing the writer of that, however, is another thing entirely.

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  5. When I regularly read newspapers I frequently found errors of fact in articles on subjects about which I was informed. I didn't just stop reading those articles, I stopped reading those newspapers.

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  6. Thank you. I see myself in some of these comments, and need to absorb them into my thinking about writing.

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  7. Preach it,John!

    I'm one of those retired (and retreaded) English teachers and read websites (thanks, AP), newspapers and magazines with red pen in hand.

    This morning I ran across this in an AP article and had trouble taking the writer seriously after that. BTW...Where was the proofreader, drinking tea and eating toast?

    Texas billionaire Ross Perot said Tuesday that the national tea party movement seems to be doing well but that time will tell how it will effect the country, government and November elections.

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  8. Love your advice, sir. I am especially guilty of "throat-clearing," I believe, because I try too hard to be clever at the start of a blog post, thinking that cleverness will rope in the reader.

    Thanks for opening my eyes!

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  9. I suppose another interest-killer is the formulaic article, whose outline (and probable ending) you can detect within the first two sentences. More in features than in news, as I think about it.

    John, I wonder whether it would fit within the parameters of your observations to (at some point) address the opposite of this -- the article about a topic that sounds like it would be a snoozer but becomes unexpectedly fascinating. I'm thinking here of things like David Owen's articles in "The Atlantic" on concrete (zzzzz) or sheetrock (zzzzzz), Michael Lewis on finance or sports, and such. Just a thot.

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  10. I balk at polemical axe-grinding. One of the reasons I decided to leave academia was that I became disgusted with so many young professors--regardless of the purported discipline, be it history or literature or religion--wrapping up each discourse with a pitch for Marxism.

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  11. When I was writing more regularly, I had been prone to the meandering, intricate introduction. I was fortunate to come under the guidance of an experienced reporter who taught me to slice through the unnecessary parts and get to the point. At the same time, I learned that the meandering often helped me get to my own starting place for the piece, so I learned to use it to my advantage, but not inflict it on anybody else.

    During a brief period as a writer of remarks for others to make at honorary dinners, I learned the first step to take after completing my first draft was to cut out all my favorite turns of phrase. I enjoyed making them, and I soon learned that the speaker would merely stumble over them or get confused. Cutting them out helped me get to the essence of what the speaker should say, giving him a structure on which to hang his own flowery rhetoric.

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