Friday, October 22, 2021

Get to the point already

Imagine that your reader is a middle-aged man sitting in a recliner. He has a beer in one hand and the TV remote in the other. The amount of time he spends looking at one channel before clicking to another is the interval in which you can get and hold his attention. 

That means, in your article, your memo, your report, your release, your email, that you have to say up front and concisely what will interest the reader enough to engage a commitment to go beyond the first two or three sentences. You cannot take the reader by the hand and lead them gently toward the import of what you have to say. Putting the main thing in the sixth paragraph is putting it in a place most readers will never see. 

You know this is true because this is exactly how you read. You do not read every article to the end; sometimes you do not read beyond the headline. (Your editor will read to the end because they have to, and maybe your mother.) You have a limited amount of time and attention to bestow, and so does your potential reader, which makes snap choices inevitable. 

That does not mean that you have to wad your entire content into an unwieldy opening sentence or sixty-word paragraph. You have to identify a single central element that will be meaningful to the reader and focus on it. As they sometimes tell you, if you can't say what you have to say in a single sentence, you don't know what you have to say. 

Accomplishing this will require you to be a ruthless self-editor. The first paragraph in the first draft of this post no longer exists, and nearly all the sentences have undergone some revision. That's how you get to where you need to go. 

If you have read this far, my strategy worked; if you have not, it didn't.