former journalists discuss a profession in crisis

If you build a better story, they will read

In Blog on April 20, 2014 at 5:48 pm

The Washington Post recently published two intriguing stories on reading.  The first, citing neuroscientists, experts and a few members of the public, discussed the influence of technology on reading habits.  The thrust of the story was that people find it more difficult to read novels, or even shorter documents, from beginning to end.  The problem was attributed solely to the popularity of online reading, which has us approaching materials in a more scattered, mechanical way and discourages slower-paced reading.

The story went viral, according to the Post, resulting in “insane numbers” of page views and “a gazillion” tweets, even a prominent mention on The Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson.   But when the Post examined whether people actually read the piece, the results seemed disheartening. Less than a third of people who clicked on the story, read it in its entirety. However, to those who measure reader interest, the ability of the Post to hold the attention of 31 percent of readers was pretty impressive. Experts who track online reading behavior say that a third of readers who click never stop to read any of the text. And the original story, to its credit, was both thoughtful and informative.

I certainly don’t intend to challenge the science about reading habits.  But I know the major reason I fail to read a newspaper or magazine story, whether print or online, and it has little to do with technology.  I don’t have the time to wade through bad or even mediocre writing.

Too many news and feature stories are too long.  Too many stories lack clarity.  They make me work too hard to discover the kernel of news.  Too much of what we read has flabby prose, both cliché ridden and unimaginative.  The stories lack the careful pruning, shaping and insistence on precision that good copyeditors used to give

The best way to fight the growing urge to speed through stories is to make them better.

The New Yorker knows that.  The weekly magazine has a circulation of more than one million readers by offering stories that are written with great care and exactitude.  The stories are long, but they are rich with detail.  I find myself reading New Yorker articles about subjects in which I haven’t the remotest interest, purely for the love of the prose.  Who wouldn’t read a story by Ian Frazier about the fate of the horseshoe crab that began with this exchange?  Diane, did you have your conga-drum lesson? No, I missed it today. Horseshoe crabs are the only thing that can take me from my congas.

And good writing doesn’t have to be restricted to weekly magazines.   The Wall Street Journal’s Carol Lee could have written a ho-hum lame little feature about the sightings of a red fox at the White House. But her story demonstrated what can happen when a good writer and reporter is fully engaged.   It not only had an extremely clever and tightly written first paragraph, the reporter went out of her way to add some historic context, including anecdotes about other wildlife that had disrupted previous administrations.  And the facts were all there.  The hair color of a fox is “burnt orange,” and “they are typically about 3 feet long, 2 feet tall and weigh up to 15 pounds.”

I’m not denying that it is more difficult to attract, and then retain, readers’ attention.  But I still think there is hope for the written word.  If you build a better story, they will read it.

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