Poor Gutenberg! The number of words published since the advent of the Web is far greater than that published since he invented the press. But does quantity equal quality? And if not, what can we do to redress the balance?
Content writers and PR officers face a paradoxical challenge. On the one hand, they have to tell digital stories. On the other, their readers are increasingly unused to reading – in the traditional sense, at least. They live in a haiku world. If even a longer Tweet attracts opprobrium, what chance for storytelling?! The added need for much content to prompt reader action makes the challenge daunting!
If we want writing to impart a tight message, we can follow the fairly simple procedure newspapers and magazines followed (weird, referring to them in the past tense!).
Handling News Stories
Newspaper owners and editors were notoriously brash and stingy. So when they sent reporters out to cover a story, they wanted them to sniff out news – not gaze at the stars for inspiration and write. Reporters were hard-nosed, foot-in-the-door types, often blissfully unaware of the finer points of grammar. They were about as good at writing coherent copy (as journalists called text) as the average Miss World.
Upon getting a dose of news, the typical reporter would scramble for a ‘phone booth (remember those?), dial the newsdesk, and bark essential facts about the story at a copy typist (yes, yet another extinct occupation). Often, reporters would visit a dozen or more ‘phone booths a day while on the scent.
The newsdesk end of the ‘phone line would receive a jagged, stream-of-consciousness account completely unsuited to publication. Indeed, it often resembled nothing more than a play by Becket or Ionesco.
This is where the subeditors (‘subs’) came into play. They took the play of the absurd and knocked into publishable shape.
So, how did the ‘subs go about their task? In two steps:
- Cramming the facts upfront;
- Putting the explainers and conjecture downpage.
The facts were the answers to the six questions:
- “Who?, and
All of these answers had to be in the introductory paragraph.
The “explainers” were answers to the questions “To what extent?,” “What does it mean?,” and “How does it relate to older stories we have ran?”. These answers would follow the introductory paragraph, each occupying at least one paragraph.
Conjecture was the answer(s) to the question “What might this mean for the future?” If at all present, it formed the closing paragraph.
Subs often wrote news stories to standardized lengths. Thus, a news page leader might make 1500 words, while small single-paragraph items for the page side would make perhaps 50 to 75 words. Headlines (a specialized art practiced by seasoned subs only!) would typically run to under ten words.
News stories then, were tightly written vignettes, each covering a very specific development.
Newspapers as Live Matter
But why on earth cram all the facts into the introductory paragraph?
First, because newspapers were “live” (ahem…). This meant that a more important story could break any time. If it did, the editor could shunt the current story into a smaller space, or ultimately into the “thumbnail paragraph” section to the side of the page.
Second, because busy newspaper readers often read the papers by scanning only the first paragraphs and leaving the rest of the stories “for later.” This “for later” most often meant “if ever”. But if the introductory ‘para was powerful enough, it acted as a hook, drawing the reader back and making the “if later” mean “later, but definitely.”
Handling Analysis Articles
The editor would sometimes pick a less urgent news story as the basis of an analysis piece for the inside pages. Essentially, this was a news article, though headed and tailed differently and expanded with more explainers, conjecture and illustrations.
The new introductory paragraph, often called an “intro” or “deck” and set in larger type, would not so much be a distillation of the facts as a standard introduction. The facts would still be there, but perhaps interspersed with the explainers. The explainers would now include lengthier quotations by specialists. Conjecture would be interleaved with them. The final paragraph would not contain conjecture, but be a conclusion.
Would-be writers often wonder exactly what an introduction and conclusion should contain. The crude, but accurate, answer is that the introduction should tell readers what they are about to learn, while the conclusion should remind them what they have just learned.
Analysis articles often run to perhaps 3000 words, with headlines of perhaps up to a dozen words.
At this stage, you might ask whether subs specialized – say in politics, crime, or business. Well, opinions were split, though some specialization was okay in very general areas like sport or the arts. Nobody defended the deep specialization seen as the domain of specialist periodicals.
Engaging the Reader
Adopting a didactic tone with readers is a losing approach. For one thing, some of them might be more knowledgeable about the topic than the writer. For another, an instructional, lecturing style has always been patronizing and old fashioned. When there is a need to be personal, it is best to use the inclusive “we” than the hectoring “you.” Many online publications, however, have style guides that require using “you” instead of “we”.
When approaching an article, readers hope to learn something new. They also hope to get entertained. To capitalize on the former, writers can frame the headline and introductory paragraph in terms of “What’s in it for you.” To achieve the latter, they can provoke readers, make them smile, pose questions to them – or break an important rule of writing (with wit and measure). None of these calls for more than five minutes’ mental concentration. It is as well to remember that, unless we are writing slapstick, overdoing the entertainment aspect is unnecessary.
Though the above reminiscences are from a dying age, they are entirely relevant to today’s embattled content originators. The techniques remain sound. The only thing that has actually changed is the medium.
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