Are you writing to be read?

Do I have your attention?

Good.  I have something important to tell you, so I want you to stay here. I don’t want your mind to wander to Twitter or Pinterest, or whatever.

So I am going to:

  • write short sentences
  • use lots of bulleted lists
  • hyperlink thoughtfully and helpfully (turning the hyperlink into a big target)
  • bold words that a reader might scan for, like names of people or companies
  • use clear (not necessarily clever) subheads to break up longer articles at logical points
  • write in second-person address, if it works
  • stick to the rule of one thought per paragraph.

Notice the perfect parallel structure (above)? Thanks.

Oh, one more thing: Read this before class Tuesday. Get to know the ideas of Jakob Nielsen (who looks, I have to say, like a cross between a Bond villain and Benjamin Franklin).

You’re not alone if you get an uneasy feeling that you have to sacrifice your journalistic ideals to write this way; lots of people feel that way at first. Remember what Scott Swafford said the first week of class about the three kinds of articles. They are:

  • notices
  • reports
  • stories.

When you’re writing a report, you should be making conscious decisions about conveying information to the reader as efficiently and logically as possible. A notice is likely even shorter and more utilitarian, so you really ought to think about making it as quickly scannable as possible.

However, when you’re writing a story, you’re focused on creating a compelling narrative, using word choice, rhythm, pace, figurative language and color to create an imaginative immersion for the reader. The techniques I’m talking about here aren’t appropriate for most stories, though it’s always a good idea to think about subheads to provide visual handholds for the reader (where is this story taking me? what’s this next part about?).

Think about how you read on line. Watch yourself: Do you jump from item to item? What kinds of articles are you most likely to read all the way to the end?

How well does this story about a proposed tax increase reflect what the Slate article says about the way we read on line?

Now think about an article you wrote recently. If it was a report or a notice, what could you have done differently — applying this thinking — to make it more readable? Think about a story you wrote recently. What did you do to make it more compelling and “sticky”?

And let’s be honest with ourselves about how we read on line so we can do a better job for our readers.

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