Get to the point quickly.
Like I just did there.
Then follow up with the back story.
That’s the advice I would give to all writers, no matter what they are writing.
The back story for this post is an article I came across on a news site today. It wasn’t a straight news story. It was a health feature, with a headline about a mysterious ailment that had piqued my interest. But when I opened the story, I found one had to wade through reams of individual back story first before finding out what the mysterious ailment was. I never did find out because I closed the article and moved on to scanning more headlines.
That’s what people do. They scan headlines, which usually give you the gist of the news. Example: “Gunman kills 23 in wherever.” If the incident happened in the U.S., many people would just move on to the next headline because, sadly, mass shootings are so common in the U.S. that they are hardly surprising anymore.
A newspaper survey in pre-internet days determined that Canadians were headline skimmers. Few people were reading every story in the paper. In fact, few people made it to the end of many stories at all. They saw the headline, maybe, just maybe read a few paragraphs, and moved on.
More so today, of course. Headlines are everywhere on the internet. I typically scan headlines on four or five newspaper sites with my morning cup of coffee. But I might only click on a few, and I seldom read any full stories (in my personal time).
Which means a lot of reporters are writing too long, and many stories are barely being read.
Newspaper managers surely know this. They have reader stats. They can tell exactly how many people have clicked on a story, and how much time they spent reading it. Yet we still see lengthy stories with limited appeal. A reporter might spend a day on a story only to have it clicked on by fewer than 100 readers. That’s OK for a blog like this one, but it’s pitiful for a major news operation that has a lot of overhead.
People like their news in small bites these days. Even newspaper people turn to Twitter when there is a breaking news story. A tweet can summarize a whole news event in 40 words. Newspapers will stretch that out to 700 to 1,200 words, most of which will only be completely read by a small number of people.
I’m closing in on 400 words in this post. I could go on, but you got the point, right? From the outset.
Now, if I were starting a new paper with all of the above in mind, I would have said so earlier, too. But the fact that I am even considering it is an afterthought. It wasn’t the back story for this post. When I do decide to do it, I’ll lead with it from the top.