Friday, July 22, 2005

Being reader friendly

One of the seminars I do is called "Editing to be reader friendly." It's built around a basic idea: A story should answer a reader's likely questions where each is likely to occur in the story.

That's not a novel concept, but one we too often violate, as shown by my increasingly thick file of examples (among my least favorites -- making readers go to the jump page for answers).

Paul R. Martin, style keeper and proprietor of the Wall Street Journal's style & substance newsletter (PDF), provides two good examples in the latest edition of S&S:

  • In a note on rating banks by market capitalization, not assets: "Also, we shouldn't refer to the second-biggest bank without mentioning which bank is No. 1. Thus, at the moment, Bank of America is the second-biggest bank by market capitalization behind Citigroup."
  • He follows that with this entry: "Forty-nine states and the District of Columbia either have laws on their books -- or case-law precedents -- that shield journalists from revealing sources." So what's the first question a reader would ask? Right, "What's the only state that doesn't?" Our article and articles in scores of other publications haven't answered the question. So, as a public service and for future reference, we'll tell you. Wyoming.
Both are examples of the mindless use of boilerplate. And thanks, Paul, for the answer to that question that had been bugging me.

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