Wednesday, August 07, 2013

August column: Why we must write more concisely

Here is this month's column sent to press associations around the country:


Why we must write more concisely

It's almost impossible to go a day without new statistics illustrating how our audience is quickly shifting to mobile devices.
The Census Bureau says almost half the U.S. population 15 and older has a smartphone. The Pew Research Center puts it even higher, 56 percent. A significant number say they use their phone as the main way to get online.
But we still do too much writing as if the reader will lean back with "the paper" in an easy chair. We have to change. Even our "print" writing will benefit.
People using mobile devices consume information in short bursts as time allows. They aren't thrilled with ledes and paragraphs that sprawl over two or three small screens.
Raju Narisetti, a former reporter who oversaw digital strategy at both The Wall Street Journal and The Washington Post, recalls a Post story on corruption in Alaska. It had the great anecdotal lead, solid nut graf, great detail. Only it took seven smartphone screens to get to the nut and 46 to finish.
"You have to start pivoting from creating just content to creating a great experience and creating different experiences on different devices. And it's hard," he told the Nieman Journalism Lab.
But it often can mean just sharpening a lead's focus, like this one:
A Colorado man who may be linked to the slaying of Colorado's state prison chief died from gunshot wounds received in a shootout with Texas police, law enforcement officials said Friday.
Most people will correctly conclude that a shootout means he was shot. And the story quickly explains he was shot by police. So tighten it from 31 to 25 words:
A Colorado man possibly linked to the slaying of that state's prison chief died after a shootout with Texas police, law enforcement officials said Friday.
Sometimes we can't shorten that much, but we can bring the focus firmly atop that first screen:
New public documents reveal that government concerns over the potential of a catastrophic failure of the Jocassee Dam flooding the Oconee Nuclear Station downstream stretch back more than three decades.
I think the point for most people will be that it's been more than 30 years (why the journalese "three decades"). And we can drop "downstream," taking 30 words to 26:
For more than 30 years, government officials have feared catastrophic failure of the Jocassee Dam could flood the Oconee Nuclear Station, according to newly released documents.
The next paragraph illustrates how we're also prone to pile clauses and thoughts into one sentence. Let's use the period more. Not only does it give readers a breather, it also allows some "responsive" Web designs to break the graf, depending on the screen size:
The documents – once held back for security reasons but released recently by the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission under the Freedom of Information Act – also illustrate a protracted and jagged path to nuclear regulators' demands today that the station's owner, Duke Energy, do more to protect against the threat.
Slightly reworked, with the focus again moved to the top:
The documents show a protracted and jagged path to current regulators' demands that Oconee's owner, Duke Energy, do more to protect against the threat. They had been withheld for security reasons but were released recently by the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission under the Freedom of Information Act.
You can probably find numerous examples in your paper and on your website. If you want an idea of how things will look on a small screen, you can use online tools like responsinator.com or quirktools.com/screenfly.
Those who say long-form is dead forget the Internet can deliver those narratives to customers willing to pay for them just as easily as it can deliver mobile-focused formats. But we probably will end up having to write multiple versions. Sadly, it comes at a time when editors, who would be the ones to add value doing this, are being cut.
For Pew's periodically updated statistics on mobile, go to http://pewinternet.org/Commentary/2012/February/Pew-Internet-Mobile.aspx

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