What makes a reader keep reading

Among the multiple challenges a journalist has to confront is the quality of writing that sustains the readers’ interest. Elegant writing is neither a legal requirement nor a regulatory prescription. It is an earnest invitation for an exchange of ideas without taxing the reader. One of the instructions Vinod Mehta gave me when I became an editor 20 years ago was to ensure that my journalism is not boring. “Boredom kills journalism,” he asserted.

It is trite to say journalism is not fiction. Good, reliable journalism has to adhere to strict factual accuracy. The rules of attribution cannot be compromised. The act of verification is an integral element of journalism. In short reports, these three elements suffice. A talented desk will ensure that no meaning is lost and hence, no reader is lost. However, in long-form journalism, engaging writing matters.

Concerns in narrative journalism

The year I became an editor was the year the Nieman Foundation at Harvard University established a programme on Narrative Journalism. Nieman Curator Bob Giles said, “Narrative journalism builds a newspaper’s franchise for the long term. It plays to the strengths of print journalism — space and considered reporting — adding value that no other medium can duplicate.” The programme underscored that the values of journalism and creative approaches to prose can easily coexist without the core tenets of good reporting being eroded.

Russel Frank, who worked as a journalist for decades before becoming a journalism teacher, flagged a major concern of editors towards certain aspects of long-form journalism. He wrote: “When reporters write stories that read like good fiction they inevitably arouse suspicions. Reality is messy. Speech is messy. If a story is tidy — if the plot is too seamless or the quotes are too eloquent — the reporter probably juiced it a little. Reconstructed scenes are particularly suspect. Instead of relying on tape recordings or notes of their own observations, reporters rely on the memories of the people who were there.” Mr. Frank also pointed out that “the surge of interest in narrative journalism has coincided with a surge of scepticism among newspaper readers.” Journalists add notes for their print version and give hyperlinks for the web version to ensure that the rules of attribution are not lost in writing a report.

Fog everywhere

Literature teaches us how to work with words in a manner that the reader doesn’t get bored. Much has been written about the journalistic quality of Charles Dickens’s writing. What we learned from him is the art of description, which is different from the act of deception. For instance, in Bleak House, he wrote: “Fog everywhere. Fog up the river, where it flows among green aits and meadows; fog down the river, where it rolls defiled among the tiers of shipping and the waterside pollutions of a great (and dirty) city. Fog on the Essex marshes, fog on the Kentish heights. Fog creeping into the cabooses of collier-brigs; fog lying out on the yards and hovering in the rigging of great ships; fog drooping on the gunwales of barges and small boats. Fog in the eyes and throats of ancient Greenwich pensioners, wheezing by the firesides of their wards; fog in the stem and bowl of the afternoon pipe of the wrathful skipper, down in his close cabin; fog cruelly pinching the toes and fingers of his shivering little ‘prentice boy on deck.”

This is a wonderful example of how fragments and extremely long sentences coexist to make reading a worthwhile experience. The fine editor, Harold Evans, in his book, Do I Make Myself Clear? Why Writing Well Matters, refers to Dickens to explain the new language of obfuscation that is creeping into our public sphere. He wrote: “Fog everywhere. Fog online and in print, fog exhaled in television studios where time is anyway too short for truth. Fog in the Wall Street executive suites. Fog in the regulating agencies that couldn’t see the signals flashing danger in shadow banking.” His antidote was: “But never come there fog too thick, never come there mud and mire too deep, never come there bureaucratic waffle so gross as to withstand the clean invigorating wind of a sound English sentence.” This, indeed, shall be the governing creed of both the reporters and the desk as they put out their stories.

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Printable version | Sep 17, 2021 2:37:22 PM |

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