Writing Right with Dmitri: Making It Interesting
You all know what a 'clickbait' site is, don't you?
It's a website with headlines that scream:
Funny and Amazing Video of Beyonce with Cute Kitten!
You'll Never Believe What This Actress Looks Like After Plastic Surgery!!!
Touching and Heartbreaking Images That Will Make You Cry!
That's clickbait. I always tell Elektra, 'I don't care how much you want to click on those sites. Restrain yourself. Remember what we pay for antivirus. Tell yourself, there's potential malware in there. Remind yourself that there is absolutely no reliable information on that page. Youtube has clickbait, too, and it's safe. Go watch the kitteh videos over there, or read Twitter over my shoulder.'
What's My Motivation?
When I was at university, a friend got excited about her anthropology course. She kept sharing titbits. From then on, the running gag in the group was, 'Take Anthro! It will change your life!'
The h2g2 Edited Guide to Life, the Universe, and Everything isn't clickbait. It's a wonderful, diverse, informative Guide that is sometimes laugh-out-loud funny, occasionally heartbreaking, and frequently downright useful. We know that. We also know that we want people to read the things we write. So we try to hone our 'best practices' list to improve our SEO, title-craft, and readability. It is with this purpose in mind that I'd like to share a few thoughts on how we could improve on that.
The main problem that faces us when writing a Guide Entry isn't a technical one. We know how to write sentences and paragraphs, and some of us even know how to punctuate. (The rest of us know subeditors who do.) We know our subject, because we picked it: something we're interested in. We may even be passionate about it. Our problem is figuring out how to make that subject interesting to the casual reader – the one who has never thought about this subject and won't be interested in it unless we come up with something extraordinary. It doesn't have to be clickbait, but it does have to be inviting.
'Come on,' I hear you say, 'This stuff is interesting already! I mean, it's the Beatles, for gosh sakes! Everybody's interested in the Beatles.'
Well, no. I'm not. I also don't like animated films. I'm relatively uninterested in battleship measurements. I don't know all the actors from British sitcoms of the 1960s, and I can't follow obscure mathematical formulas. If you want me to want to read this, you need to give me a motivation other than 'read it, it's good for you.'
The key to sharing this terribly interesting information is to figure out what might interest a non-expert, someone who has never thought about this topic, and then convey that information upfront, even if only as a teaser. There's a terribly technical word for this: it's called a 'hook'. That's also what songwriters call the 'catchy' part of a pop song: you know, 'We don't need no education' or 'I can't get no satisfaction' or 'You may be right, I may be crazy…'
That's what introductions are for. Introductions should contain two things: context and a hook. Get them hooked, and set up the situation. They'll stay with you after that. It's like waving the treat in front of the dog so she'll follow you. Read the first two paragraphs of this Guide Entry. The history of dairy farming is not an inherently riveting topic. It does not rate up there with Beyonce's twins. You have to do some fancy footwork to get people to read about it. That's why they pay Guide Editors the big bucks. (Joke.)
Think Like a Teacher
There's one other thing I'd like to mention. When you write Guide Entries, you need to be guided as a writer by Reader Ignorance. Don't rush past the bits that are obvious to you in order to get to the part you're interested in. Remember: they don't know what you know. You need to lay it out.
Take a look at this entry on Irving Berlin's piano. Now, I thought this was a really cool piano. I would: I've been a pianist for almost all my life. But not everybody reads music, or knows where Middle C is, or has a clue what the word 'transpose' means. This is tough.
That guy was trying to impress me – me, a professional garage mechanic! – with what he knew about his car. He kept throwing around heavy terms like 'sparkplug'.
Eugene, the Hippie Car Mechanic (who made me ride in a real 'bucket seat'. The bucket was plastic.)
You don't want to overexplain, but you do want the reader not to be put off by the subject. You've got to simplify. And you've got to think like a teacher. What don't they know? How can you make it clear without lecturing? How can you help them discover the meaning for themselves? Can you guide the reader to a personal 'aha!' moment? Guiding people to personal 'aha!' moments is one of the greatest satisfactions there is. That's what real artists aim at, not being obscure and clever.
Will an illustration help? Will a list improve things? (If the list is just an inventory, probably not.) Are my words getting in the way of understanding? Does the explanation need one more step, or one fewer? These are the questions to ask. This, too, is a skill – and it's learnable.
Enthusiasm about a subject can be contagious. But to spread the contagion, you've got to touch the next victim….er, reader. Practice is the key. Every time we write a Guide Entry, we get another chance to practice. So go write one.