2009/12/29

On writing political blog posts

How does one best think about the process of getting one's words and thoughts across to an audience? When I compose my letters to the newspaper editor (Usually on political subjects) for inclusion on the letters page, I often think of myself as a citizen writing to a politician.

What does a politician care about? Getting re-elected.

What does the politician do to achieve that? Deliver the right results to people who care about the issues (No point in expending effort and energy getting, say, the Darfur situation under control if nobody particularly cares about it).

How does a politician know that a citizen cares about an issue? If the citizen demonstrates a knowledge of the subject, if the citizen has a command of the facts concerning the issue and can identify the groups or persons involved with the issue.

Good spelling and accurate identifications are important. If you refer to Planned Parenthood as an anti-abortionist group or refer to Senator Joe Lieberman as the Republican Senator from Vermont (He's an independent from Connecticut), your politicians' assistants will go ahead and take some statistics from your letter, where you're writing from, your age and gender, party you normally vote for, etc. But your letter will then get tossed into the recycling bin and you'll go into a category that says "These people don't really care enough about the subject that there's any real concern about delivering on this issue."

For writing a non-fiction, political piece for the public, I sometimes like to think of myself as a speaker in a carnival sideshow tent. Potential readers are strolling down the carnival fairway, checking out the signs on each tent, wondering whether they wish to allocate a few minutes of their day to going into the tent and hearing what the speaker there has to say.

Each tent has a sign that tells people strolling down the fairway, i.e., your potential readers, the title of your piece and normally your name. More expansive websites will also offer the writer a short space in which to describe
what their piece is all about. A few people wander in and take their seats on the benches provided. The writer comes out onto the small stage and delivers his or her piece. The first few sentences are critical. If the writer just sort of rambles and makes vague, unsupported statements or makes wild, hyperbolic accusations or goes off into a description of something that's kind of beside the point that the audience came into the tent for, well, people will leave. They'll go back out onto the fairway, i.e., they'll click the "back" arrow on their browser, and they'll stroll on to read something else.

Traditionally, newspaper pieces are very deliberately written with short attention spans in mind. What provoked the writer to write about the subject is clear from the title and the first few sentences. They'll try and front-load all of the important information in the piece so that the average reader only needs to get the first few paragraphs in order to get the basic who, what, where and when of the things that are being discussed. More concerned readers can keeping reading for the "why" aspect and for related, relevant information. Sneaky newspaper writers will "hide" information back there so that only a few readers get it, but so that the paper can claim "we covered that."

My own personal preference is for the writing style termed "radical clarity," where the writer delivers a piece and it's not necessarily clear why the writer felt provoked to write it in the first place. The event that provoked the writer of the piece can be presented after the writer fills in the context so that the reader fully understands just why the event energized the writer to write the piece.

The essential point is that there's no one way to write the first few sentences. If one is using a traditional news template, one must begin with the essential, bare-bones facts. If one is doing a "radical clarity" piece, one begins with a detailed description that brings the reader fully up to speed before the writer fills them in on the who, what, where and when of the provocative event. There are, of course, numerous other styles that call for still more approaches.

The essential take-away though, is that one must give one's opening a good deal of thought. "Okay, the audience was just out on the fairway, strolling along and enjoying the sun. They came into my sideshow tent because I promised them a worthwhile show. The show can be amusing or entertaining or thought-provoking or what have you. But the pressure is on and they'll get up and walk out if my first few sentences don't get their attention."

After their attention is attained of course, comes the further hard part of rewarding the audience for sticking around by delivering worthwhile information, amusement, etc.

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