Michael Eriksson's Blog

A Swede in Germany

Wasting a reader’s interest

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A personal annoyance in the writing of others, is when they waste my time, interest, or concentration. This not (necessarily) because the topic is uninteresting, not because the text is poorly researched, not because there is a severe clash of style preferences,* whatnot—but because the text contains too much that is off-topic, sprinkles a minimum of information in a sea of text, is written without regard to how it will be read, … This in particular in the initial portions of the text.

*As might be the case with many of my own text vs. much of the potential readership.

A good illustration is found in the documentation of my Linux-system: When listing the options for many programs, some nitwits start the respective description with a “This option” (or a similar formulation), as with e.g. the “man page” for xwininfo:

 [...] 

-id id This option allows the user to specify […]

-name name This option allows the user to specify that […]

-root This option specifies that […]

-int This option specifies that […]

-children This option causes the root […]

-tree This option is […]

-stats This option causes the display of various attributes pertaining to the […]

-bits This option causes the display of various attributes pertaining to the […]

-events This option causes the selected window’s […]

-size This option causes the selected window’s […]

[…]

Note how not only “This option” is repeated again and again, but also how further words with little impact often follow, and how much repetition there is. Further, how unnecessary filler is sometimes present even when the author manifestly can do it more economically. (Compare the equivalent formulations “This option allows the user to specify” and “This option specifies”, which are both used in the text.)

The effect? The user starts with the option (e.g. “-stats”), finds the next few words to be pointless, and either looses his concentration or wastes his time. Trying to scan this type of documentation is outright frustrating to me, because: (a) My brain is hit with a steady stream of “This option”, “This option”, “This option”, ad nauseam. (b) It is often impossible to just keep my eyes on the options, scan downwards, and get information about the option at the same time. When I want to just move my eyes down, I instead have to move them to the right, back to the left, then down, etc.

The first sentence, in full, for the “-name” option is “This option allows the user to specify a target window id on the command line rather than using the mouse to select the target window.”. Consider instead “Specifies a target window id on the command line rather than using the mouse to select the target window.” or even “Specifies a target window id.” or possibly even “Target window id.”—all of which would work better in the context of Linux documentation. Note how the important information is pushed forward and how fewer irrelevant words are present. If more details are needed, they can be given in subsequent sentences.

Journalistic writing is particularly troublesome, including through mixing in irrelevant human interest angels. However, its paramount example is what I would consider the “anti-hook”—an introduction to a text that kills the wish to read said text.

Consider e.g. a poor “New Yorker” piece: The article is preceded by a summary that actually caught my curiosity (“My best friend left her laptop to me in her will. Twenty years later, I turned it on and began my inquest.”).* Alas, my interest was soon killed again…

*I do not think highly of what I have seen from this magazine in the past, I visited for the specific purpose of finding an example to use, and was surprised to actually see my interest caught, if ever so briefly. As is, I hit the jack-pot in terms of an example.

The first paragraph has nothing obvious to do with the promised topic. It starts with “The piping on the red snowsuit was yellow, and on the green snowsuit it was blue: fire-engine red, sunflower yellow, summer-grass green, deep-ocean blue, the palette of preschool, the colors in a set of finger paints.”, and continues with another 86* words of a similar style and low relevance.

*All word counts by copy-and-paste into the command wc.

The next paragraph, surely, proceeds with the topic? No, it does not. Here follows more about snow suits and teddy bears. The third paragraph? Starts with a recollection of giving birth… But, true, here the best friend and laptops are actually introduced. Paragraph four is mostly filler, detailing how the author started the lap top, using 241 words, including formulations like “I plugged in a power cord attached to an adapter the size of a poundcake, but when I pried open the laptop sharp bits of steel-gray plastic broke off like chipped teeth, and the hinges cracked, and the screen fell away from the keyboard and dangled, like a mostly decapitated head, the Anne Boleyn of Apples.”—for the love of Steve Wozniak!

802 (!!!) words precede the point where the author actually starts to read what her friend left behind. (“‘Transitions’ turned out to be notes she’d taken on a book published in 1980 called ‘Transitions: […]”) Of course, this is a point of the text that I would normally not have reached. Instead, I would likely have bowed out after the first paragraph, annoyed at having my time wasted and knowing from experience what such a first paragraph typically implies about the rest of the text. On a generous day, or with a less disastrous intro, I might have extended a second chance and read the next paragraph too, but that would be the absolute limit.

From a very superficial skimming through the rest of the text, is appears to be similarly low in information, filled with poor writing and verbal diarrhea, and dealing more with the author than with the friend… I am not a fan of the 500-word essay, as should be obvious from my own writings, but forcing this woman to write nothing except 500-word essays for a few months would do her a world of good.

This example is the more absurd as the author appears to have cared a great deal for this friend—and she still unleashes such an abomination of a text on the world in her “honor”…

Of course, such extremes are rare even within journalism; however, the attempt to use some type of hook is quite common—and it usually backfires. A hook is a legitimate means of starting a text, and is often one of the first recommendations a beginning writer gets, but it must serve its purpose—to actually hook the reader. Moreover, there is a wide variety of cases when a hook is, at best, a waste of time, because the reader already intended to read the text.* For instance, above, I was made curious by the summary, I hoped for something that matched this summary, and the first paragraph was then entirely off topic (and highly dubious in other regards too). If the first paragraph was intended as a hook, it was a complete failure, because (a) I did not need to be hooked, (b) I had an interest that it failed to meet and stimulate, (c) it turned me off from reading the rest of the text. (In contrast, the summary could have made a good hook, had it been the first paragraph.) Similarly, if I have made a search for a topic, then I visit the links found to learn about the topic. A hook will not serve to deepen my interest—only to waste time before I actually get to the information…

*It could even be argued that hooks are always ill-advised, because the hook will only ever have an effect when it is read—and it is only read when someone actually starts on the text. However, some allowances might be made for scenarios like a news-paper reader filtering which articles are worth reading and which not. (If you find something looking like a hook in my texts, it is more likely to be coincidence than design.)

Similarly, if not strictly speaking a hook or anti-hook, some texts waste a lot of the reader’s time with explanations of why it would be beneficial for him to read the text that he is already reading, or why the topic would be important. Why not assume that the reader, who is already reading the text, is sufficiently interested in the topic?!?

Another variation (that I have often seen in Germany) is an article that has a certain title, a summary that is a more verbose version of the title with some new information added, and a first paragraph that does the same to the summary, effectively being nothing but another summary. The result is a great amount of repetition and redundancy that wastes time and my interest. For a hypothetical example:

Man bites dog

Yesterday, a man in Kentucky bit a pit-bull in the leg for urinating on his bicycle.

A Kentucky sales clerk lost his temper yesterday, as Fido, a peaceful pit-bull, urinated on his bicycle. He then viciously bit poor Fido in the leg. Fido was saved as its owner bravely intervened.

[Paragraphs two and onward]

Note that the information added at each step is not necessarily that relevant. For instance, that the man was in Kentucky will rarely be of value at such an early stage of the text, and the suspicion of mere filler is warranted. (But mentioning it in the main text might be valuable.) For instance, what does it matter what the dog was named? In contrast, that Fido was a pit-bull can be interesting in the context of who-bit-whom, and the urination aspect could partially explain the unexpected behavior—and both facts are reasonable inclusions.

Consider instead either dropping the summary or removing the first paragraph and its implied second summary. The casual reader, who uses them to decide whether to read on or as a means to get an overview without reading on, will only need one of the two. The more intent reader sees his time wasted. For a short enough main text, removing both might be the best solution.

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Written by michaeleriksson

July 10, 2019 at 10:37 am

2 Responses

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  1. […] yet another distortion by WordPress: I had put a portion of the previous text in an HTML PRE-tag, to ensure that it was displayed in a certain manner (specifically, to keep […]

  2. […] edition”): The introduction begins with one of the worst “anti-hooks” (cf. parts of [1]) that I have ever seen—a discussion of an only tangentially relevant photograph. This is followed […]


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