How to fix 3 problems with story pace

By · Wednesday, February 20th, 2019

not teaching,
still THINKING …

Let’s face it. We all like a quick read. Sometimes we rely on a mere tweet for information. Or we are in too much of a hurry to read beyond the headline.

But it is also true that long-form journalism still exists and thrives, and it still has an audience.

Maintaining that audience, however, means taking special care to keep readers interested word by word and graph by graph. We must be smart about every nuance that can affect readers’ attention. An important one is story pace. A plodding pace will cause readers to be easily distracted, and they won’t stay with a story.

Here are some tips on how to adjust the pace of a story by addressing common reader reactions, one problem at a time.

FEELING IMPATIENT

Certain information can interrupt the pace and leave the reader wanting to move on with the rest of the story.

Warning signs. Too much background high in the story before the reader knows what the story is about; too much chronology — or too much of anything — all at once; too much information before hearing what someone has to say in a quote.

The fix. These are easy things to fix. If a chronology is a major part of the story, the main points of the chronology could be summarized up high. Or, consider taking out that information and using it separately — as a sidebar or as a data visual, such as a timeline. These same approaches could be used with a lengthy or technical explanation.

Outcome. Readers will be satisfied with the summary or attracted to the sidebar. And what remains in the story would move at a quicker pace.

REREADING MATERIAL

Confusion will force a reader to reread. Or stop.

Warning signs. Wrong order of elements, such as a nut graph too low in the story; long and complex sentences; lack of specifics to substantiate information.

The fix. Review the story structure. Identify where key elements appear in the story. Assess the placement. You might need to: move one paragraph or reorder a string of them, especially in the opening paragraphs; switch the order of a quote and its attribution so a reader knows at the outset who is speaking; or move up the nut graph so readers know sooner why this story is important. Assess sentences. You might need to: rewrite long sentences into two; minimize clauses and instead focus on writing straightforward statements; or rewrite sentences that make too many points in one statement. Look at substantiation. Watch for: a story that never returns to information featured in the lead; adjectives that aren’t followed by specifics; or quotes or statements that aren’t supported with fact.

Outcome. The story will follow a logical flow from the lead paragraph to the last paragraph. Every element in the story will be clear enough to keep moving the reader forward.

SCANNING INFORMATION

Everything that causes readers to be impatient or to reread also will cause them to scan; these problems are closely related. Readers also will scan because they are looking for something the story isn’t delivering.

Warning signs. Detail featured in a headline appears too low in a story; reaction from an obvious source isn’t in a prominent place; background isn’t clearly stated up high.  Be in touch with your own feelings of impatience or confusion. Identify these areas in a story. If you find yourself scrolling and scanning, you are looking for something further in the story. What is it? Does it need to be higher?

The fix. One way to fix this problem is to present information as bullets in a story instead of as paragraphs. Adjust long titles and identifiers before a quote. They can cause readers to scan important information — such as who is speaking and that person’s role in the story — just to get to what the person is saying.

Outcome. The story will at least briefly explain background before it delivers reaction. It will not overwhelm readers with a lot of detail before it explains why this story is important now.

This post is an encore about an issue that is as important and relevant today as in May 2014, when it was originally published.

(These two profs are no longer teaching at Syracuse University’s Newhouse School, but we are still thinking.)

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