Sunday, May 26, 2013

On Writing: 5 Internet tricks that compel (and sometimes annoy) readers

In flying a lot on Delta recently, I looked at the in-flight magazine while waiting for takeoff (no iPads allowed) and, fueled with rage, was just about able to fly without the plane. The magazine featured  a  special cheerleading section on MOOCs transforming education. Sample quotation: "Who wants to take a course from some professor at Podunk U when you can learn from the best of the best at Harvard and MIT?"


Due to the research trip and some life events (some positive and some not), I'm having to restart the writing schedule. I started wondering what would happen if we all took a leaf from the web in terms of writing.

1. Breaking prose into smaller sections and subsections.  This is an old truism for web writing, of course, and Twitter and Facebook have made it into an art form. Even a long news item on a web page is constantly broken up every 200 words or so by an invitation to click away to a related story.

Are current academic books and essays more likely to be broken into smaller sections because of this? Books always have had chapters, of course, but now books have subsections every few pages. I've noticed this with some of the recent books I've read, but maybe that's just the books I've read and not a trend.  What do you think?

2. Is standard narrative now less compelling than a Q & A or random format? I'm asking this in question form because the types of articles that would usually get a standard headline at, say, the Reuters site often gets a headline recast as a question by the time it gets to the Huffington Post. No matter how much I think I know the answer, a question always compels me to click on it--and, judging by the ubiquity of the making-headings-questions format, I must not be alone. Think also about books like Paula Byrne's The Real Jane Austen: A Life in Small Things, in which a life is told through objects rather than in a standard narrative.

3. Numbers in titles.  This is another compelling (but annoying?) trend, and one that often leads to one of the most annoying web developments, the slideshow. You see a title like "5 Unsafe Bridges" and click on it, only to find that the actual information requires more clicking.  But it works. Is it because you know exactly how many nuggets of information you're getting, like the old Liberty magazine tradition of posting reading times?

Would people buy more academic books if they were called things like Ten Things You Need to Know about Charles Dickens or TMI: Five Sexy George Eliot Heroines and How She Punishes Them?

4. Visualization and humor and the graphic rendering of texts. We like humor on the internet, and we like cats, and so what better way to learn about gender performativity than "Judith Butler Explained in Cats"? Putting together this kind of presentation could help students learn, especially if they're creating the presentation. Could someone create, and would you assign, a theory comic book? Or would it be better to assign students to collaborate on making and illustrating one (each choosing an author) and then sharing it with the class?

5. I don't really have a fifth point, and if I did, I'd make a slide show to make you work for it.  It's just that the numbers in titles are always some multiple of 5.



Fretful Porpentine said...

Delta is the only airline serving our small regional airport, so I read those magazines a lot. It seems to me that this is the third or fourth time that they have run some sort of uncritical puff piece about some flavor of online education. My guess is that's where the Delta executives have their money invested.

undine said...

Good point, Fretful Porpentine. I hadn't looked or seen those before, but given the big money behind the MOOC movement, I wouldn't be surprised.