Last week I managed to read the Sunday New York Times for the first time in years, and in the same day I nearly swore it off completely,
It was on account of a throw-it-against-the-wall-moment. Do you ever have those? When a piece of writing is so bad that you want to throw it against the wall?
I was reading an article titles, “Common Core, in 9-Year-Old Eyes,” a story of a nine-year-old boy from an immigrant family in Brooklyn and how Common Core has affected him.
The throw-it-against-the-wall moment came at the beginning of the article, where the writer gives vivid descriptions, like a plastic grocery bag blowing in the wind, the spicy scents on the streets of Brooklyn, and the cacophony of a school cafeteria.
Even though the passages were brief, I felt my eyes glaze over and my mind fill with fog. The writer completely lost me. In a novel, these would be fantastic descriptions, the kind of lines that I enjoy when I’ve reading a book. But reading this in the Sunday New York Times, it made me want to gouge out my eyeballs.
I grew up with the Sunday Times in my house, and when I overcame my disappointment that the paper didn’t have Sunday comics, I came to love the publication. As an analytical thinker, I loved that the articles went deeper, that they didn’t just tell me what was happening but why and how and what it all meant.
As an adult the Sunday Times paper was a treat. On a Sunday morning I had nothing better to do but read for hours on the porch, in the park, or at the Oregon coast. That stopped a few years ago, when my Sundays became filled with temple services and long training runs.
Last week was the first time in a long time that I’ve had time for the paper, and when I read this article, I couldn’t help but feel a little disappointed. The writer’s decision to use those descriptions reminded me of a lesson I learned from my college writing instructor, Justin Tussing, a lesson that has always stuck with me.
In one of our classes Justin made an analogy about details. Imagine your reader is carrying a backpack. Every time you give your reader a detail – such as your character’s abusive father, or the time you found a snake in your sleeping bag, or the fact that a female elephant gestates her baby for 18 months – your reader packs that detail into her backpack. The more details you give your reader, the heavier that backpack gets and the more details the reader has to carry around.
If you give your reader something important to put in the backpack, then they’ll feel grateful and enriched by it. But if you give her details that are of little or no significance, then she did all that work for no reason at all and may feel frustrated and bored.
That’s how I felt when I read those descriptive passages in a work of journalism. I didn’t read the article for a visceral experience of Brooklyn. I read it to learn something compelling about U.S. educational policy.
I didn’t give up on the article, and eventually it gave me some new things to think about Common Core. But I felt like that space could have been better used.
Eye Gouge Out Prevention Lesson #1: Treat every passage as if it were precious. You only have so much space to say what you need to say, so don’t waste it.
Respect your reader. Don’t bore them to death.