Each time I open my browser, there are a few general interest articles displayed on a feed. One occasionally catches my eye. I click, and often regret it. Why? The authors typically take forever to get to the point.

One example: a story about someone who was lionized as a hero during a disaster. The author had written a feature about 15 years before and realized he had forwarded a fabrication. However, he took a linear timeline approach to the story. You had to get down to about page four to discover the lie. I nearly didn’t make it. I scanned through the minutia to finally get to the heart of it.

An example of how to do it right: a story about the key things to have in an emergency kit. It had a short preamble then got right to the actual items needed and why. Succinct. Informative. On point.  

What’s happening here? A couple of styles seems to be emerging, neither of which I recommend

  1. The author trying to connect emotionally with the reader via a long-winded anecdote about some poor soul. This tends to make a story much too long. If you must use this writing device, keep it short. Also, clear up what an intro is so the anecdote doesn’t overwhelm the article itself.
  2. A sort of stream of consciousness-ridden preface to what should have been a much shorter piece. The author expresses guilt, shame, or some other emotion. He or she goes into why they thought in a certain way, how they got it wrong, etc. Again, it might work in a paragraph or two as an intro, but not as a couple of pages. These authors just didn’t get to the point.

I’m reminded in some ways about the novels of Walter Scott and 19th century authors in general. I can cut these guys some slack as they were writing for a time when people sat with candles in cold rooms without any kind of canned entertainment available. The novel was the ultimate escape from a drab reality. People of that era admired the aesthetics of language. They were continually immersed in it. Literacy levels were high. Audiences of the day were happy if the author padded a story with countless pages about an idyllic valley or the complexities of family relationships.

Reading these books today can be tough. I wanted to love Sir Walter Scott’s work. He has the J.K. Rowling of his day. A superstar author of the first quarter of the 19th century. Edinburgh contains the Scott Monument, which is the largest in the world for an author. I tried his book “Ivanhoe” many years ago. All I remember is endless pages about someone riding through the countryside on a horse. Almost nothing happened. I gave up. Yet I’m sure a good story was buried in there somewhere.

More recently, I picked up his novel “Rob Roy.” The Liam Neeson film from the mid-nineties tells the tale vividly. But the novel? I got to about page 100 and the narrator had not yet arrived in Scotland. Instead of a riveting tale of Highland courage and adventure, I had to wade through someone traveling through England towards Scotland. Again, I lost interest.

The morale of the story is to value the fact that anyone pays some attention to your article, press release, blog or other writing. You may only have a minute or two, a few seconds or even a glance to convince the reader to keep reading. And if they don’t continue, be sure you have at least stated the primary message in the time they spent with you. Drew Robb