Most of us must have already been familiar with the inverted pyramid in online writing, in which you load the most important facts in the lead paragraph so that readers can grab the main idea within a few seconds. Visit the New York Times’ or the Age’s front page and you can find heaps of examples, such as this excerpt from “Garden Shears Killer Turned to Ice When She Realised Marriage Was Unlikely”:
A woman who killed her ex-lover’s wife and grandson with garden shears started using ice when she began to suspect that the man wasn’t going to marry her, a court has been told.
This type of writing works well in the online environment, where people tend to skim and scan for information instead of reading word by word. Its only downside is, once they get the 6 W’s, they will leave your site at once to go back to their News Feed or Candy Crush match.
So how can you keep readers on your site longer, and even get them to come back for more?
The answer has been revealed more than fifty years ago: Tell a story.
And how do you tell a story? By using literary techniques!
In The New Journalism (1973), Tom Wolfe outlined four techniques modern journalists had borrowed from novelists to make their writing even more powerful. These are:
Instead of listing events in their chronological order, you should choose which scene to present first, then what comes next, and next, and next, to build up a specific emotion or convey a specific message to the reader.
Point of view
In an effort to be “objective”, most writers have adopted the most neutral and boring voice to their piece. Try putting your reader inside the character’s mind instead! Help they see the scene as if they were there.
Detailing of status life
The last technique is, in other terms, called eloquent episode:
“[…] the recording of everyday gestures, habits, manners, customs, styles of furniture, clothing, decoration, styles of traveling, eating, keeping house, modes of behaving toward children, servants, superiors, inferiors, peers, plus the various looks, glances, poses, styles of walking and other symbolic details that might exist within a scene.”
But don’t act exuberantly or try to show off your writing technique! Choose details that are symbolic to the character’s status life, position, dream, desire, and so on.
Not convinced yet? Read this beautifully long writing from Pro Publica, and see how they have successfully employed old-school literary techniques in the new digital environment.