Why good writing is all about context
More and more these days, good writing is all about context. When news cycles are measured in minutes or hours rather than days, unless you’re the one doing those news stories, your work as a writer is putting what’s happening into context. That’s especially the case for many bloggers, whose raison d’etre is commenting on events in the political, business or pop culture landscape.
This hit home with me a few months back in when I was working on a pro bono project I do every year, a catalog for a local high school auction. When donations come in, it’s up to me to make them sound so appealing people will spend hundreds or even thousands of dollars to buy them. Some items have instant appeal: who wouldn’t want court-side seats to an NBA game, or a week’s stay at a private villa on the beach in Cabo San Lucas? Other donations take more finesse. For instance, why would someone pay $2,000 for a single bottle of old wine when they could go to Trader Joe’s and pick up a bottle of Two Buck Chuck for, well, $2? Maybe they would if they knew that “old wine” was a rare ’67 Chateau d’Yquem Sauternes from a vineyard in southern Bordeaux in business since 1711 that had been frequented by Thomas Jefferson and in 2006 sold a 135-year vertical of every vintage from 1860 to 2003 for $1.5 million. See? That’s context.
Explaining “why” is what separates good writing from not so good writing. You’ve got people’s attention for the minute that it takes them to read a headline, deck and lead. But to get them to go any further, you’ve got to give them a reason to keep reading. That reason is why – as in, why is this important? Why should I care? Why does it affect me?
Sometimes you can build the answer to “why” into a nut graph, a paragraph that succinctly summarizes the ramifications of the issue you intend to address in the piece. If you’re doing a short piece, you need a short nut graph. If the article you’re writing is longer, giving readers that perspective could take a couple paragraphs. Since they’re some of the most important paragraphs of the story don’t bury them – they should be positioned fairly high in the piece. But don’t ignore them. if you do, it’ll be the first thing your editor points out when he or she emails your story back to you for revisions.
Over my career I’ve had a few extremely good editors drill this into me either consciously or subconsciously – thanks Mike Hewitt, Jonathan Weber and Robin Doussard – but I still have to make a concerted effort to write the “why” into the stories I do.
But if I can get someone to pay $2,000 for a bottle of wine on the strength of a 200-word catalog description, I figure I can explain just about anything.