Cut This Story! (With Extreme Care)

Posted on February 12, 2010 by 2 Comments

In a recent piece on Morning Edition, Tina Brown talks about Michael Kinsley’s  Atlantic article “Cut This Story!” opining that newspaper articles are far too long and the death of print newspapers is due in no small part to excessive length and dullness — whereas writing for the Internet is a great disciplinarian in getting quickly to the point.  

Kinsley’s lament comes near to my and most any information worker’s heart, i.e. how to read only the necessary. The remedy, per Kinsley, would be to write only the necessary; in this case, putting tremendous onus on the journalist. Perhaps a page, or a fraction thereof, should be taken from the world of academic research: adopt the abstract.

The art of the abstract has long been relegated to the hinterlands of the peer-reviewed journal, but it has only gained in its essentialness as knowledge domains grow, fork, and sunder, i.e. the essence of the work must be encapsulated so that the reader can comprehend and judge in a timely manner. This may seem trivial, but believe me when I say that advancements in medicine, for example, are highly dependent upon this disciplined and rule-oriented writing skill.

Kinsley makes good hay of some bad examples (ironic, perhaps, that it takes so much ink), but his evocation of style strikes me as something out of Fowler’s or the like, in short, straw already well grasped. Indeed, one simile used by Mr Kinsley seems to miss the essential point: Yes, “legacy code” is the albatross-chiseled-out-of-millstone about the neck, but “new code” will not fly without it.

What is needed (IMHO) is strict referential mechanics, and this to a well maintained and indexed archive, so if you happen to have been in some coal mine you can take the time necessary to re-brief. But newspapers, and new media to an even worse degree, have never been all that concerned with yesterday’s news.

Also, the reality of reading from the Internet requires not so much the context that begets regrettable “hype,” but a context that simply shows where you are in any ongoing discussion. Brevity does not necessarily disable thought. For example, much of the microblogging I read references lengthy articles and reports. The problem is that there is no organization effort toward serializing the discussion. And with shrinking form factors, it can literally be difficult to know what page you are on, let alone the current evolution of any concept.

So, by all means, whittle style to the bone, but do not simultaneously require the reader to get-all-CSI-and-stuff and perform the requisite re-construction of any subject’s skeletal remains; this does not advance the science.

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