It is a challenge all too familiar to journalists. How do you keep readers reading? Readers have a propensity to skim articles. Digital reading compounds the tendency. According to Nielsen, only 16 percent of test users read websites word-by-word. Banner Ads, hyperlinks, videos, and screen lights make screen reading more tiring than print. What can writers do to combat people’s online reading habits?
To answer this question, I turned to a piece written by Wright Thompson about UConn Women’s Basketball Head Coach Geno Auriemma, published in ESPN The Magazine. Thompson is a senior writer at ESPN and a New York Times bestselling author. The feature pulls readers in and keeps their attention. He uses the following devices to grab and maintain reader interest:
- Humanizing the subject
- Bookending the article
Readers see the large bold text of the title first. A compelling title causes readers to stop scanning and read the sub heading or first paragraph. Don’t waste the opportunity. Titles should introduce the topic and set the stage for the article.
Thompson’s title is “Pretending To Be Okay.” It’s effective. It makes the reader question what the article is about and introduces the theme. The title is a reference to George Bailey, the main character in the movie It’s a Wonderful Life. It alludes to what drives Auriemma: his insecurities. His desire to mask his insecurities—pretending to be okay— has led to UConn’s unprecedented success.
An engaging piece of writing has reoccurring themes. These themes are what the readers remember. Thompson’s article has a burden of success theme. UConn’s sustained success and resulting expectations have diminished the joy of winning. It also has themes about family and empathy.
There is no more effective weapon in the writer’s arsenal than anecdotes. People retain information best in story form. Anecdotes are how we relate to the world and build empathy.
For his feature, Thompson shadowed Auriemma and the team for their last three games of the 2017 regular season. He starts the piece with an anecdote Auriemma shares about working in a steel mill as a college student. Thompson’s article flows like a story. It takes readers on a journey through a series of vignettes: at a restaurant, a shootaround, the Auriemma home, and the village in Italy where Auriemma was born.
Thompson writing style is engaging. It tells readers a story. They can visualize being in his shoes. The key to keeping readers engaged is to write so they forget that they’re reading nonfiction. Remember the impact of stories. Whenever your subject permits it, include anecdotes or adopt a storytelling style.
Here’s one sentence that exemplifies Thompson’s style: “The need for perfection, in conflict with the human inability to ever actually achieve it, seems like a recipe for a one-way ticket to a loony bin.”
This sentence is beautiful in context. His choice of the word “recipe” fits because the article begins with a meal at a restaurant in New Orleans. “One-way ticket” fits the journey theme. It references how far Auriemma has come both literally and figuratively—he went from a poor kid who couldn’t speak English to the pinnacle of success as a hall of fame basketball coach. Before this sentence, Thompson recounts how Auriemma arrived in America on a boat and contrasts it by telling readers that Auriemma arrived in New Orleans on a chartered jet.
Humanizing the Subject
If readers relate to your subject, they will keep reading. Thompson’s piece is an intimate look at Auriemma’s views towards his success and life. He humanizes Auriemma by articulating Auriemma’s self-doubt and the insecurities that drive him. By showing Auriemma’s insecurities, Thompson dispels the perception that Auriemma is an arrogant wise guy.
Readers relate to Auriemma when they see his insecurities. When readers see them, they build empathy for him because everyone has insecurities.
Bookending the Piece
Referencing a theme or fact from the beginning of an article is an effective way to end a piece. It reinforces the important points and brings closure. Thompson bookends his piece with fire. Early on, he mentions that Auriemma has scars on his chest from an accident with hot coals as a toddler. The piece ends with Auriemma sitting by the fire with a cigar and a glass of wine. It also reinforces the journey theme, coming from having nothing in Italy to having everything he could want in Connecticut.
It’s possible to keep readers reading despite their inclinations. Grab their attention with a provocative title. Fill your work with stories, so they forget they’re reading nonfiction. Reference your themes at every opportunity, and don’t forget to make your subject relatable. If you can incorporate these into your work, readers will take notice and finish reading.
Nielsen, J. (1997, October 1). How users read on the web. Nielsen Norman Group Retrieved from https://www.nngroup.com/articles/how-users-read-on-the-web/
Thompson, W. (2018, March 23). Pretending to be okay. ESPN the Magazine, April 2 2018 Retrieved from http://www.espn.com/espnw/feature/22832792/uconn-coach-geno-auriemma-only-pretending-okay