Tell me when you stop*
One of the murder mysteries I read last week was Cheating at Solitaire, one of Jane Haddam’s Gregor Demarkian novels. I was irritated by numerous slips in usage—principle for principal was one that recurred—but I continued to the end.
Last night, I was several pages into James W. Pennebaker’s Secret Life of Pronouns—already skeptical of his blithe assurance that his word-counting software can measure the emotional charge of texts even though it is incapable of distinguishing among the different meanings of individual words—when I came across this sentence: “In Aldous Huxley’s words, this was the slaying of a beautiful hypothesis by an ugly fact.” It was Thomas Henry Huxley who said, “A beautiful theory, killed by a nasty, ugly, little fact,” and that was the point at which I put the book down and went to bed.
I am not here today to rail against publishers who go cheap on the copy editing, THOUGH THEY OUGHT TO BE ASHAMED OF THEMSELVES. What I am curious about is whether your reading patterns match my own. “The easiest thing for a reader to do is to stop reading,” said Barney Kilgore of The Wall Street Journal seventy years ago. I want to know what makes you stop.
There are some automatic stopping points that are easy to spot: the point at which the writer first calls Barack Obama a socialist or suggests that Sarah Palin is not the mother of her Down syndrome child. Any talk of the Mayan calendar or the Rapture. If you’re older than sixteen, any mention of Justin Bieber.
We also know that the inverted-pyramid structure popularized by wire services, in which the most important information arrives in the first paragraph and becomes successively less immediate or important as the article proceeds, invites readers to stop reading as soon as they have had their fill. And they fill quickly.
And I know from a piece of drive-by praise a Very Senior Editor administered to a Sun reporter some years back—“I liked your story this morning. I read it all the way to the end”—indicates that my colleagues, like our readers, are accustomed to cutting their losses when reading our articles.
But I, as a semi-reformed stickler, get cranky when I see elementary lapses in grammar and usage or factual inaccuracies that it would have been simple to check. Mellower as I age, I seldom fling the newspaper across with room, accompanied by a good round oath, but I do feel the impulse to stop reading at those points, and it is only by an effort of will that I continue. That could be me. How about you?
I’m serious about this. As journalists compete for readers’ attention, we need some more secure ground of judgment as we write and edit than reporters’ giddy self-regard and assumption that our readers, like their mothers, lovingly caress every word. What are the burrs under your saddles?
*The first person who writes, “I stopped reading after the title,” will be clever. Subsequent ones, less so.