How to Hold your Reader

Thoughts from Peter Jacobi on getting -- and holding -- your reader's attention.

Dr. Peter Jacobi, former professor of Journalism at Indiana University has been a popular speaker at EPA conventions over the years. Back in 1988 he did an early bird session, and, among other things, talked about imagery, human interest and narration as important tools in the writer's bag to attract and retain readers. Here are some of the points he made:

Use Imagery

In your articles, strive for a shared experience. Take the reader underwater with the writer or in space or in a factory or a school or wherever. It's the "show me, don't tell me" rule. Telling uses abstractions. It keeps the reader distant. Take us there! Put us on the spot so we can see it, hear it, feel it, taste it, smell it.  Appeal to the senses.  Showing uses nouns and verbs to bring the reader close. Use the specific.

Then Jacobi offers this excerpt from Time magazine, an article on the homeless entitled, "Slow Descent into Hell." Following is a pre-lead to the article:

In winter it becomes harder not to see them, tougher to avert our gaze as we pass them by. The brutal storms of January tear through the cloak of statistics and once again an abstract problem discussed in terms of percentage increases and changing demographics becomes a shivering man or woman struggling for survival, a pair of eyes that painfully remind us of our human bond. In cities across the nation shelters overflow, leaving the spillage to cope on steam grates or subway tunnels or wherever else warmth can be found.

We have to do our research for a story on the homeless and talk to the politicians, community leaders, sociologist, psychologists, religious leaders, etc. And we'll get statistics. But we also need to talk to the homeless themselves. They are the basic story. Talk to them; watch them.  The human element is becoming increasingly important. How do we humanize all the information we get in our research? How warm are you as you push the reader through the information? This is underused in our publications.

Tell Stories

We also need to use narration. We can use narration piece meal, i.e, in small bits and pieces throughout the article or we can use it full burst so that it makes up the entire article. But whether we use it in short bursts or longer, it seems to me that narrative can have one or more of four different purposes:

  1.  It can be used for narrative sake. You have a good story to tell, so you tell it.
  2. Narrative can be used symbolically, to symbolize a point, a person, a situation.
  3. Narration can be used as exposition, to explain.
  4. Then narrative can be used to make a point, to argue.

Jacobi then gives this example:

The dress rehearsal was going badly. So badly, in fact, that David Velasco, the great director was at his wit's end. There was one scene at the end of the second act which could make or break the play, a scene calling for a tremendous play and interplay of emotion. Velasaco, his collar open and rumpled, his face shining with sweat, pleaded once more with the cast, cajoling them, roaring at them. Again, the tired cast tried and failed.

Then suddenly there was a scream of fury. Velasco ripped a watch from his pocket, smashed it on the stage and stamped on it, until it lay in what must have been a thousand pieces. A hush settled over the theater as Velasco, his face still working, stared down at the pieces of the ruined watch. Then trembling, touching his breast, he sank into a chair, buried his face in his hands, and the great director wept.

"As the cast watched he raised his tear-stained face to them and moaned, "What have I done? My mother's watch. My poor dead mother's watch. The only thing I had to remember her by. What have I done?"

In a broken voice he went on, "Forgive me, children, I'm so ashamed of myself."

There was a long pause, then "Won't you try once again for me?" For an old evil man. For an old tired man. I'm so tired."

Moved by emotion, ashamed of what they'd done to their director, the cast hurried to their places. Forgetting their fatigue, they played the scene with magnificent artistry, the great Velasco watching them, beaming at them. From his seat beside his assistant he whispered to the latter, "That went over big, didn't it? Remind me to buy another one of those dollar watches tomorrow."