Boiling it down - Shawn Loughlin editorial
In one of my parenting books, I remember reading about the importance of speaking to your kids, even if they’re really young, in adult tones with adult words. If I remember correctly it’s important for language develop-ment, rather than a heavy diet of baby talk.
So, sometimes when I get some alone time with Tallulah, most often when I’m feeding her, I try to tell her a story. Usually music is playing in the background (her meal-time music is Otis Redding - she will accept no substitute) and I’ll talk to her about this or that. Well, the other day, the Redding song “I’ve Been Loving You Too Long” came on. The song plays a pretty important role in one of the better moments of Twin Peaks: The Return, so I regaled her with the story of the love triangle involving Big Ed, Norma and Nadine. The twists and turns include super strength, an eye being shot out and a golden shovel (for those of you unfamiliar with creator David Lynch, I’ll save you the trouble and just say that his creations can be... weird).
Anyway, as I was wrapping up, I realized that I had told this incredibly convoluted story in a pretty concise manner and in a way that, maybe, could be understood by an infant. Aside from feeling stupid for giving this idea for a podcast away for free (think about it - Shawn Loughlin explains Twin Peaks to toddlers week after week; it’s a gold mine), it got me thinking that, in a way, that’s what I do here every day.
Now, I’m certainly not calling you, our dear readers, infants, but it’s kind of an open secret that newspaper readability is supposed to be somewhere between grade school and high school. That’s what was taught in journalism school and now, while a quick Google search shows different results, most agree that a newspaper should be written at a reading level between about Grade 8 and Grade 11. There are even guides online rating your favourite authors and the reading level at which they write. A chart found online shows that some of the world’s most famous authors, like Ernest Hemingway and a few of my favourites, Cormac McCarthy and Hunter S. Thompson, pen their work at relatively low reading levels, while writers like Michael Crichton, Malcolm Gladwell and Danielle Steel (surprisingly) craft their work for an audience at a much higher reading level.
But, to get back to the point, that kind of succinct storytelling, boiling a story down to its essence and relaying it to another person, is one of the core fundamentals of journalism.
I have a running editor’s note with Denny, telling him to never file a story that begins with a sentence about a local council receiving a report. First off, there’s nothing less exciting than receiving a report, let alone reading about someone receiving a report, but second, it doesn’t get the news to readers upfront. I always tell him that the lede of a story should be the writer’s answer to the question, “well, what happened?” after covering an event. If you answer that question by saying council received a report, you’ll surely get a response along the lines of “...and?”
That’s what we journalists call the inverted pyramid. Our stories should begin with a wealth of information and get less important as the word count rises. This is the opposite of, say, an essay, in which there is an introduction, supporting paragraphs and a conclusion, which is, arguably, the most important part of the story, stuck in there right at the end.
Boiling a story down to its essentials can be an art form, and the more simple it is, the less likely your readers will end up in the weeds.