Tag Archives: writing

Betteridge’s Law, or: Are Questions in Headlines a Good Idea?

Pick up any tabloid news­pa­per today and take note of how many art­icle head­lines are phrased as a ques­tion. I under­stand that these head­lines are an attempt to piqué our interest (or the res­ult of lazy copy editors/writers), but are they a good idea? What is the end res­ult of using a ques­tion as a head­line or art­icle title?

Now we know, thanks to Bet­ter­idge’s Law of Head­lines:

Any head­line which ends in a ques­tion mark can be answered by the word ‘no’.

Named for Ian Bet­ter­idge, this simple max­im was first expli­citly found in journ­al­ist Andrew Mar­r’s 2004 book, My Trade. This is why the law tends to be “uni­ver­sally true”:

Because of a simple prin­ciple of head­line writ­ing: if a story has enough sources to have a high chance of accur­acy, a head­line will be assert­ive (e.g. “Microsoft to release OS update on Fri­day”). If sources are weak, or only a single source is found, head­line writers will hedge their bets by pos­ing the head­line as a ques­tion (e.g. “Will Microsoft release an OS update on Fri­day?”).

The Wadsworth Constant: Ignore 30% of Everything

I’ll start with a story.

Last year my girl­friend and I watched the pilot epis­ode of a new TV show and were imme­di­ately hooked. The pilot epis­ode was refresh­ingly com­plex and forced us to guess miss­ing plot details con­tinu­ously: it’s adven­tur­ous to make your audi­ence work so hard dur­ing a pilot, we sur­mised.

We later dis­covered that, due to a tech­nic­al glitch, we actu­ally missed the first fif­teen minutes of the show (about 30%). The ‘com­plete’ ver­sion of the epis­ode was less sat­is­fy­ing.


Last year Steve Yegge wrote about life at Amazon.com and what it’s like work­ing under Jeff Bezos. On the top­ic of present­ing to Bezos, Yegge gave this tip: delete every third para­graph.  Why?

Bezos is so god­damned smart that you have to turn it into a game for him or he’ll be bored and annoyed with you. That was my first real­iz­a­tion about him. […]

So you have to start tear­ing out whole para­graphs, or even pages, to make it inter­est­ing for him. He will fill in the gaps him­self without miss­ing a beat. And his brain will have less time to get annoyed with the slow pace of your brain.


Around the same time as Yegge’s post­ing, a Red­dit user known as Wadsworth poin­ted out that the first 30% of “nearly every video in the uni­verse” can safely be skipped. As such things go, this soon became a You­Tube URL para­met­er: just add &wadsworth=1 to skip the first third of the video.

This ‘law’ soon became known as the Wadsworth Con­stant. It works.

Common Misconceptions About Publishing and Writing

After real­ising that “many people don’t have the first clue about how the pub­lish­ing busi­ness works — or even what it is”, the some­what pro­lif­ic sci­ence fic­tion writer Charlie Stross decided to do some­thing about it. The res­ult was a series titled Com­mon Mis­con­cep­tions About Pub­lish­ing.

This is admit­tedly only one author’s view­point and set of opin­ions, but Stross’ series of some­times lengthy but always insight­ful essays expose the innards of pub­lish­ing (at least, it seems to). Posts in the series include:

Some­thing that par­tic­u­larly struck me was this look at author income inequal­ity:

Research­ers [cal­cu­lated the] Gini coef­fi­cient for authors’ incomes — a meas­ure of income inequal­ity, where 0.0 means every­one takes an identic­al slice of the com­bined cake, and 1.0 indic­ates that a single indi­vidu­al takes all the cake and every­one else starves. Let me provide a yard­stick: the UK had a Gini coef­fi­cient of 0.36 in 2009, the widest ever gap between rich and poor — while the USA, at 0.408, had the most unequal income dis­tri­bu­tion in the entire developed world. The Gini coef­fi­cient among writers in the UK in 2004-05 was a whop­ping great 0.74. As the research­ers note:

Writ­ing is shown to be a very risky pro­fes­sion with medi­an earn­ings of less than one quarter of the typ­ic­al wage of a UK employ­ee. There is sig­ni­fic­ant inequal­ity with­in the pro­fes­sion, as indic­ated by very high Gini Coef­fi­cients. The top 10% of authors earn more than 50% of total income, while the bot­tom 50% earn less than 10% of total income.

This is the same Gini coef­fi­cient as Nam­i­bia in 1993 (the worst in the world at the time, accord­ing to the World Bank).

via The Browser

Contextual Writing (Telescopic and Responsive Text)

How can a writer cater to an audi­ence with diverse pref­er­ences and needs (par­tic­u­larly, how much detail they want and how much time they have)? One way is to use tele­scop­ic or respons­ive text.

Tele­scop­ic text is a meth­od of iter­at­ively dis­play­ing more and more tex­tu­al detail on request (I sup­pose the read­er becomes the user). Joe Dav­is’ bril­liant example of tele­scop­ic text starts with the phrase “I made tea” before pro­gress­ing to a 198-word short story through 45-or-so iter­a­tions. Won­der­ful.

Respons­ive text is sim­il­ar in some regards and vastly dif­fer­ent in oth­ers. Like a respons­ive design, respons­ive text ‘scales’ in response to the user­’s screen size in order to dis­play an appro­pri­ate amount of tex­tu­al detail. If viewed on a lar­ger screen, Frankie Rober­to’s respons­ive text example points out:

It’s a bit of an exper­i­ment, and I’m not really sure how use­ful it really is, but I think it’s an inter­est­ing idea.

It could also per­haps be com­bined with some form of a user inter­face that allows you to con­trol how much text you want to read. This might be really use­ful for news art­icles, for instance – you could decide wheth­er to read full quotes and a detailed back­story, or just the gist.

I think mak­ing this beha­viour user-con­trol­lable is key and an inter­face variable/bookmarklet is an inter­est­ing concept to fol­low. One issue I envis­age is that adop­tion of this will come from authors and mak­ing this easy-to-imple­ment on the pro­du­cer-side will take some skill.

via @fooman­doo­n­i­an

The Good and Bad of Enumerated Lists

Writ­ing by enumeration–writing a ‘list of n things’–restricts you to a struc­ture that is easi­er to pro­duce and is easi­er for read­ers to fol­low and com­pre­hend, but lim­its free thought. That’s one of many points that Paul Gra­ham makes in an essay dis­cuss­ing the mer­its and dis­ad­vant­ages of writ­ing enu­mer­ated lists.

One obvi­ous neg­at­ive that Gra­ham points out is that, in most situ­ations, lists of n things are used by lazy writers not even attempt­ing to stretch them­selves, or read by read­ers who don’t fully trust the author to pro­duce an appeal­ing-enough short-form essay. And of course, there’s the sound advice to almost always avoid lists with ‘the’ before the num­ber, as a list is rarely exhaust­ive and instead you’re likely being fooled into believ­ing it is (read: link­bait).

Because the list of n things is the easi­est essay form, it should be a good one for begin­ning writers. And in fact it is what most begin­ning writers are taught. The clas­sic 5 para­graph essay is really a list of n things for n = 3. But the stu­dents writ­ing them don’t real­ize they’re using the same struc­ture as the art­icles they read in Cos­mo­pol­it­an. They’re not allowed to include the num­bers, and they’re expec­ted to spackle over the gaps with gra­tu­it­ous trans­itions (“Fur­ther­more…”) and cap the thing at either end with intro­duct­ory and con­clud­ing para­graphs so it will look super­fi­cially like a real essay. […]

Anoth­er advant­age of admit­ting to begin­ning writers that the 5 para­graph essay is really a list of n things is that we can warn them about this. It only lets you exper­i­ence the defin­ing char­ac­ter­ist­ic of essay writ­ing on a small scale: in thoughts of a sen­tence or two. And it’s par­tic­u­larly dan­ger­ous that the 5 para­graph essay bur­ies the list of n things with­in some­thing that looks like a more soph­ist­ic­ated type of essay. If you don’t know you’re using this form, you don’t know you need to escape it.

As a pur­vey­or of fine hyper­links since 2008, I also feel that post­ing (to) a list of n things is also, in most situ­ations, lazy link-blog­ging. How­ever there are always some that will make the cut and get pos­ted, and Gra­ham’s essay helps one see why they might have been espe­cially appeal­ing.