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 pique 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 toÂ 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”).Â 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?”).
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 YeggeÂ 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. Â 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. [â€¦]
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 ofÂ yourÂ brain.
Around the same time as Yegge’s posting, a Reddit user known as Wadsworth pointed out thatÂ 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.
After realising that “many people don’t have the first clue about how the publishing business works â€” or even what it is“, the somewhat prolific science fiction writerÂ Charlie StrossÂ 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 â€” 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 â€” 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
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 requestÂ (I suppose the reader becomes theÂ 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,Â 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 â€“ 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.
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 anÂ essayÂ discussingÂ 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. [â€¦]
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.