Those pesky questions

June 21, 2013

By Roger Shirley, Editorial Director

One of the goals of a good writer should be to not raise questions in your copy that you don’t answer, a point I emphasize when talking to our younger staffers.

It’s something that was ingrained in me early in my career by a crusty old newspaper editor who had a tendency of mixing heavy doses of screaming and cussing with his insightful coaching.

Roger Shirley, left, receives instruction from a crusty editor.

Roger Shirley, left, receives instruction from a crusty editor.

I remember distinctly the day he called me over to the desk as he edited one of my stories. “Shirley, what the hell does this mean?” he asked with a snarl. I was about 12 words into trying to explain it when he interrupted me, yelling even louder, no doubt to send waves of fear through the other cub reporters within earshot. “Well, we have two options here. You can either add that to your story now, or you can get up at 4 o’clock in the morning and start calling 38,000 people to tell them what it means.”

Good writers anticipate the questions their readers will ask and answer them, whether it is in a news story, a news release, a letter to employees or a memo to a client. Good writers understand that, when they raise a question, they must either answer it or go back and write around it so as not to raise the question. (Sometimes, the latter just doesn’t cut it.)

If you say that “Tennessee has the second-highest consumption rate per capita of Chili Cheese Pups in the nation,” you had better follow that up with which state tops the list, because that is the immediate question raised. If for some reason you don’t know and can’t find out (unlikely in this digital day and age), then you must recast the sentence. “Tennessee has one of the highest consumption rates of Chili Cheese Pups per capita in the nation” works nicely. It generally makes the point, without raising the question.

The problem with not answering questions you raise, beyond the informational aspect of it, is that it often prompts readers to stop reading and to start bouncing around in the copy trying to find the answer – or worse, pay a visit to Mr. Google, never to return to your carefully crafted prose. And for a writer, few things are worse than losing the reader.

When self-editing your drafts, it’s important to try as much as possible to read them from a reader’s perspective and not a writer’s perspective, to ask the questions a reader would ask and see if you have answered them.

That’s easier said than done, of course, which is why there will always be a role for editors, crusty or not.

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