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    Pursuing an Audience in the Information Age

    Wednesday, August 08, 2012

    Recently, on the Bullseye podcast, Tom Bissell spoke about the role of happenstance in publishing. He mentioned Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson, and Herman Melville—three American writers we might never have heard of if someone else hadn’t brought each to a publisher’s notice.

    Of course, even after a work is published, finding readers can be difficult. If it weren’t for Libribox’s audio recording of Melville’s Moby Dick, I’d never have experienced that book. (Stewart Wills’ lively reading made for a pleasant commute to and from the office.) If not for the ebook version of Tolstoy’s War and Peace, I’d never have read that work. (Nowadays who wants to carry a 508-page tome around for a month, to dig through in spare moments?) Still, for some technical subjects, I’m best consuming them on paper. Sams Teach Yourself HTML, CSS, and JavaScript All in One, by Julie Meloni, comes to mind.

    As we move further into the Information Age, meeting an audience’s desire for multiple formats becomes increasingly necessary. It also complicates a writer’s task. For example:

    Online…

    In print…

    • writing must be succinct to succeed.
    • short sentences, many paragraph breaks, multiple headings, and bulleted or numbered lists are essential for quick scanning.
    • that same text can seem curt.
    • longer paragraphs with fewer breaks are acceptable, as are pop quotes and multi-column articles.

    While this may seem primarily to involve layout, any writer can tell you that it also affects word choice and sentence structure.  For example, my previous draft of the material above read…

    “To succeed online, writing must be succinct. Yet on the printed page, that same text can sometimes seem curt. A Web page calls for more paragraph breaks, more headings, and more bulleted or numbered lists than a printed page does. On printed pages, pop quotes and multi-column text are more acceptable.”

    That might have worked fine in a book, but not onscreen.

    Making these sorts of choices takes practice. It means noticing what works well in other people’s writing and adapting it to your own. It means thinking like your audience, drawing on your own experiences as a reader, and predicting what your audience will need. That way, you can maximize the chances of your own writing finding its audience and being understood.

    —Lester Smith

    Photo: Moby Dick final chase, from Wikimedia Commons