Monday, December 10, 2012

The Fast Lane to Comprehension

          As we think about the modern American society, we usually imagine a fast-paced society with little time for entertainment.  Where we once sat at the dinner table with a newspaper and morning coffee, now we spend perhaps five to ten minutes glancing at a computer or smartphone.  Obviously, these small windows of time no longer allow us to explore page-long articles; we need short blurbs that provide interest and information in just a few short paragraphs.  Yet, this compression of space and time comes at a cost.  In the article “Tsunami bike at Harley-Davidson Museum” by Rick Barrett, we can evaluate the costs and benefits this new style brings to journalism.

            First, we immediately notice the article’s brevity.  On the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel website, Barrett’s entry takes up roughly a fourth of the page’s length.  Mind you, this is also with extra spacing between the paragraphs to increase readability, so the actual length is even smaller than what we see.  It’s not hard to understand how a reader could glance through this in five minutes and know what this article is saying.  However, brevity comes with a price.  By cutting down, Barrett ends up with one sentence paragraphs: “The container had Japanese writing on it, and the bike's license plate indicated it was from Japan.”  Where he could have gone into a great depth about the recovery and add levels of emotion, he leaves the reader with the most basic understanding of the experience.  In fact, the article is only eleven sentences long, with only two paragraphs being longer than one sentence.  Rather than build a personal investment with the experience, Barrett chooses to lay it out as a matter of fact.

            Next, we mark Barrett’s word choice.  Rather than bog the reader down with long, flowered sentences, the writer has chosen to remain on the layman’s level, so to speak.  In fact, sometimes he intentionally makes redundant statements to clarify his sentence’s intentions: “the container had Japanese writing on it, and the bike's license plate indicated it was from Japan.”  I use this example again because it demonstrates the motives behind plain style writing!  Barrett could have gone with either idea -the container or the license plate- and most readers would reach the same conclusion after some initial thinking.  Instead, he removes all the reader’s hassle with a touch of epistrophe.

            Essentially, the crux plain writing is to establish an idea in a way that is understood without much (if any) second guessing.  While this desire leads to some habits that make scholars and professional writers cringe, such as redundancy or simplicity, audiences as a whole have embraced this style.  This is probably why we see it being used so prevalently in free-form communications like blogs, newspapers and other multimedia outlets.
By Matthew Otto

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