Why do editorials have such irrelevant and circuitous introductions?
February 17, 2013 12:53 PM   Subscribe

On a cold and New York winter afternoon, I sipped at my coffee and wondered at how to best phrase my question. I decided a direct approach would be best: when did editorials start to feature such long-winded and irrelevant introductions? What happened to the "reverse pyramid" I was taught in elementary, where you put the most important features first? Why is it not until the middle of the third paragraph that I usually find out what I'm reading? And do most readers actually like this style?

This type of writing almost definitely predates the internet, but I still have to wonder why it still appears online. When I start to read an editorial, I have no idea if it was written by a genius world-traveling astronaut with a PhD in traffic management or a 14 year old who is just upset that he has to write a literary analysis of Macbeth. There is a strong possibility that a large body of text is going to be a complete waste of time, and as such I would vastly prefer to read details before I read about the author's lunch.

I know this has the form of a rant, but I'm sure that many of these editorialists must have taken classes where they were given a reason for this writing style, and I'd like to hear the reasoning.
posted by Citizen Premier to Media & Arts (20 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Editorials don't usually use the "reverse pyramid" format. That's for news reporting.

My guess is that the reason for the long-winded intro/lede paragraphs is probably the influence of New Journalism and postmodernism, especially if what you're terming an "editorial" is really more of an essay or memoir piece. Sometimes this works really well. Sometimes it's less successful.

If you mean an editorial like an Op Ed, e.g. "The New Third Street Bridge Plan Is Unsightly" or "Vote No On Proposition 27", I'm going to say the culprit is probably just bad writing.

One thing I notice a lot online with articles written by unpaid amateurs is that a lot of time is wasted with boring openings. There are certain websites I stopped even trying to read because of this problem. I also notice some blogs will cheat on creating new content by doing "series" wherein the first 200 words or so are introductions copied and pasted verbatim from the previous article in the series. Sometimes people are just bad at writing, or lazy, or don't appear to care much about the audience.
posted by Sara C. at 1:01 PM on February 17, 2013 [2 favorites]

I still have to wonder why it still appears online.

Do you mean newspaper editorials are just "editorials" like, say, a diary on DailyKos?

I have definitely noticed this as well. "The internet taught me how many poor writers there are out there." That's really what it is. The other side of it is that online, many readers aren't there for the writing or the news/information as much as they're there for the sense "community" and feelings of intimacy and interaction with the writers and commenters. So the long, circuitous introductions that touch on the writer's personal life and anecdotes about his day give the readers that sense of personal connection and intimacy.

People aren't generally very analytical, and they're writing for an audience that is made up of people who aren't very analytical themselves, so the style of writing will be geared more towards people looking for a sense of intimacy and personal connection rather than information and analysis.
posted by deanc at 1:01 PM on February 17, 2013

I like this editorial style and use it sometimes. A bad writer (or unpaid amateur) will write it badly. A good writer (or unpaid amateur) will write it well. Either you have bad luck, or your pet peeve is causing to miss some great articles.
posted by Potomac Avenue at 1:03 PM on February 17, 2013 [1 favorite]

When you kick off with the goods, you have committed yourself to a well-researched piece because there is no other way to fill a dense column. Many writers do not have the time for this because their column appears too frequently, or because the publisher cannot afford to pay for the research. And for whatever reason, a short, dense column is still not acceptable even if it's in large print to fill the column to create inventory.
posted by michaelh at 1:08 PM on February 17, 2013 [1 favorite]

Editorials don't usually use the "reverse pyramid" format. That's for news reporting.


A bad writer (or unpaid amateur) will write it badly. A good writer (or unpaid amateur) will write it well.

And this. The ones who do it badly are attempting to emulate the ones who do it well.

And lack of editing. A good editor will say "get to the point earlier" if that's what's needed.
posted by DestinationUnknown at 1:18 PM on February 17, 2013

The thinking is often, "A lot of people will skip an article on [insert subject], but if I start it with an anecdote, they'll feel committed to an article they wouldn't have otherwise bothered with." The reasons people might not read an article include that they think they already know enough about it and have made up their minds to the point that they won't care about a new viewpoint, so an anecdote that turns the "conventional thinking" on its head can lure people in doubly well. As others have said above, some people do it well, and others don't.
posted by Etrigan at 1:22 PM on February 17, 2013 [1 favorite]

Editorials are about delivering opinions -- sometimes on highly charged, controversial topics. So the reverse pyramid style that works so well for delivering facts and news -- leading with the most succinct nugget of information so that a reader who doesn't want to know more can move on, but those who do can continue -- is totally ineffective for editorials.

Imagine you are in favor of gay marriage and you come across an editorial whose first sentence is "I oppose gay marriage." Are you even going to read past that first sentence? My guess is no. You may even toss away the entire paper/close the browser tab. You certainly haven't changed your thinking at all on the gay marriage issue. The editor failed. Instead, the editor wants to set the scene for you, draw you into a story, give you another perspective rather than just hit you with the conclusion and then get around to the rationale three paragraphs later.
posted by payoto at 1:24 PM on February 17, 2013 [9 favorites]

My guess is that the reason for the long-winded intro/lede paragraphs is probably the influence of New Journalism and postmodernism

I'd take a more prosaic guess and say that it's the influence of other op-ed writers, as this is more about bylined op-eds, particularly ones with regular columns, than unbylined editorial pieces.

While editorials aren't literally phoned in these days, the emailed equivalent certainly exists, and padding at the front, whether with anecdotage or verbiage, is a hallmark of fitting a 300-word opinion into a 750-word pot.
posted by holgate at 1:25 PM on February 17, 2013

Even though we are taught the "reverse pyramid" format in high school and first-year English (kind of), rhetorical studies show that this form is rarely used in practice, in any genre of writing. This doesn't mean that some editorials would benefit from pushing the punctum to an earlier position, but it does mean that the rules we invent of what constitutes "good writing" are more or less bunk. Or at the very least, function only in an ad hoc way.

So to answer your question, writers didn't "start" doing this on the internet; they've always done it.
posted by Catchfire at 1:26 PM on February 17, 2013 [1 favorite]

It's called creative non-fiction. It's difficult to do, which is why it's so often poorly done.
posted by heyjude at 1:30 PM on February 17, 2013 [1 favorite]

And lack of editing.

This is key, too.

When I write prose, I find getting started to be the hardest part. Introductions are also pretty hard. Often my first idea for the intro isn't very good, or I'll find myself writing a bunch of long-winded unfocused drivel just because Must Get Started.

Obviously, after I finish my first draft with the 500 word introductory tangent which has nothing at all to do with what the piece is really about, the next step is to go back to the beginning and make that introduction really sing. I'm probably going to lose at least the first 50-100 words, straight away. I might completely rewrite the intro and frame the article from a different angle. There are a bunch of other changes I'm probably going to make to the article, but almost every time I write, I find myself changing the beginning a lot. Usually by making it shorter and more direct.

My guess is that online content with long-winded and pointless introductions probably omits this crucial step of the process.
posted by Sara C. at 1:35 PM on February 17, 2013

It's funny, I was just reading this and I think it addresses a lot of your complaints: Mondaynote - The Need for a Digital “New Journalism”
posted by beisny at 1:40 PM on February 17, 2013 [3 favorites]

What happened to the "reverse pyramid" I was taught in elementary, where you put the most important features first?

Perhaps this was merely a rhetorical question, but it seems more than a little bit odd to think that the way a thing is taught in elementary school is the way professionals should do that thing. The idea behind the practice of opening with an anecdote (which isn't always just laziness) is that the anecdote will both draw readers in and prefigure the broader issues discussed in the rest of the piece. Writing about your lunch is obviously not an effective way to do this (unless you're writing about food politics or the history of the lunch break or a lunch you had with someone relevant to your point or some other related issue that I haven't imagined), but beginning with an anecdote that illustrates the personal stakes of the broader point you're making can indeed be quite effective. Many people find narrative to be more affecting than even a very persuasive argument, and this, done well, can draw those people in to a piece they might otherwise not read, while also providing an example that will be useful as evidence in the later argument.
posted by dizziest at 2:34 PM on February 17, 2013 [4 favorites]

This type of writing almost definitely predates the internet, but I still have to wonder why it still appears online.

It's actually the "inverted pyramid" you were taught that is most closely linked with pre-internet technology. Stories were written that way so sub-editors could easlily lop off the bits at the end when they didn't fit on the typeset page.

And yeah, as others here have said, writing an editorial column is hard -- and it can be done very poorly or very well.
posted by neroli at 2:44 PM on February 17, 2013 [1 favorite]

Just dropped by to note that there is a difference between an editorial (an editor making an argument for/against something) and an opinion column. As an editorial writer,my husband argues for a certain position,said position being agreed upon by the edit board.An opinion column is reflects the author's personal opinion.
posted by pentagoet at 4:07 PM on February 17, 2013 [2 favorites]

Because it's a good way to hook readers and it's a holdover from New Journalism.
posted by Charlemagne In Sweatpants at 4:26 PM on February 17, 2013 [1 favorite]

OP, can you post an example of what you're talking about? Do you mean editorials? Op-eds? Random bloggy screeds? If you post examples, good or bad, you'll get a better answer here.
posted by purpleclover at 4:50 PM on February 17, 2013 [1 favorite]

The editorial/leader columns in newspapers are written by the senior editors of the paper. Are any of the more junior staff going to suggest that the words of these senior people need to go through the same process of polishing/editing that a standard news or opinion piece goes through?
posted by Jabberwocky at 4:56 PM on February 17, 2013

Don't know about most readers, but I like it quite a bit if it's decently done. Then, I am much more interested in people's little personal stories than most. If random details of other people's lives don't seem relevant to you, I can see how it might not be your favourite style. But yes, I do like the more personal touch.

Also what they said above about drawing one out before launching into an opinion with which the reader disagrees. I suspect that, in addition to requiring a time investment and making an argument in a more anecdotal way, this format probably also serves to humanize the person with the opinion, so it's harder for a reader with opposing views to immediately assume he/she is only a Straw Bad-Guy. Like telling the serial killer your name, so you become a person, so he has to stop killing you. In concept, I mean, because I don't think that actually happens in reality.
posted by Because at 9:52 PM on February 17, 2013 [1 favorite]

I'm gonna go with the cynical answer and assume it has to do with stringing the reader along long enough to get them to click the pagination links to read the next part of the article to find out what they're reading so the website can maximize its ad impressions.
posted by deathpanels at 10:18 PM on February 17, 2013

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