Writing Off Their Readership

Over at Little Green Footballs, Charles Johnson linked to a New York Daily News excoriation of a New York Times defense of their John McCain piece last week.

I have a slightly different take on the matter than Charles, and I think it’s because I’m a better writer than he is.

I don’t say that to disparage Charles. He is one of the best bloggers around, and better than me by several orders of magnitude. The proof is in the numbers: LGF, a one-man operation, rates considerably better numbers than the whole group of us here at Wizbang have ever managed, and likely ever will. He’s one of the first bloggers I ever discovered, and LGF is still one of the sites I check regularly.

But Charles, for all his talents, is not a great writer. I think, objectively, that I am a better writer. I’ve never seen Charles write long-form essays, short stories, and poetry — all of which I have published here. He is absolutely brilliant at the form he chooses — short, often biting synopses of articles and events in the fields he has chosen to specialize — but he’s simply not a writer.

I think I am. And that gives me a somewhat different perspective on the New York Times mess.

Bill Keller, the paper’s executive editor, claims that he was surprised that so many readers drew the wrong message from their piece on McCain. The standard response is “no, we didn’t; we knew exactly what the message was, and we don’t like it.”

I’d like to offer Mr. Keller some arguments in why he should listen to those people.

The first rule of writing is “write to your readers.” Figure out who you are writing your piece for, and then write it in a way that is accessible to them and they will most comprehend.

This does not mean “write down to your audience.” When I started writing my short story about the fictional USS Manchester, I first posted it on a Naval Fiction board, as they would be far more receptive and interested in it than the general audience here at Wizbang, who are mainly interested in political matters. I reprinted it here, but always as a link or an extended entry so those uninterested could readily ignore it.

The second rule is “the readers are usually right.” This is a hard lesson to learn, mainly because it involves a hefty blow to the ego to properly sink in.

No matter how carefully you write something, no matter how proud you are of something, if a significant portion of your readership takes away the wrong message, it ain’t their fault — it’s yours.

I learned this one when I wrote one of my proudest pieces, that also contains one of my most shameful blunders. When typing the piece, I omitted a single, critical phrase and what I wrote could have been interpreted as an insult on a whole group of people I had absolutely no intention of insulting.

And man, was it ever interpreted that way. After the first complaint, I read it over and saw that while I could defend the phrasing as implicitly meaning what I wanted it to mean, I couldn’t defend it with a clean conscience. It was sloppy, and the interpretation of several readers was far more accurate than the one I intended.

In short, I had screwed up.

So instead of trying to explain what I meant, of trying to rationalize my original phrasing, I apologized and rewrote that paragraph, inserting the clause I was thinking at the time but never actually typed. It didn’t change the meaning of the paragraph, technically, but it emphasized the point I was trying to make and eliminated the ambiguity that so many readers had taken incorrectly.

But their mistake was not their fault, it was mine.

Now, often my other pieces are misinterpreted even today. But that’s by a handful of dedicated twits who specialize and take pride in deliberately misunderstanding what I write and twist what i say. Their criticism I take into account for future works, when I will try to make my pieces a bit tighter and less vulnerable to perverting.

But that’s the dedicated trolls. I don’t take their efforts too seriously. It’s the regular readership that I trust to flag me when I’ve messed up something, and I listen carefully.

And when necessary, I fix my mistakes, apologize, and thank them for catching my errors.

That’s what the Times needs to do. They are saying that a very significant portion of their readership misunderstood the gist of their John McCain story of last week. I don’t think that is the case, but let’s presume for a moment that it is. What should they do?

They ought to admit that the story was seriously flawed — at least in its writing — and go back and revise the hell out of it to make their point clearer. (I’m still unclear on what its focus was.) The sheer number of people who are complaining about it make it clear that the problem lies not with the readership, but the authors and editors whose job is to make the stories clear and comprehensible. In this case, they failed — and in a huge way.

But I’m not buying it. I think the consensus among the blogosphere is pretty much dead on — the Times gathered up a bunch of weak allegations and unsubstantiated rumors, tied them together with loose threads of insinuations and innuendos, and piled them atop a decades-old scandal that is long dead and buried, and tried to serve it up as something new and deliciously salacious. But as a recipe, it was a flop — not only were the ingredients considerably sub-par, the chefs involved had spent too much time imbibing their cooking brandy and thought so little of the consumers that they didn’t think they’d have to do more than slap it all together and watch the diners eagerly swallow it down.

Every now and then, though, the people look beyond the five-star ratings and fancy tablecloths and snooty maitre d’s and realize that, under the silver tray and beside the fresh garnish, they’re being served a shit sandwich.

Of late, the Times — as well as a good chunk of the mainstream media — has been making that shit sandwich the dominant entree on their menu.

It’s no wonder that so many diners are choosing to find new restaurants, or simply make their own meals.

And you can take that from Chef Jay at Maison Wizbang.

(Or, if you prefer, Jay, head cook and janitor from Wizbang’s Eats And Live Bait Shop)

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