SubScribe: Information overload Google+

Saturday 18 February 2012

Information overload

David Cameron is the Prime Minister. Ilfracombe is in North Devon. The Bowleven oil company is based in Edinburgh.  The Oxford Bible Commentary was edited in 2001 by John Barton and John Muddiman. The taxpayer owns 83% of RBS.  
Readers may be interested in any or all of these facts - but not necessarily in an opening paragraph. Who cares about the geography or history of the subject of a story before discovering what he, she or it has done?
Take this intro from the front page of The Guardian:

Teachers at Gateway primary school, in Marylebone, central London, have noticed that anxiety about the introduction of a new housing benefit cap is beginning to unsettle some pupils.

So what is most important here? The teachers? The specific primary school? Its exact location? Or the children? Why all those commas and geography before we get to the point?
There are, of course, many ways of telling a story...but how about this:

Children as young as eight are fretting that they might lose their homes if housing benefit is capped, teachers say. 
(The age and precise concerns were detailed lower in the story).

The key is to focus on what counts and get that message across before the reader falls asleep or turns the page. That doesn't preclude delayed drops and other such invitations to read on, but the fewer commas (and parentheses) there are in an intro, the easier it is to read.
And yes, this is an egg-sucking lesson, but some of us need it. Did your grandma actually know how to suck eggs? Mine didn't. Sometimes we have to go back to basics..
If it's vital to the understanding of the story, put it up top. If it's a detail that can wait, let it come in naturally later on. 

And then there's the exception that proves the rule. Take this glorious effort from Martin Fletcher in The Times
Chris Tappin seems an improbable criminal. Silver-haired, bespectacled and slightly deaf, the retired businessman lives in an elegant house in Orpington, heads the Kent Golf Union, representing the county's 95 clubs, plays bridge and dotes on his grandson.

From another pen that would probably have been too, too much information. But it is just brilliant.

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