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Aug 20 / King Kaufman

Readers have lots of questions: Answer them in advance

One of my favorite pieces of writing advice—one I thought of myself rather than stealing it from a good writer like I usually do—is to anticipate the questions readers will ask as they read your piece, and then answer them.

That is, imagine your readers are active, inquisitive readers, and stay ahead of them.

Bloomberg View finance columnist Barry Ritholtz offers an example of what that looks like in a column headlined How to Spot the Garbage in News.

The column is aimed at investors. Ritholtz wants to teach his readers how to be active, inquisitive readers so they don’t get suckered by vague, poorly sourced, sloppy financial analysis:

Active reading often leads to the conclusion that the vast majority of news is at best incomplete and uninformative, while a majority of research reports are full of biases and logical errors.

But the piece also offers a kind of roadmap to writers. If you’re wondering what an active, inquisitive reader looks like, follow along with Ritholtz as he conducts a Fire Joe Morgan-style dialog with a Wall Street Journal article. The italicized text comes from the WSJ article:

Stocks have come so far, so fast that investors are getting nervous.

How far have stocks come relative to past market rallies? Where are we relative to the median bull market? Is this consistent with prior cycles, or is this an outlier?

The key to understanding this sort of statement is putting it into historical context: is “too far too fast” based on the data, rather than an unsupported supposition?

All that just from one sentence. Ritholtz is talking about finance here, but think of all the “unsupported supposition” passes for sports analysis, when data would serve the purpose so much better.

I always like to use an example from a baseball broadcast that I wrote about years ago: The Angels had scored several runs with two outs in a game against the White Sox, and ESPN, televising the game, flashed a graphic pointing out that the Angels scored 40 percent of their runs with two outs. Citing that figure, analyst Buck Martinez launched into a rhapsody about how that showed the Angels had heart, they scrapped, they never gave up on an inning and all that.

I was an active, inquisitive listener, so I asked, “Is 40 percent a lot?” Turns out, it wasn’t. It was a little better than league average, and barely better than the White Sox. And there didn’t seem to be much correlation between a team’s reputation for scrappiness and heart and its ability to score runs with two outs. And two-out run-scoring didn’t correlate that well with winning either.

These are the kinds of questions you don’t want to leave readers asking—especially if the answers will destroy your argument.

As Bleacher Report Quality Editor Erica Patton said in this B/R Blog post, “I’m looking for a piece that is comprehensive; something that (while attributing outside sources) is thorough and doesn’t require the reader to find any pertinent details elsewhere. As a reader, I don’t want to have any questions when I’m done with a piece.”

Emphasis mine. You were wondering about that, right?

  • backell

    So, what exactly are you saying?

    Just kidding, of course. But I just wanted to say I miss Fire Joe Morgan. That was a great blog.