Signposts for unfamiliar territory

How to help your readers navigate new words and ideas

A journalist’s job is to deliver information. Sometimes, though, that information needs explanation or context to make it clear. Maybe it’s an unfamiliar word, a new concept, or simply a reference the reader does not yet know.

Giving that explanation is often done bass-ackward, where the explanation or context comes after the reader needs it.

This frequently happens when a quotation includes a name for which there is not yet a first reference:

“I told Boehner he has to talk to his fellow Republicans to iron out a deal,” he said, referring to John Boehner, the Speaker of the House of Representatives.

It’s just as easy to introduce Boehner before the reader knows she needs him:

He said he had spoken to House Speaker John Boehner. “I told Boehner he has to talk to his fellow Republicans to iron out a deal,” he said.

That way is even one word shorter, as well as clearer.

Here’s another example, from an article where Steven Spielberg discussed his new movie about Abraham Lincoln:

He joked that when he wants to talk to Lincoln, “I keep Daniel Day-Lewis’ phone number on my speed dial …,”

Now, if a reader hasn’t seen the movie, the mention of Daniel Day-Lewis can be confusing, since she may have last seen him as an oil tycoon in There Will Be Blood.

Fortunately, the writer added:

… referring to the actor who plays the title role in the movie and bears an uncanny resemblance to the bearded president from Illinois.

But that comes too late for the reader, who is now thinking about There Will Be Blood and has to shift mental imagery to Lincoln.

That fix, too, is simple. Just put the facts that a) Daniel Day-Lewis plays Lincoln and that b) he “bears an uncanny resemblance” to the man he plays somewhere before the quote that is so dependent upon a reader’s already knowing that.

You can do the reader the same favor when introducing an unfamiliar concept as well, by using familiar words to describing the concept and then naming it, the way an infant understands the concept of the woman who always smiles and changes his diaper before he knows the word “Mommy.” Don’t say, “She is inordinately fond of using pleonasms, repetitive or redundant words or phrases like ‘advance planning’ or ‘surrounded on all sides,” which puzzles a reader who does not yet know the word “pleonasms.” Instead say, “She is inordinately fond of using repetitive words or phrases, called pleonasms, like ‘advance planning’ or ‘surrounded on all sides.”

If you give a hint of what is to come, or adumbrate, your readers won’t fall behind.

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Merrill Perlman managed copy desks across the newsroom at The New York Times, where she worked for 25 years. Follow her on Twitter at @meperl. Tags: