I read the Sunday New York Times in two sessions: I read the news with coffee, then I usually pause to make breakfast for the family. Then I sit down with a Bloody Mary and a beer-back, to read the opinion and features stuff.
Why? Because essentially, I read the news pages for the purpose of learning new things. And I read the opinion and features sections to indulge my various interests and to refine and fortify my opinions. Occasionally I’ll read a column that puts across a truly contrary point of view, but only occasionally, and often not all the way through. It’s Sunday, after all.
Writers should always assume their readers are drinking on Sunday. And they should know, when they begin a thing, which of two plausible purposes their piece is for: to compellingly inform, or to gently comfort. (Convert, you say? How old are you?)
Fifty years ago, my first boss Larry Ragan wrote about how most readers read to learn more about what they already know—just like TV watchers do. If you put on a show about Irish history, don’t expect droves of Lithuanians to tune in out of curiosity about Irish history. Expect a lot of Irish people to watch, because they know all about Irish history, and will enjoy hearing that stuff again, and maybe learning a juicy new detail or two.
Similarly, as a liberal—when I read super-conservative views, it’s actually sometimes difficult to understand what I’m reading. As I wrote on Writing Boots last month:
“Making an effort to understand Trump people who live on the spectrum between believing in mass voter fraud on the saner end and false flags on the crazier end—this doesn’t feel like listening to someone’s heart, it feels like a math problem that I haven’t had enough calculus to solve. It also seems like something I shouldn’t do for free or without proper insurance. And it smells like electrical smoke.”
The comic Lewis Black cursed the scroll on CNN, because if he wanted to read, he wouldn’t be watching TV!
Similarly, if we wanted to think, we wouldn’t be scrolling on Facebook with a drink at our elbow.
And make no mistake: Most people are reading most things these days while scrolling on Facebook, either with a buzz on, or a hangover setting in. (Or fear in their hearts, or an overwhelming feeling of disorientation.)
Thus, the key to modern persuasive writing is to make it seem like you’re writing about good old Irish history, when you’re writing about Lithuania all along. Kind of like Robert Kennedy did, when he addressed students in race-troubled South Africa, in 1966 and opened by explaining why he had traveled all the way from America to speak to them:
“I come here this evening because of my deep interest and affection for a land settled by the Dutch in the mid-seventeenth century, then taken over by the British, and at last independent; a land in which the native inhabitants were at first subdued, but relations with whom remain a problem to this day; a land which defined itself on a hostile frontier; a land which has tamed rich natural resources through the energetic application of modern technology; a land which was once the importer of slaves, and now must struggle to wipe out the last traces of that former bondage. I refer, of course, to the United States of America.”
It’s not easy, to reach across.
But then, it never was.