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Grabbing Readers' Attention

Posted on Friday, February 26, 2021 at 3:49 PM

Fourteen catalysts for stimulating reader interest in your publication.

By Peter P. Jacobi

Remind your writers that a sermon in an empty church falls on no ears, that a story too lame or tame to grab hold of readers remains untold.

Remind them of interest factors that tend to gain attention and sharpen the enthusiasm of a reader for a piece of writing.

Here for your writers are 14 such interest factors, offered alphabetically. Be sharing of them.


Celebrity. People are interested in people. They are particularly interested in the well-known people. If someone famous can be used as a source or can be the object of attention or anecdote, include that someone.


Competition. In sports or politics, in business or contests, the element of competition may be present. If such is the case, use it. Readers are fascinated by competition, by the versus in our lives. Sports pages are but one proof; they wouldn't exist without our enthusiasm for competitors in action.


Conflict. This more menacing, potentially damaging form of competition is what the news of most days is all too often about. Whether individuals or groups of nations are in conflict, their heated arguments, their bitter struggles, involve us. To dwell only on conflict is questionable in that we shouldn't over-depress our readers, but conflict and its object lessons deserve coverage. They're attention-getting.


Consequence. Every publication's readership considers certain matters consequential, of particular importance. Perhaps it is family. Perhaps it is health. Or economic well-being, or faith, or beauty, or court, or weather, or good and usable recipes, or diet, or education. Think about what subjects and what aspects within these subjects are important to your readers. Build them in.


Controversy. Disagreements, whether in political campaigns or in the halls of science, interest other people, particularly if these debates about positions and rights and wrongs have an impact on them. Controversies may be troubling, but they engage.


Fear. What we fear ensnares others and intrigues us.


Heartstrings. The child saved from death through an organ donation. Good neighbors taking in a homeless family. The reunion of father and son after years of separation. The coming clean of a drug addict. The rescue of a dog against all odds. Human interest stories (and animal interest stories) that tug at the heart captivate the reader.


Humor. What's funny is magnetic. But what's funny is natural, intrinsic to the material and the writer's style. And remember, as humorist S. J. Perelman warned: "When you endeavor to be funny in every line, you place an intolerable burden not only on yourself but on the reader. You have to allow the reader to breathe."


Problem. Readers will not hesitate to pore over your words if they agree that your subject shines the spotlight on the problem, one they share or may face. They'll pore over your words without hesitation, rest assured.


Progress. We revel in progress. Show your reader a gain in the battle against a killer disease or an environmental crisis or poverty or any sort of ongoing conflict. Bring readers to the latest on progress and improvements, and your article becomes a natural for attention.


Solution or success. When a victory occurs amid the generally discouraging course of human events, people become elated. They want to know of the good that has taken place. After all, we need encouragement. If your article can supply some, the readership is loyally yours.


The unknown. What you tell me about what I don't know or understand but should or would like to will satisfy a longing. From the safety of my den or living room or study or office, I can't explore dangerous physical or mind-numbing mental vistas with you. Inner and outer space may be troubling, but they're hard to resist.


The unusual. "Departure from the norm" is what newspaper editors call it. Or the eccentricity factor. Readers are drawn to the different embryos in divorce cases, fusion in a jar, wingless airplanes, designer vegetables, a museum for atheists, a vampire census, potty chairs that sing. Don't shun the unusual. It needn't be tabloid in nature. Refinement of treatment can make it as classy as anything else you might wish to publish.


Wants and needs. Whatever your readers want or need, they'll want or need to read about it. All you have to do is remind them that they'll want or need whatever you're asking them to want or need. That depends heavily, of course, on your understanding of what readers do want or need. All publications live or die because readers discern in them, or fail to, material for which they have a specific requirement and/or a general desire. Writers supply the material, or fail to. As editors, don't let them fail to.

Manuscripts should be tested against this list.

If the writer or editor, and honest analysis, fails to discover one or more of these interest factors etched sharply and abundantly into the article’s fabric, the project should be rethought. Start afresh.

A classic article from a past issue in tribute to the late Peter P. Jacobi, longtime EO writer and author of The Magazine Article: How to Think It, Plan It, Write It.

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