How to Write for Surfer Dudes

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I spent last summer, taking digital essay lessons. They were part of a series that I call, “Learning to Write for Morons,” by Medium.com.

I learned a lot, but I can condense the lessons into one premise: If you’re writing online articles, you have a split second to keep the reader’s attention and you have, maybe, three split seconds to keep his attention. Tell yourself, “You’re writing for surfer dudes, almost literally. They have the attention span of gnats. Engage them.”

In order to do this, you need to follow these two rules:

1. Write great titles for your pieces (many authorities say you shoud spend as much time on your headlines as you do the article itself, which strikes me as ludicrous, unless perhaps you’re cranking out P.o.S. articles).

2. Lots of white space.

The second rule breaks down into a series of sub-rules: break your articles into sections, each section should be no longer than 300 (preferably, 250) words, use sub-headings, paragraphs should only be two or three lines long (it’s that last one, I think, drives traditional writers mad . . . I know it irritates me, but I use it as motivation to do the bulk of my reading from books).

The first rule also breaks down into a series of sub-rules, but the overarching rule is: Grab the reader’s attention so he’ll click on it.

Ever since reading those rules last summer, I’ve been working on my headlines (maybe you, dear TDE reader, have noticed my sensationalist edge?). I’ve also been noticing the outlandish headlines I see online.

Maybe it has always been this way, but I think that, as more and more people follow the rubrics of online writing, the headlines have become increasingly outlandish. This one from yesterday really cracked me up: Silver is About to Tear People’s Faces Off. (If it piques your curiosity, incidentally, the article is about an ongoing “conspiratorialist” theory that the total amount of silver bullion in the world is less than the total number of options available to buy silver bullion, and when the option holders start calling and asking for physical delivery, all silver hell is going to break loose. I have absolutely no opinion on the matter, for what it’s worth. The theory sounds compelling and outrageous at the same time.)


It has gotten so bad that Medium.com announced in December that it would penalize stories that use clickbait headlines, and it defined “clickbait” awfully broadly:

  • Is the title trying to exploit a reader’s personal worries, insecurities, or emotional state?
  • Is the title or story image more provocative than the content of the story merits?
  • Is the title over-reaching or over-promising with hyperbolic claims or absolutes that are not verifiable?
  • Is the title withholding important context; misleading the reader; or using cliches, gimmicks, or cheap language?

It all brings back Joseph Epstein’s recent observations about pixel writing and reading:

The great battle of the day is not the culture war, or the uncivil skirmishes between political parties, but what I think of as the serious conflict between pixels and print, with pixels increasingly dominant. . . .

By pixels I refer to reading and writing on phones, computers, kindles, tablets, watches, and other mechanical devices. The two, pixels and paper, I have come to believe, engender distinctly different modes of cognition. One reads pixels, as they are chiefly meant to be read, quickly, skimmingly, chiefly for information. That is no doubt why, when one feels one has the information one needs online, one’s hand twitches on one’s cursor and one is ready to scroll down, to be done and gone. Reading pixels one doesn’t often notice style, rhythm, wit, all those individual touches a careful writer puts into his work, certainly not in the same way one reads on paper. Something there is insubstantial, ephemeral, impermanent about writing that appears in pixels. Reading a book or magazine, even a newspaper, one is usually in repose, becalmed, pensive. One notes interesting turns of phrase, striking metaphors and similes, the architecture of well-made sentences, all things that tend to pass unnoticed in pixels. On paper one sometimes returns to re-read key passages, or pauses to make a note, or lightly sidelines an arresting phrase. Not so with pixels, which have now taught people to read differently, and, since one learns to write from reading, pixels also figures to change the way people will write, which seems, potentially, a serious subtraction, a sadness if not a shame.

Gallimaufry: A Collection of Essays, Reviews, Bits, p. 4.

I’m a little embarrased to admit I read that passage on my Kindle.