Writing is not a spectator sport; it’s participatory. Editorialists come to us looking their best, engage us in eye contact, make us feel important, and ask us to dance. On the floor they lead, and if they’re good, we follow, swept along by their sure-footed expertise. It helps that they own the studio so that we recognize their authority. It also helps that they get to choose the music and that we come to them seeking instruction.
When we write in the style of the editorialists, with all of our advantages, we don’t waste time on the preliminaries. The sooner we get the partner we want moving in the direction of the dance floor, the less likely we are to be rejected.
We never, for example, require our readers to slog through paragraphs of “background information” to prepare them for argument. Editorials that begin as this one does are taking for granted that the reader has the patience for preliminaries.
People entering the United States from countries that are in the center of the Ebola epidemic in West Africa will now be subjected to screening in five airports. The screening includes temperature checks and a questionnaire upon deplaning and will add some security to ensure the virus does not enter the country. Passengers are also being screened as a pre-requisite to departing from airports in ebola-stricken countries. The US international airports doing the screening—Kennedy, Washington Dulles, O’Hare, Hartsfield-Jackson, and Newark—are the five which receive about 90% of all traffic from those countries.
Some experts doubt that the screenings will be worth the time and effort but they may keep the public calm and relieve some anxiety. The one case of Ebola in the United States thus far, a man named Thomas Eric Duncan, would most likely not have been discovered by the screening. Duncan arrived in the country September 20, and was not diagnosed with Ebola until the 30th, while showing symptoms as early as the 24th. Mr. Duncan has since passed away. The screening alone most likely would not have been enough to say that he had been infected with the virus. His temperature would have been fine and he might have lied on the questionnaire and questioning.
The above paragraphs are a solo performance that fails to engage the reader as a partner in the examination of the facts. As “background” it may have value later, but we don’t woo readers with chit-chat standing on the edge of the ballroom; we take them to the floor.
Suppose instead our editorial began like this:
The new airport screenings for travelers from ebola-stricken countries likely would not have prevented Thomas Eric Duncan from sneaking the dreaded disease into Dallas.
With this first sentence, we introduce the important “background” material that there will be new screening protocols at airports, but more importantly, we make a value judgement about their uselessness that challenges readers to evaluate what we say next about the protocols. They want to find something in those procedures either to verify or to refute the bold claim of our first sentence.
In addition, we’ve made a secondary, rather ominous but subtle claim in the one word “sneaking,” that Duncan might have been deliberately infiltrating the country with a dreaded virus in his person. Feel the difference in the dance when we’re in it, not watching it.
The new airport screenings for travelers from ebola-stricken countries likely would not have prevented Thomas Eric Duncan from sneaking the dreaded disease into Dallas. The protocols are easily thwarted. Passengers will have their temperatures taken on arrival in the US, and they’ll be asked questions upon deplaning. They’ll have been similarly screened before departing any ebola-stricken countries, which amounts to doing too little, twice. Duncan’s temperature was likely normal the day of his flight, and he would have lied about his exposure, as he did in the Dallas hospital where he later showed up with flu-like symptoms.
The US international airports doing the screening—Kennedy, Washington Dulles, O’Hare, Hartsfield-Jackson, and Newark—are the five which receive about 90% of all traffic from those countries, but experts doubt that the screenings will be worth the time and effort, except as a public relations move to keep the public calm and relieve anxiety. Any traveler wishing to bypass the protocols will know which airports to avoid.
While the measures may catch the occasional accidental importation of ebola into the US, they will more likely unfairly detain travelers with malaria, which has the same early symptom profile. But the most troubling shortcoming of the protocols is that they would never prevent the deliberate smuggling of a very deadly virus into the country in the bodies of fanatical terrorists.
Granted the final claim is far-fetched, but so would a warning have been, before 9/11, that terrorists who had trained for years as pilots to prepare themselves for a spectacular act of atrocity would commander several passenger airlines and crash them into national landmarks killing themselves and all their passengers.
The point is, once we move Mr. Duncan’s case to the top of the editorial and suggest that he would have slipped through the new protocols, our readers have much more at stake in what we say next. And that is the job of the first sentence.