August 24, 2021

It does not happen often, but now and then my critical judgment, expressed in an appreciation of a particular text, is confirmed by a community of readers.

Let me try that thought again in plain English. I read something in the newspaper or online. I think it’s really good. I applaud. I open the front door. All the neighbors are applauding, too. That means I’m on to something.

On Aug. 15 I read every word of an article in the Tampa Bay Times. The headline read: Dealing with Delta: Here’s what we now know about the delta variant. The author was an Iowa scientist and physician, Dr. J. Stacey Klutts.

Before we dig into the column, please consider its reception. Jim Verhulst, an editor at the Times, ran the numbers for me. They cover the first nine days of publication.

Dr. Klutts’ essay is doing well. So far, 2,817,291 people have read it, and they’re spending an average of 2.5 minutes on it. (In other words, they are actually reading it.) I’ve never seen a response like this. In fact, this is magnitudes beyond anything I’ve seen. The good doc has heard from people around the world, including some who have gotten vaccinated because of what he wrote. Just today (eight days after first publication on the website), 75,500 have read it.

So, what gives? What made this particular article work? If we could X-ray the essay, so to speak, what would we find underneath the surface of the text? What strategies might we unearth that could be added to our own toolshed? It’s my job to help you figure that out.

Let’s begin with the headline. It may sound trivial, but to me, the key word in that headline is “now.” It says something about the nature of science that is key to a public understanding, a new knowledge that can inspire personal action. In short, when it comes to a pandemic that has endured for almost two years, what do scientists know, and how do they know it?

The word “now” suggests a change. Scientists drew hypotheses about COVID-19 from data and evidence they had months ago. Now they have new knowledge that steers them toward different conclusions.

Science, and those of us who believe in it, must learn to tolerate uncertainty. An old scientific paradigm may stand for centuries until a Newton or Einstein comes along to knock it down. We see the world in a different, better way.

A phrase from scientists I hang on: “Here’s what we know as of now.”

Here’s what civic clarity looks like

The good Dr. Klutts, who turns out to be a fine writer, works out of Iowa. He has a distinguished record in pathology and clinical microbiology. He works with health care in the Department of Veterans Affairs. He has led an organization supporting laboratory physicians and scientists. He’s not a journalist, but he is, most certainly, a public writer.

This seems important: His remarkable text originated, not in a newspaper or medical journal, but on Facebook. Perhaps it was that venue, that platform, that gave Dr. Klutts the voice he needed to deliver the goods.

Let’s remember that his good work arrives at a time when the delta variant is causing a frightening spike in hospitalizations and deaths among the unvaccinated. As readers, it is in our enlightened self-interest to learn how delta works and how we should respond to it.

And keep in mind the popular response. If the public offers a gold star — and the writing teacher adds a smiley face — there are surely lessons to be learned and shared.

How the doctor operates

Dr. Klutts puts these writing strategies into action:

The classic wisdom is that the writer should use shorter words, shorter sentences, and shorter paragraphs at the points of greatest complexity. 

There is plenty of complexity in this article, so a slower pace is called for. Shorter sentences mean more periods, which mean more stop signs, which mean the reader is not rushed. How well are the vaccines working?

“Punchline: They’re remarkably good! The vaccine shows an 8-fold reduction in the development of any symptomatic disease secondary to delta. For hospitalization, it is a 25-fold reduction. That’s 25 times! Remarkable. For death, it is also 25 times!”

He establishes authority in action. 

These days, it feels as if words that once brought honor to an individual or institution are being disparaged. Experts, the highly educated, people with titles, people who work in governments or universities, can be dismissed as being members of the elite. Sometimes, when experts fail in their responsibilities, such dismissal is justified.

In the case of Dr. Klutts, he describes his credentials, not from a diploma hanging on the wall, but from science in action. He’s not just reading books or writing for other scientists. He is working for us, to help to save our lives.

He reveals to readers the global structure of his column by breaking it into sections, indexing those parts with subheadlines. 

After a two-paragraph introduction, the essay is broken into nine numbered sections, each with an interesting subhead. Such as Like Gorilla Glue, 1,000 Times Higher and Much More Infectious. Readers find a text more comprehensible if they can perceive, early on, its global structure: the five-act play, the sonnet, problem/solution.

Subheadlines offer several advantages. They help the writer identify the parts; they index the story for the reader; and, since many readers graze, they offer additional points of entry into the story.

He uses “I” and “you” to suggest familiarity and conversational language. 

It’s so interesting, and telling, that the author begins the story with the word “I,” something we might expect in a Facebook post, but not necessarily in an op-ed piece.

“I am in a unique position to report on what is going on with COVID-19, particularly the delta variant and why it’s so dangerous, and how it interacts with the vaccines. I’m the Special Assistant to the National Director of Pathology and Lab Medicine for the entire Veterans Affairs system, with a specific role in advising on elements of COVID testing for the system.”

There’s that revelation of expertise I was talking about. His use of the first person neutralizes any of the bureaucratic gobbledygook that might reside in that long title. That pronoun “I” is repeated throughout, more as we reach the end, along with “you” and “we.” Closing the distance created by third-person explanations, the author creates a sense of interaction, of interdependence, and he does it with the magic of pronouns.

He chooses only the most important numbers and explains their significance. 

Numbers can be difficult to understand — especially in texts — as opposed to well-designed charts and graphs. But numbers, well selected, can be stunning in their impact.

“There are two recent publications which demonstrate that the viral loads in the back of the throats of infected patients are 1,000 times higher with the delta than with previous variants. I can tell you from data in my own labs, that is absolutely true. We are seeing viral signals we never saw last year using the exact same assays.”

He does not avoid scientific language, but demystifies it in the public interest. 

As with numbers, the doctor uses a surprising amount of technical jargon, a typical sign that the text will be difficult for the layperson to read. It works because he presents it to us as something we need to understand. He closes the deal by telling us why we need to understand it. Why is the delta variant more contagious than previous strains?

“You may have heard of R0 (Pronounced R naught) which is, in a nutshell, the number of people to which an infected person would be expected to transmit the virus. Early version of the virus had a 2 to 2.5 R0 value. So one infected person would infect two or so people on average. Delta has an R0 of about eight!”

Exclamation points suggest a common person is writing, not a member of an intellectual class. 

I did not see Dr. Klutts’s original Facebook post, but I am assuming there are no emojis in his message. But there are exclamation points, which I see as the thinking person’s emoji. Snobs in the literary world condemn the exclamation point as immature. An episode of “Seinfeld” is devoted to the topic. The effect here is that a kind of everyman is explaining something important and wants us to pay attention.

There are not many long sentences here, and the shortest ones are used to slam the message home. 

Short sentences, especially in a series, can be used for different purposes: to sustain suspense, to build emotion, and, in our case, to drive home a point. The short sentence has the ring of truth.

“If you live in the north and are not vaccinated, it is not too late, but it’s getting damn close. It’s also time to start wearing masks in public again (ugh…I hate it too.)”

That parenthetical phrase reinforces the sense that he is one of us.

Starts nice and easy, like Tina Turner, but ends up in a crescendo of passion and rough sincerity. 

The mission of Dr. Klutts is clear: to save lives. To persuade, he is willing to implore.

“I beg of you, watch that wave and don’t ignore it. I have zero political agenda (I hate politics). I’m just a nerdy scientist and physician who loves you all, and I certainly don’t want to see a mass of my friends grieving — or dead — because I didn’t yell loud enough to get you and your families off that beach. So run! (to your pharmacy…driving is allowed). You don’t want any part of this thing without vaccine on board.”

Overarching lessons worth saving

  • We can write explanatory pieces on topics of great public interest with both greater clarity and more passion.
  • We can tune our writing voices in print and on websites to something that sounds congenial, something we might share with our social media “friends.”
  • Highly technical information can be delivered to readers if you balance it with personal appeals.
  • We can tell it like it is in a way that takes responsibility for what readers know and understand.
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Roy Peter Clark has taught writing at Poynter to students of all ages since 1979. He has served the Institute as its first full-time faculty…
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