Yay, Pull Quotes
Back to our regularly scheduled programming...
(After yesterday’s post, I felt like changing the subject. Also, I’ve had this piece in the works for a bit…)
If you read much of what I publish inand, and most of the work I edited for Longreads when I worked there, you might notice that I’m fairly pull quote-happy.
Among my colleagues at Longreads, I was by far the biggest pull quote enthusiast, an occasional topic of conversation in our Slack channel. Where the other editors might have put one or two into a 5,000-word piece, I liked to put roughly one per thousand words. One editor believed too many made the essays look busy; I believed the opposite. Another thought I was making a cynical choice, that I didn’t trust readers to stick with the pieces to the end without intermittent enticements to lead them there.
Here’s the thing: I don’t trust readers to stick with long-form pieces, not for any fault of their own, but because of the current reading environment, which is flooded with so many looooong pieces.
Give me a few larger-text signposts so I can easily determine whether I’m interested in continuing beyond a passage that’s making my attention flag.
That’s how I felt working at a site dedicated to long-form, where at the time we were publishing up to ten original pieces a week in the 2,500 to 10,000-word range. I feel this even more strongly now, when in addition to what’s being published in mainstream publications and on social media, there are also countless newsletters—most of them published without the benefit of an editor to tighten them, and organize them in a way that organically leads a reader to stick around to the conclusion.
With all this added noise, as a reader, writer, and editor, I feel pull quotes are more necessary than ever. In my mind, they achieve a few things:
Visually breaking up an endless sea of text. Or maybe “wall of text” is a better metaphor. In any case, the eye gets tired, the mind numbed, when it’s just word after word after word. Photos and illustrations help, as do subheads in larger fonts, but not enough.
Signaling what a piece is about. A hed and dek only achieve so much for a reader confronted with a variety of articles to dig into, especially when there’s an increasing number of them (and podcasts and videos and TV shows and other media) competing for our attention.
Signaling where a piece is headed. I can’t find it now, but years ago I read a study that suggested most readers spend fifteen seconds on a given online article, and that only 20% of readers make it to the end of a long-form piece. So I like to entice readers to keep going by giving them a taste of what’s coming next. I also appreciate this as a reader who usually has too much reading material on my plate, for both work and pleasure. Give me a few larger-text signposts so I can easily determine whether I’m interested in continuing beyond a passage that’s making my attention flag.
Helping the fifteen-second visitors skim. I don’t love encouraging skimming by rewarding it. But I do want the pieces I publish to impact the largest portion of my audience as possible. I want readers to be satisfied, to return—to my publications, and maybe later to the very pieces they first only skimmed—and to share the pieces with potential future subscribers. I do try not to let pull quotes give away the ending, though.
If I appeared pull quote-happy a few years ago at Longreads, check me out now. In the magazines I publish, they occur at an even higher frequency—probably one per every 500 to 750 words. (Mindful of the ever-shrinking attention span, these days I also try to keep pieces to under 2500 words, with some exceptions.) The liberal use of pull quotes goes largely unnoticed by my subscribers, or if they are noticing, they’re not saying anything.
In a few rare instances it has come up. A couple of readers who listen to my posts— taking them in with their ears rather than their eyeballs—have told me that the AI bot voicing the pieces recites the pull quotes as if they’re part of the regular text. So they’re hearing those lines more than once, and in the case of the pull-quote versions, they’re re-hearing them out of sequence.
I don’t trust readers to stick with long-form pieces, not for any fault of their own, but because of the current reading environment, which is flooded with so many looooong pieces.
I mentioned this to Substack a while ago, suggesting that they make some sort of change on the back end so that AI distinguishes plain text from pull-quote text. To my knowledge, this hasn’t yet been addressed, but I also haven’t gotten any more complaints.
And two authors (out of hundreds) pushed back, asking me to remove the pull quotes from their pieces, because they felt they were distracting. One I was able to persuade to let me keep them. The other,, stood her ground, and now I never add pull-quotes to the installments of her Oldster Magazine column, “Notes on Another New Life.”
Fortunately, Laurie’s work is so engaging, her prose so sparkling and full of surprises, that readers are naturally drawn to read her all the way through. And so for that column, and that column alone, I’m fine without the pull quotes.
Where do you stand on pull quotes?