The Peanuts Way of Attracting Readers

By Jack Limpert

One of my favorite books is Schulz and Peanuts, by David Michaelis; it’s the life story of Charles Schulz, a shy kid from Minneapolis who created the nation’s most popular comic strip. It has some memorable comic strips and also some editorial advice.

Here’s Schulz talking about how to attract readers: “You must give the audience moments. You must give them laughter, you must give them a little poignancy…”

Creating moments?

Getting laughs is hard. But any writer who does great reporting can create moments of poignancy, moments that get the reader to say wow.

It can be an emotional wow that brings tears to your eyes. Or the cerebral wow that makes the reader think, “Now I understand.”

Here’s Michaelis writing about the last strip that Schulz drew before he died 15 years ago:

“The cold of a January day. Peppermint Patty and Marcie, behind the rampart of one snow fort, exchange volleys of snowballs with Charlie Brown and Linus. Snoopy sits behind the lines in Charlie Brown’s camp, pondering a snowball.” The caption: “Suddenly the dog realized that his dad had never taught him how to throw snowballs.”

Michaelis on the meaning of that: “The last strip is not about a father who hasn’t taught his son to play but a father who hadn’t known how to help his son become the artist he yearned to be—a father who couldn’t teach him how to play because he himself could not free himself to play. Carl Schulz always had to be doing something useful. He could not just go out and throw baseballs or snowballs with his son. Drawing, even on a fogged trolley car window, had been the one area in which the son was free to play, to be a child, and to be creative; Peanuts had preserved that sacred grove for fifty years.”
What Charles Schulz also was doing with the snowball strip was letting the reader think.

At the Washingtonian, I edited several writers who were good at explanatory pieces. Their problem was they sometimes couldn’t resist scattering topic sentences throughout their stories—English teachers say such sentences add cohesion and help organize ideas.

To explain something in the explanatory story, the writer often would get a good quote from someone knowledgeable and then the writer would put a sentence or two in front of the quote telling the reader what the quote meant. They couldn’t break the English class habit.

Consider this situation. One of the most moving stories the Washingtonian published was titled “Hope All Things, Endure All Things” and there was an editor-writer battle about one sentence. The writer was John Pekkanen, a National Magazine Award finalist for this story.

The story deck set the stage: “Dr. Paul Adkins glanced at the clock above the lightbox. It was 3:10 p.m. on Wednesday. He took a final look at his x-rays and the thought hit him: ‘I am looking at my own obituary.’” Pekkanen then told how a surgeon coped with a lung cancer that he had spent his entire career treating. Dealing with the cancer became a battle between a man’s head and his heart, what he knew and what he hoped.

Late in the story, Paul Adkins’s son Mark was rushing from New York City to Washington because he’d been told his father didn’t have much time left. Pekkanen had written, “Mark raced from the airport terminal to the subway and got off at the Foggy Bottom stop. He ran up the steps of the long escalator. As he approached the top he had a full view of the front of GW hospital. The flag at the entrance was at half-staff. Paul Adkins had died.”

I cut the last sentence. I thought the moment had more emotional impact if the reader only was told the flag was at half-staff. John resisted  but finally said okay. He accepted the idea that the reader didn’t have to be told what the flag at half-staff meant—it was better to let the reader make the connection, to let the reader think.

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