Let’s start with the headline. Sometimes, when I am trying to headline a piece and my heds are getting more and more punny and convoluted, I gather myself and remember this New York magazine story, a story I often think of as the Platonic ideal of an explanatory feature. Did they headline it “Hardened Sole?” No. Did they headline it “Barefoot in the Park?” No. Did they headline it “No Shoes Is Good Shoes?” Hell no. They headlined this story “You Walk Wrong.”
It’s a masterpiece of a headline. It crystallizes exactly what’s at stake in the story in three short words. And even better, it is unbelievably sticky. I dare say no literate human could see that headline and not read the first paragraph. It does a number of things perfectly, but the first thing it does is offend me, the reader. “What the hell?” I shout, maybe out loud. “Whaddya mean, I walk wrong? I’ll show you!” Before I’ve read word one, I’m curious and engaged and invested in this subject. I’m gonna prove this jerk Adam Sternbergh wrong. I walk right!
This article accomplishes a lot in less than 5,000 words. It serves as a consumer guide to an entirely new and captivating kind of footwear — so successfully that I recall, the day after the magazine came out, calling one of the companies whose barefoot-style shoes Sternbergh featured in the piece and being told that all of a sudden they were sold out but if I didn’t mind waiting three to four months they could probably get me a pair. The story teaches readers why urban walking is a relatively new phenomenon, why we call wealthy people “well-heeled,” and what it’s called when the toe of a shoe arcs upward so it doesn’t touch the floor (“toe spring”). It convinces readers that shoes themselves are the problem, and that cavemen and Kenyan marathoners have it right: Barefoot is the way to go.
The feature ultimately convinces readers that the impossible claim made in the headline is in fact true. You walk wrong. You should be walking as if barefoot, using your toes to spring forward, paying close attention to the terrain beneath you. The fact that you don’t do so isn’t your fault − it’s the fault of your shoes − but nevertheless the more you walk wrong, the more likely you are to develop foot, ankle or knee problems later in life.
The story bounces back and forth between Sternbergh’s engaging explainer voice, continuing the second-person address of the headline −
Shoes hurt your feet. They change how you walk. In fact, your feet − your poor, tender, abused, ignored, maligned, misunderstood feet − are getting trounced in a war that’s been raging for roughly a thousand years: the battle of shoes versus feet.
− and mini-profiles of the experts backing the story’s assertions, such as Galahad Clark, the Wu-Tang-loving “scion of the Clark family, as in the English shoe company C&J Clark, a.k.a. Clarks, founded 1825.” We also get first-person chronicles of Adam’s attempts to correct his own gait through a walking class in Chelsea, a Rolfing session with a structural integrationist, and a couple of days spent wearing Clark’s barefoot-esque shoe creation.
What I love most about this piece, though, is that Sternbergh’s voice retains its characteristic good humor while patiently, point by point, dismantling any argument I might have with his thesis. Fifteen paragraphs begin with some kind of conversational gambit. “I know what you’re thinking.” “Try this test.” “Let’s face it.” “Here’s another example.” The device gives the impression that the author is feeling, or has felt, the same doubts as you, and that he’s anticipating our disbelief and defusing it before it can drive us out of the piece. It all comes to a head in a one-sentence paragraph about two-thirds of the way through the piece, a paragraph that serves as the Eureka! moment. Sternbergh’s “walking teacher” in Chelsea has picked his foot up and placed it back on the ground and has asked him to trust his bones to hold him up:
And I have to tell you, in that brief moment, it felt like I had never stood up properly on my own two feet before in my entire life.
After that, we’re goners. I want to feel that too! How can I feel that? Oh God, I do walk wrong!
This piece wasn’t reported from a war zone. It doesn’t unearth any great scandal or free an innocent man from prison or unveil the side of a star we’ve never seen before or bring readers to tears. While I love stories that do all those things, I also love a story that just makes me think about something simple in an entirely different way. (Surprisingly, not as many magazines have followed this golden template as you might think. Men’s Journal did “You Breathe Wrong,” and Slate did “You Poop Wrong,” but has anyone written “You Sit Wrong,” “You Swallow Wrong,” “You Fart Wrong” or “You Dream Wrong?” I’d read the hell out of any of those.)
Sternbergh’s piece engagingly, humorously, and comprehensively reorganized a tiny part of my brain for the rest of my life. I still walk wrong, and I’ll never stop noticing.
Dan Kois (@dankois) is a senior editor at Slate, where he edits the Slate Book Review. He is also a contributing writer at the New York Times Magazine and an advisory editor of At Length. He lives in Arlington, Va., with his family. He and Sternbergh are friends and colleagues, but for the purposes of this essay he considered him a mortal enemy.
For more from our collaboration with Longreads and Alexis Madrigal, see the previous posts in the series. To pitch an installment of “Why’s this so good?” please see our guidelines. And stay tuned for a new shot of inspiration and insight every week.