Read the following opening to a story and see if you can identify what it will be about without relying on an internet search:
One needn’t eat Tostitos Hint of Lime Flavored Triangles to survive; advertising’s object is to muddle this truth. Of course, Hint of Lime Flavored Triangles have the advantage of being food, which humans do need to survive. Many commodities necessitated by modern life lack this selling point. Insurance, for example, is not only inedible but intangible. It is a resource that customers hope never to need, a product that functions somewhat like a tax on fear. The average person cannot identify which qualities, if any, distinguish one company’s insurance from another’s. For these reasons and more, selling insurance is tricksy business.
Once you give up, or cheat, click this link and prepare to be amazed.
Aside from the headline that mentions the topic, it takes more than 270 words (or approximately double what you’ve read to this point) to get a mention of Flo, the insurance lady for Progressive, and her alter ego, Stephanie Courtney.
In chatting online with several journalists and journalism instructors, I found a variety of opinions on the piece and the style of the writer, Caity Weaver. Terms like “quirky” and “brilliant” came up, along with others such as “obnoxious” and “painful.” To give the writer and the piece the benefit of the doubt, I waded through this 4,600-word tome twice. In the end, I ended up agreeing with the second set of descriptors, but also found myself considering terms others hadn’t, such as “well-reported” and “solidly sourced.”
I learned a lot about Courtney/Flo in the piece and it really did a lot of things that good profiles should do: Inform and engage; provide depth and context; rely on various sources. It also did some of the traditionally bad things we’ve discussed here before: rely on first person; get too into the weeds on certain things; write for yourself, not your audience.
However, here are a couple areas in which this profile reached new heights/depths of god-awfulness that had me reaffirming my general hatred in this “self-important-author” genre:
OBSERVATION GONE WEIRD: One of the crucial things we talk about in profile writing is the element of observation, with the goal of painting word pictures in minds of the readers. In this regard, details matter, although I wondered about this level of detailed analysis:
Since appearing in the first Flo spot in January 2008, Courtney has never been absent from American TV, rematerializing incessantly in the same sugar-white apron and hoar-frost-white polo shirt and cocaine-white trousers that constitute the character’s unvarying wardrobe.
I am the first to admit that I’m not a clothes horse and that I have trouble telling black from blue. That said, I’d love to know how the author manages to distinguish “sugar-white” from “hoar-frost-white” from “cocaine-white” when describing Flo’s outfit. (My best guesses include that she was paid by the compound modifier or had massively consumed one of those elements before writing this monstrosity.)
Then there was this exchange about a purse that wasn’t:
Her purse immediately caught my eye: It appeared to be an emerald green handbag version of the $388 “bubble clutch” made by Cult Gaia, the trendy label whose fanciful purses double as objets d’art. Courtney handed it to me while rattling off tips for extending the shelf life of fresh eggs. It was a plastic carrying case for eggs, it turned out — eggs she had brought me from her six backyard hens. “Did you think it was a purse?” she asked merrily.
I’m trying to figure out what this was trying to tell me. My best guesses are:
- The writer wanted to weave in a product placement of some kind, in hopes of getting influencer swag.
- The writer sucks at fashion spotting as much as I do, in that she mistook an egg container for a $400 handbag.
The author clearly has the ability to observe and describe, but tends to use it in some of the strangest circumstances and for some completely unhelpful reasons. Like every other tool in your toolbox, if you’re going to use it, do it for a good reason (read: in some way that helps your readers).
FORCING A THREAD: The use of a narrative thread is something that can be extremely effective when it’s done well and done with a purpose. If you are writing about a forest ranger, for example, spending a day with the forest ranger in the woods, doing whatever it is that forest rangers do, can create a vivid set of experiences that provide a great thread.
The problem with this piece is that it lacks that kind of opportunity and is still trying to force a thread into the story. In this case, as with many cases, it’s a meal (or a coffee, or a drink) that serves as a thread, even as there’s no real reason for it.
This is how we get a chunk of the story like this:
In the absent glow of the patio’s still-dormant fire pit, Courtney and I considered the dinner menu, which included a small quantity of caviar costing a sum of American dollars ominously, discreetly, vaguely, alarmingly, irresistibly and euphemistically specified as “market price.” Hours earlier, my supervisor had told me pre-emptively — and demonically — that I was not to order and expense the market-price caviar. Somehow, Courtney learned of this act of oppression, probably when I brought it up to her immediately upon being seated for dinner. To this, Courtney said, “I love caviar,” and added that my boss “can’t tell [her] what [she] can have,” because she doesn’t “answer to” him, “goddamn it.” She charged the caviar to her own personal credit card and encouraged me to eat it with her — even as I explained (weakly, for one second) that this is not allowed (lock me up!).
Short version: I nuance-begged for caviar from a source and got it.
For reasons past my understanding, she then feels the need to add another 150-word chunk to explain what she did and why she did it and why it’s not an ethical violation:
Subsequently pinning down the exact hows and whys of my consuming a profile subject’s forbidden caviar took either several lively discussions with my supervisor (my guess) or about “1.5 hours” of “company time” (his calculation). In his opinion, this act could be seen as at odds with my employer’s policy precluding reporters from accepting favors and gifts from their subjects — the worry being that I might feel obligated to repay Courtney for caviar by describing her favorably in this article. Let me be clear: If the kind of person who purchases caviar and offers to share it with a dining companion who has been tyrannically deprived of it sounds like someone you would not like, you would hate Stephanie Courtney. In any event, to bring this interaction into line with company policy, we later reimbursed her for the full price of the caviar ($85 plus tip), so now she is, technically, indebted to me.
The author returns to the meal and such at frequent intervals, rarely with insight or depth that would aid in telling the story about Courtney or what her life has been like. It’s not a strong narrative thread and, at best, reads like someone who is describing a meal in an effort to expense it.
MEGA-DEEP-THOUGHTS CONCLUSION: The goal of a good closing is to bring a sense of finality to a piece that offers people a chance to reflect on what they have learned. Most writers struggle with this at some point in time, as it’s not easy to create a sense of closure without either forcing the issue or sounding trite.
A lot of students I’ve had who don’t know what to do use the “essay” closure where they try to sum up the entirety of the piece in. In other cases, they do a “One to Grow On” conclusion, where they try to create some sort of morality play that gives people a learning experience like these PSAs from the 1980s.
As God as my witness, I have no idea what the hell this conclusion was trying to do:
What sane person would not make the most extreme version of this trade — tabling any and all creative aspirations, possibly forever, in exchange for free prosciutto; testing well with the general market, the Black and the Hispanic communities; delighted co-workers and employers; more than four million likes on Facebook; and, though tempered with the constant threat of being rendered obsolete by unseen corporate machinations, the peace of having “enough”? Do we deny ourselves the pleasure of happiness by conceiving of it as something necessarily total, connoting maximum satisfaction in every arena? For anyone with any agency over his or her life, existence takes the form of perpetual bartering. Perhaps we waive the freedom of endless, aimless travel for the safety of returning to a home. Perhaps willingly capping our creative potential secures access to a reliable paycheck. Forfeiting one thing for the promise of something else later is a sophisticated human idea. Our understanding of this concept enables us to sell one another insurance.
I’m not sure if our earlier “guessing game” would have been easier or harder if we used this chunk of info as a “Can you tell what the story was about?” prompt. Either way, I’m still baffled by it as a closing or even a chunk of content.
I could make about 823 random observations about the entirety of this story, but if I had to boil it down to a couple basic thoughts, I’d go with this:
- I think Weaver did a hell of a lot of good reporting here, which speaks volumes about her as a journalist. The things I got to learn in here really did engage and inform me about the subject of the piece and I’m better for having found them. I would have enjoyed them more if I didn’t have to play a game of “Where’s Waldo?” among all the rest of the stuff that was in here to find them.
- This piece is basically Patient Zero for what happens when someone decides that their “voice” is a crucial element of a story and has somehow convinced themselves that readers are better served by their “unique flair.” A student once chastised me for editing out “the juice I’m bringing to this piece.” Save the juice for the grocery store and get the hell out of the story’s way.
- I have often found that writers who go this direction of massively overwriting do so because they have convinced themselves of their own grandeur or because they lack confidence in their own abilities and thus bury the readers in verbiage as a dodge. Not sure which one is happening here, but the results are the same.
- I’ve often equated this kind of writing to a “Big Mac vs. Filet Mignon” comparative. The steak is an amazing slab of meat, so all it needs is a little salt rub or something and it’s great. The meat on a Big Mac is grey disk of sadness times two, so that’s why McDonald’s slathers on pickles, lettuce, onions, special sauce and even an extra slice of bread to make it functionally decent. The more crap you have to pour onto something, the worse the underlying thing usually is.
- A piece of this nature requires a lot of a reporter, but also a lot out of a reader. (This was tagged as a “21 minute read” and it took all of that and more.) When a reader is asked to invest significant time into reading a story, the writer should do everything possible to maximize value and minimize waste. If you read the whole Flo story, ask yourself if you feel this was true of the piece.
- And finally, if you think this blog post is long, realize it’s less than half the length of Weaver’s piece on Flo.