This post came to mind this weekend after a few last-second wins in the NFL, including my beloved Browns pulling out the win on a touchdown pass with 11 seconds left.
The stories that emerged after that game and several other comebacks included tons of opinion disguised as fact, with terms like “glorious,” “impossible” and “miraculous” dotting the prose of writers.
Unless you see a guy at the 50 yard line multiplying loaves and bratwursts to feed the entire stadium, feel free to skip the mentions of “miracles.” As for the rest of the hyperbole, I hope this refresher will explain why you can cut that out of stories as well.
Don’t Believe the Hype: Why weaving tiny bits of opinion into stories can undermine your purpose
A group of my sports writing students were asked to write a story about a football game between two fictional college rivals, in which one comes back from a huge deficit to win on the last play of the fourth quarter. A good number of them attempted to hype the story rather than tell it, especially in the lead:
Thanks to an unbelievable fourth quarter capped by a 28-0 run, (WINNERS) came back to defeat (LOSERS), 31-28.
It seemed like (LOSERS)had the game wrapped up going into the fourth quarter, but in football, you must play all four quarters to the best of your ability if you want to win the game, no matter what level you’re playing at.
In Wild and Wonderful fashion, (WINNER) roars back to score 31 unanswered as they knock off (LOSER) in the closing seconds of regulation.
The (GAME) ended in extraordinary fashion with a last second touchdown.
Others wrote about it being “incredible,” “super,” “amazing” and so forth. And, yes, according to the information they received it was the largest comeback in conference history, so it might well have been all of those things.
However, your job is to show the readers what is going on by presenting factual information, not trying to sell them something by hyping it up. If you do the former, you’ll notice that your readers will come to the conclusion you want them to all by themselves. If you do the latter, you’ll find that the readers will resist your efforts to get them to see the situation in the way you want them to.
Don’t believe me? Consider the Joke Theory.
My wife and I laugh about how we’re always so competitive. But I know I always laugh more.
OK, that’s a lame joke, but I was hamstrung a bit by trying not to insult men, women, college students, professors, animals, trees and some frat kid named Chad’s little brother. That said, a few of you might have laughed at that. I at least had a chance.
Now consider if I started it this way instead:
I’m going to tell you a really funny joke. It’s probably one of the best jokes you’re ever going to hear. You’re going to be laughing so hard, you’ll cry. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if you retell it to everyone you know. OK, here we go…
The hype kills the hope that I’m getting a laugh, just like the hype undercuts your position with your readers. Don’t tell them something is funny, amazing or whatever else. Show them the thing as it is and let them come to that conclusion.
Here’s an example of how this works:
Read this version of a story about a man caught breaking into a couple’s home, eating their food, wearing the wife’s Christmas “onesie” and dressing his cat, named Spaghetti, in a cashmere sweater he stole. What drives this story is the straight-up fact-based reporting that has you wondering, “What the heck is wrong with this guy?” (Well that and quotes like this: “No one leaves a dressed cat in a crawl space unless they’re coming back or they’re still here,” Smith told the paper. “So I got out and shut the door.”)
Now, if the writer, instead of doing this, had started commenting on this throughout the story, here’s what you might get:
“In the most bizarre case of burglary and home invasion ever known, a 38-year-old man was arrested Sunday night.
The odd fellow, who named his cat Spaghetti, which makes no sense, was caught in a crawl space in the home. A creepy crawler, indeed!
The weirdo put on the wife’s “onesie” night dress, which the woman obviously said she didn’t want the police to bring back for her. He also dressed Spaghetti in a cashmere outlet the couple had for one of its Chihuahuas, just adding to the weirdness of the night.”
Which version does the job better? Clearly the first one.
The point is that you need to have faith in your readers that they’ll see what you see when you write, without having to poke or prod them via commentary or hype. You also need to have faith in your own writing that you’ll get your point across well enough without having to use hype as a crutch to do the job.