Admission up front, I’m not a journalist, not even truly a writer. While no newspaper or internet outlet that cared for their reputation would consider hiring me to write articles for them, I don’t believe that precludes me from being able to read one, and offer an opinion as to how it could have been better written. After all, I don’t need to know how to build bridges to know that the rickety ones that span the deep ravines that Indiana Jones, or say Jack Sparrow must cross, are indeed flimsy and poorly constructed.
With that I turn to our “lesson” for today, this recent article that circulated through several online news outlets. The story is simple enough, car hits truck, truck gets damaged, beer dies. But upon reading, I believe the author could have done a better job with just a few small changes. Let’s examine.
“GASTONIA, N.C. — Authorities say a car smashed into a tractor-trailer hauling tons of beer on a North Carolina interstate, spilling suds all over the highway.”
Good start. We have the basics. Now let’s get to the details.
“Police say crews spent more than five hours Friday night cleaning up the mess on Interstate 85 near Gastonia, some 20 miles west of Charlotte. The rig was carrying nearly 43,000 pounds of beer.”
Ok, if you’re going to write an article, this is where knowing your target audience, which in this case I would believe to be beer drinkers, helps. I understand that the shipping manifest probably stated the weight (I’m sure the people who are never at the weigh stations that are always closed need to know how much the cargo weighs), but most beer drinkers do not order their beer by the pound. In order to elicit the proper level of response from your audience, you need to put the information into a context that you know they will grasp and relate to. I will demonstrate with the help of my editor:
The rig was carrying nearly 43,000 pounds of beer
The rig was carrying the equivalent of nearly 2389 cases of beer
See? It’s all about context. By just putting the information into a form that our audience can more easily relate to, we’ve gotten a more dramatic response from them. But what happens when a writer gives away to much information?
“J.R. Smith is with Gaston County Police. He says no one suffered any serious injuries other than scrapes and bruises”. The shipping company says the beer will go to the dump. Insurance will cover the cost.
Here’s where the writer who think he’s providing valuable information to the reader, is actually doing a disservice to the community. The general reader probably doesn’t really care how the beer got disposed of. The only people who may care are folks around Gastonia who might think it’s a smart idea to cruise around to every dump in the area in the hopes of finding a few unbroken cases lying at bottom of a landfill. I can see every clown in the city driving around in their pickup truck looking for it.
Ah, yeah…that’s NOT what I meant, but ok…let’s go with that.
Of course, picking from a city dump is a crime, so these people will probably find themselves in trouble with the local authorities. However, the police probably won’t be able to catch them because of the unexplainable drag that seems to have suddenly hampered all of their unmarked cruisers.
“Police say the car’s driver was cited for driving unsafe for the road conditions. The wreck caused major traffic delays.”
Notice how the author has missed a valuable opportunity here. He’s set the driver of the car up as the antaganist of his story, but he hasn’t engaged his reader with a strong sense of how he or she should feel about him, or if indeed the punishment has fit the crime. That can only be achieved by adding one important detail to the story, the brand of the beer that was in the truck. This information is paramount, because in the end, the brand of the beer will leave your reader with his or her final, overall reaction about the driver and the story in general. To demonstrate, we’ve called on comic legend – Rowan Atkinson. Rowan…
The truck was full of Pabst.
The truck was full of Sierra Nevada Torpedo.
The truck contained every bottle of Westvleteren 12 that was shipped into the US.
The truck contained the entire second batch of Rogue’s Voodoo Doughnut
Thanks Rowan, I believe that speaks for itself. So in summary, always remember your audience when writing a beer story (or indeed, any story) and make sure that you not only present the facts in their proper context, but that you take care not to leave out key details.
Time for another beer….