And Don't Do It Again

In an otherwise impressive synthesis/review of the current glut of books promising a European Revolution, Tony Judt hobbles his piece with a near-fatal opening:

Consider a mug of American coffee. It is found everywhere. It can be made by anyone. It is cheap—and refills are free. Being largely without flavor it can be diluted to taste. What it lacks in allure it makes up in size. It is the most democratic method ever devised for introducing caffeine into human beings. Now take a cup of Italian espresso. It requires expensive equipment. Price-to-volume ratio is outrageous, suggesting indifference to the consumer and ignorance of the market. The aesthetic satisfaction accessory to the beverage far outweighs its metabolic impact. It is not a drink; it is an artifact.

Consider the following lazy writer trick: Rather than reporting to find the perfect example that sums up your piece, or simply eschewing a gift-wrapped synecdoche, you spend a paragraph inventing an analogy that'll do the trick. Desperate to fit it into the contours of your point, your stretch, shape and delete till the comparison no longer has meaning. So you ignore the glut of machines capable of creating Italian espressos. You ignore that coffee refills are generally not free. You assume that there's an appreciable caffeine difference between a cup of coffee and a shot of espresso, which is demonstrably untrue. You assume you can't get double, triple or even quadruple shots of espresso, also untrue. You put too much into an analogy that's too cute (and too useless), and you do it at the start of your piece. And in doing, you irritate your reader enough that it takes 1,000 or so more words of effective, informed and illuminating prose to wash the taste of the coffee metaphor from his mouth. And, to be fair, you write those 1,000 words, and a couple 1,000 more, and you do it well enough that your reader recommends your piece to his readers. But your opening analogy is still so egregious that he needs to spend a few hundred words mocking it and explaining how he can still recommend the piece. Now ask yourself -- wouldn't it have been easier to just start with a quote?

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