February 9, 2015

Every time there is a big, big story, the geniuses of Facebook and Twitter try out for the clever Olympics. One pun after another, wisecrack after wisecrack, metaphor after simile, writers strut their stuff, looking for love and trying to out-snark the competition. It’s a Snarknado!

It might be the Super Bowl, the Oscars or even the arrival of the movie version of the steamy book “Fifty Shades of Grey.”

Early screenings have begun with fans looking ahead to Valentine’s Day weekend openings almost everywhere. So what is a Tweeter or headline writer to do?

Here’s my advice: Go beyond what I call “first-level creativity.” Believe me, you don’t want to be one of the thousand class clowns to come up with the same lame joke or reference. If you write something you think is clever and suddenly notice that a hundred Tweeters arrive at the same word at the same time, you are no longer a whiz kid. You’re a schlemiel, a lemming, or maybe both: a schlemming.

Poynter colleague Katie Hawkins-Gaar points out that when a recent blizzard turned out to be a bust for New York City, a flurry of sightings appeared on Twitter of “nopacalypse.”

After the Super Bowl, how many sports writers, I wonder, wrote that Seattle Seahawks coach Pete Carroll looked “deflated?”

It’s a headline writer’s nightmare. Actor Tom Cruise goes a little bonkers, as he did a few years ago, and you write: “A problem of Cruise control.” OK, I get it. And so did 79 other headline writers.

The problem

I first discovered first-level creativity while conducting a writing exercise. I gave a group of professional journalists a data sheet from an actual news story. It involved a man who walks home for lunch near a Florida lake and falls in a ditch on top of an alligator. The gator chomps down on his arm. Rescuers engage in a kind of tug-of-war with the gator and free the man, who winds up with 100 stitches in his arm, but retains his sense of humor: “Call me the world’s biggest klutz,” he tells reporters.

I ask a group of writers to take the data sheet and scribble five experimental leads in five minutes. As we review the leads, almost everyone, including yours truly, has some version of this: “When Robert Hudson was walking home for lunch Thursday, little did he know that he’d become a meal for a 10-foot gator.”

Each one of us who wrote that lead thought we were the bomb, until we realized we had all bombed. First-level creativity. So what would the next level look like? Maybe something like this, produced by a college student: “Maybe to an alligator, Robert Hudson tastes like chicken.” It only works because the man survived and remained in good humor, but it stands out from the others and happens to be shorter as well. When they hear my lead, people smile. When they hear the student’s, they laugh.

The solution

How do you get to the second level of creativity? Let me demonstrate my own method. To use a musical term, you get there by riffing, a form of improvisation in which you take a given phrase and play with it.

Let’s try it out, imagining that I’m writing about the movie Fifty Shades of Grey.

I begin by lowering my standards. I know that I will have to find – then discard – numerous efforts before I get to one I might use. I have no idea how many of these have been used somewhere else, and, for the moment, I do not care. Here we go:

  • Fifty Shades of Grey
  • Fifty Shades of Word Play (my headline since I’m playing with words)
  • Fifty Shades of Dismay (sorry you had to see the movie)
  • Fifty Shades of Delay (had to stand on a long line to buy a ticket)
  • Fifty Shades of Macramé (an unsexy thing to do to cool off after the
    movie)
  • Fifty Shades of Blasé (the movie pales compared to your porn stash)
  • Fifty Shades of Filet (so bored you think about what to eat after the movie)
  • Fifty Shades of Hooray (the movie is nothing like the book!)
  • Fifty Shades of Mockingjay (you’re hoping for a mashup of sequels)
  • If you happen to be a food writer this week, doing a feature on yogurt: Fifty Shades of Yoplait
  • Or you’re a fashion writer, talking about designing store windows: Fifty Shades of Display.
  • Or you’re the music writer: Fiddy Shades of Grey (the hip hop version, with apologies to rapper 50 Cent)

I’ll stop. You’re welcome.

I’m not arguing that these are all original, only that they are original to me. Writers can come up with the same apt or funny phrase at different desks on different continents at the same time. When the Dali Museum opens in your town, go ahead and write “Hello, Dali.” But before you send it, take a breath, grab a napkin, make a little list. See what happens.

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Roy Peter Clark has taught writing at Poynter to students of all ages since 1979. He has served the Institute as its first full-time faculty…
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