Writing Right with Dmitri: On Not Writing Propaganda
The five types of propaganda techniques used in advertising are Bandwagon, Testimonial, Transfer, Repetition, and Emotional words.
That text isn't authoritative, but it gives us a good starting point for a discussion of propaganda in your writing. Do you want to get people onto your bandwagon? Are you using emotional words to sway the reader? While you may identify times when that might be appropriate, mostly it's not. Learning to notice may be harder than you think.
As Harold Hill1 would say, are certain phrases creeping into your otherwise factual writing? Phrases like:
- 'Innocent bystander'?
- 'Devious politician'?
- 'Brutal assault'?
- 'Gorgeous car'?
- 'Smelly warehouse'?
All of those adjectives are emotive: that is, their purpose is to arouse emotion in the reader. They presume a judgement and expect the reader to acquiesce. This is verbal bullying, because you're presenting the reader with the conclusion, rather than describing the situation and letting them draw their own conclusions.
They're also lazy, because you didn't do the work of describing. You tried to let the single word do all the work for you. You also foisted your opinion off on the reader, who now has to supply the context. How do you know what kind of car I find 'gorgeous'? (Hint: I'm fond of antiques and think that car with the three wheels is a lot of fun.) The same goes double for adverbs like 'sadly'. Don't tell me whether I think it's 'sad' that they didn't get to make another 'Friday the 13th' movie. I might have wanted to throw them a party.
What do we gain from sensitising ourselves to the propaganda potential of quick-and-dirty descriptions?
- We give ourselves an incentive to write better. We identify passages that we can improve, come rewrite time.
- We deepen our understanding of what we're discussing or describing. Before we can tell the reader something, we have to tell it to ourselves. It's great exercise for the brain.
- We grow our personal skill set as we work out new strategies for describing events, people, and situations.
- We become much better persuaders. Cheap propaganda words are easy to spot. They turn readers off. They don't change anybody's mind. But a carefully crafted description can cause a reader to see something in an entirely new way.
As a final word, I'll leave you with O Henry's hilarious sendup of how to be cool in New York in the 1890s. He's making mock, of course. Notice how he uses those propaganda words as weapons against the concepts they're usually used to sell. Notice, also, how even a century later, you can tell where those weasel words are.
I invoke your consideration of the scene – the marble-topped tables, the range of leather-upholstered wall seats, the gay company, the ladies dressed in demi-state toilets, speaking in an exquisite visible chorus of taste, economy, opulence or art; the sedulous and largess-loving garçons, the music wisely catering to all with its raids upon the composers; the mélange of talk and laughter – and, if you will, the Würzburger in the tall glass cones that bend to your lips as a ripe cherry sways on its branch to the beak of a robber jay. I was told by a sculptor from Mauch Chunk that the scene was truly Parisian.
'A Cosmopolite in a Café'
The usual disclaimer: If this concept interests you, I will be glad to discuss it. However, I'm not really interested in finding out from readers why they don't feel they need this advice.
Words like, like ' swell'? And 'So's your old man?'' Meredith Wilson, The Music Man.