As writers, we’re often taught that comparisons are our friends. When we’re trying to describe something that’s a bit hard to grasp, we’ve been told that a comparison can be helpful. It’s done with numbers all the time. For example, a person might say that something required 700 tons of water, and as a comparison say, that’s the same amount every man woman and child in the city of Houston drinks in a year (which is probably not true, as I made it up). But, the point is these types of comparisons are used often.
However, they key when you make these comparisons, and in cases like these, we’re really talking about an equivalency, is that they have to be accurate. If it’s not accurate, readers lose faith in your assessment of things.
I thought about this recently because of Gwyneth Paltrow. The Hollywood actress, who has two children, Moses and Apple, with rocker soon-to-be-exhusband Chris Martin, got a written beatdown by a New York Post reporter. For those who missed the brouhaha*, the reporter issued an open letter to the star after Paltrow claimed that she had it much harder than a mother who worked in a regular office. Gwyn said: “I think it’s different when you have an office job, because it’s routine and, you know, you can do all the stuff in the morning and then you come home in the evening. When you’re shooting a movie, they’re like, ‘We need you to go to Wisconsin for two weeks,’ and then you work 14 hours a day, and that part of it is very difficult. I think to have a regular job and be a mom is not as, of course there are challenges, but it’s not like being on set.”
You see, that’s not a good comparison, Gwyn. Not at all. It immediately recoils the reader, who says, “Are you out of your mind?”
Sometimes, in these situations–ones where a reader can understand what you’re saying just by you saying it– there is no need to try to draw a comparison to someone or something else. There is no need to stick it on a scale and say, this is so much worse than that. Because, if you’re wrong, or if the reader thinks you’re wrong, you’re toast.
Ms. Paltrow would have been better off saying that she opted for a movie star career (rather than staying home outright with her kids; as she has the money to do), because she liked the flexibility. Unfortunately, it’s not always as flexible as she would like and sometimes she has to leave her kids unexpectedly for two weeks to shoot in Wisconsin. We would understand what Gwyn meant and give her the appropriate sympathy (We would read: a mom planned to spend time with her kids and her boss made her go on a trip instead; In response, we’d say, “that totally sucks rocks Gwyn. Let me tell you what my boss did last week…”) See, that’s the appropriate level of exchange. But when Gwyn compares her plight to that of those whom are in a much more difficult situation than her, then people start to hate her and say that she’s an out-of-touch spoilt brat.
But, this isn’t really about Gwyn. It’s about something that never works: trying to make comparisons so people will say, “woe is you” or “you poor thing.” They don’t work because someone always has it harder than you, and when you meet that person, they think you’re a jerk. If the point of your comparison is not to help the reader understand, if it’s just to draw sympathy, stop. That’s not going to work. Simply state the facts (imagine me as Dragnet’s Joe Friday, “Just the facts, ma’am”) and let that speak for itself. Readers are smart. They’ll get what you meant and they’ll give the emotional response they’re able. For those who feel the problem’s not that big, they’ll shrug, and for those who are right there with you, they’ll feel a real emotional connection. But, once you draw a comparison that’s not valid, you’ve turned off those who would’ve been right there with you, an for no real reason. In Gwyn’s case, there are plenty of moms out there who would sympathize over an unexpected work trip killing your plans with your kids. “Even the movie star life isn’t perfect,” they’d say. But, once you say, this is so much harder than the every day 9 to 5er, then you get very nasty comments which I shan’t repeat.
So, if you’re trying to strengthen your writing, remember that comparisons to draw sympathy are probably not going to pay a lot of dividends. Joe Friday may have been a cop, but Just the facts, works well in writing, too.
P.S. You can still pick up Second Life on sale at Amazon.