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Making the Best Possible Use of Facts

Posted on Wednesday, June 27, 2012 at 11:04 PM

Use them with flair!

By Peter Jacobi

As you produce what you're pledged to produce, informational nonfiction, please keep in mind that word "informational."

First and foremost, always be informational. Offer specifics, facts, details. Make them the raison d'être for your labors.

It's all to the good, of course, if you also have a way with words, if your writing conveys style, if it exhibits voice, if you can use the language with flair. That alone is likely to earn you a reader's attention, at least for a while. But how well you write loses importance and pertinence if that reader concludes -- and it may happen rather quickly -- you've got little in the way of useful information for him or her.

Facts Are Your Substance

There's power in facts. Be reminded they can take a variety of forms and shapes and fulfill different needs and purposes. In an almanac, they are unfiltered and simply tell you that Port Moresby is the administrative capital of Papua New Guinea; that, on the average, sea water is about 3. 5 percent salts; that Wings earned the first Best Picture Oscar in 1928, and that no Nobel Peace Prizes were awarded in 1914–16, and again in 1928, 1939–43, and 1948.

Journalistically, however, filtered through a writer's mind and heart, facts can gain different meanings, even from one writer's use to another's. We look for, aim for context, explanations, inferences, significances because most of our readers want to know what we're trying to get across -- in other words, why we are sharing particular bits of information with them.

We need, of course, to make our most earnest effort to use the information we've gathered accurately, clearly, honestly, fairly, and wisely, even when -- as we so often do -- the intent of our article is to make a point. Distortion should be out of bounds. So should exaggeration, falsification, and other forms of misuse.

Otherwise, there should be no limit to your employment of facts. They are your substance. They are your gift to those you mean to serve.

Blend Your Style with Your Facts

The late CBS commentator Andy Rooney used facts and blended them with his personality when he said: "I'm always pleased but surprised that anyone will take the job of being President of the United States. Of all the jobs in the world, it's the one I'd least like to have. I know," Rooney explained, "you get a big house to live in for free, a salary of $200,000, a helicopter, an airplane, your own doctor and a big staff, but I still don't want the job. Don't even ask me because I won't take it. The President doesn't even have a White House psychiatrist, which is probably the doctor he needs most."

Rooney argued that the "President can't go down to the basement of the White House on a Saturday morning and putter around," that he can't "climb up on the roof and straighten the television antenna," that he can't go to the movies the way we do, by "getting dressed to go out, driving to the theater, finding a parking place, standing in line to buy the tickets, buying the popcorn and then groping your way down the aisle to find a seat."

He was making a point effectively and amusingly because he's based his essay, "The White House? No, Thank You," on facts.

Facts Make Your Point

In Defenders, the publication of Defenders of Wildlife, a recent roundup includes the status of red knots, migratory shorebirds about the size of robins. "Some travel from the tip of Argentina all the way to the Arctic," we're told. "But the overharvesting of horseshoe crabs, whose eggs provide critical food for the hungry travelers at a major rest area along Delaware Bay, is largely causing the bird's population to plummet. Last year, the peak Delaware Bay count found fewer than 15,000 red knots -- down from more than 100,000 in the 1980s." And so forth -- facts presented to make a point.

Your Experience and Facts

Natalie Angier, writing about jellyfish for the New York Times, quotes an expert on the creatures, Anders Garm from the University of Copenhagen, as saying, "The poison of a common moon jellyfish is very weak. You'd have to kiss the jellyfish to feel it." The quote is a fact in just someone having said it, and it also contains facts. To those facts, writer Angier adds facts that she's gained from her reporting experience of the moment: "There was no risk of that, but when we parted, the jellyfish left behind a kiss of its own on the palm of my hand: a sticky film that was surprisingly hard to remove. Thanks, my little honey moon."

Facts Gained through Your Observation

"The dusty, rutted road that leads to Halima Bagaya's house doesn't bear the load of cars often," writes Phillip Jordan in "Another Path Home," an article printed in Habitat World, the magazine issued by Habitat for Humanity. "The route from northwestern Uganda's Kaztasenywa village is usually accomplished on foot. Young boys push bicycles overloaded with green banana bunches. Women walk the road to reach the nearest well, balancing the ubiquitous, bright-yellow water jogs that are mass-produced in the capital city of Kampala. Only the slow crescendo of an approaching boda-boda, Uganda's motorcycle taxi, forces foot traffic to the side. "

Jordan has used observation to gather the facts that give life to scene-setting. It's his way of getting into a Habitat theme: building houses, but in this case through microfinance methods.

Blending Myth and Fact

Myth and fact mingle in Joe Posnanski's article for Sports Illustrated, "Yogi Berra Will Be a Living Legend Even After He's Gone." Posnanski begins: "No man in the history of American sports -- perhaps even in the history of America -- has spent a lifetime facing more expectant silences. And it is happening again. Another afternoon. Another silence. Strangers stand a respectful distance and wait for Lawrence Peter Berra to say something funny and still wise, pithy but quirkily profound, obvious and yet strangely esoteric. A Yogi-ism.

"It ain't over till it's over.

"When you come to a fork in the road, take it.

"You can observe a lot by watching.

"In this case, the strangers waiting in the silence are a mother and son. They had been touring the Yogi Berra Museum in Little Falls, NJ, in anticipation of having the boy's bar mitzvah here."

Berra, the article then tells us, happens to be at the museum. He's looking for a glass of water. "I cannot believe it's really you," the woman tells Berra. "It's really me," he says.

The copy continues: "The woman pauses for a moment. Is that it? Is that the Yogi-ism? What did he mean by 'really me'? Was he being existential? Could he be summoning Delphic wisdom from the temple of Apollo, that phrase which translates loosely as 'Know thyself'? It's hard to tell. Yogi Berra is looking for water so he can take his medication."

We have here a building narrative that blends an actual moment with the legend that has come to surround the former Yankee. It's informative and works so well because it is so.

Nonsensical Facts

Sometimes, you state a fact, knowing that it is not, but you pass it along because you want to make sure your reader knows that nonsense has been spouted. Such is the case in the Southern Poverty Law Center's recent issue of Intelligence Report, the group's official publication for members. One reads, as part of an article about black separatists and extremists: "End times warning: Louis Farrakhan of the Nation of Islam, which has received millions in loans from the Libyan government, said President Obama's attempts to topple Muammar Qaddafi would hasten the arrival of spaceships that will destroy all white people." That the prediction was made is fact. That it would happen, well, I'll leave that to you, but I'm with the Southern Poverty Law Center in the belief that it is nonsensical fiction.

Finally, here's an example of something hard to comprehend, perhaps even to believe, made manageably understandable and believable: The eminent British mathematician, Sir James Jeans, explains that if we "put three grams of sand inside a vast cathedral, the cathedral will be more closely packed with sand than space is with stars."

Love facts. Make the best possible use of them.

Peter P. Jacobi is a Professor Emeritus at Indiana University. He is a writing and editing consultant for numerous associations and magazines, speech coach, and workshop leader for various institutions and corporations. He can be reached at 812-334-0063.

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