Saturday, January 3, 2015

Don't stretch your nonfiction facts to the breaking point

When writing non-fiction, it serves the writer well to stick to facts, and even to a reasonable interpretation of facts. Otherwise, your cred as the author of a piece can—and should—fall under suspicion.

A ran across a piece the other day by a nutrition expert that exemplifies this in spades. I stopped reading after the first paragraph because of its absurd assumption about foods that had been in widespread use for millennia.

Here is the opening paragraph of the article titled, "What Are Sprouted Grains?"

“There are a number of healthy foods that were once considered fringe fare, relegated to the realm of health-food stores and to the diets of people who preferred tie-dye to neckties. Yogurt, granola, hummus, and goji berries are all examples of ‘alternative’ foods that debuted on the margins but have since gone mainstream. And to this list, it appears we may soon add sprouted grains.”

The author block identified the writer as “a NYC-based registered dietitian whose clinical practice specializes in digestive disorders, Celiac Disease, and food intolerances” and with a bunch of letters after her name --. MS, RD, CDN. I have no reason to question the writer’s credentials, only the shaping of the lead paragraph.

It was the lead that set off the alarm bells, because it was wrong from the get-go. Take the first sentence, and the use of the term, “fringe fare” only found in health food stores frequented by people wearing "tie-dye" clothing. Anyone been in a Whole Foods lately? Mostly Brooke Brothers, Polo inside and BMW, Mercedes, Volvo, and Prius outside. From the start, the reader gets a biased and incorrect impression about the subject of the piece.

Now look at the second sentence, and the assertion that “Yogurt, granola, hummus, and goji berries are all examples of "alternative" foods that debuted on the margins but have since gone mainstream.”

There is a hint of truth here, but so feint that it continues to mislead the reader into thinking that these foods fell off the turnip truck last week. Maybe the writer (or her editor, who I suspect is the real culprit) is implying that these foods just recently became popular. That is still a bit of a stretch.

Three of the foods – yogurt, hummus, and goji berries (wolfberry) – are ancient, dating back thousands of years. Yogurt and hummus, for example, are documented to have been in use 8,000 and 7,000 years ago, respectively. Wolfberries? Only a few thousand years back in China.

The babies of the group, Granula and Granola, are – or were – registered trademarks dating back into the late 1800s in the U.S. The food, based on whole grains that have been baked until crisp, was developed at a New York health clinic just before the tune of the century – the 20th that is – in 1893. Cereal giant Kellogg even took a crack at it. Its unbaked cousin, muesli, turned up a only few decades later.

Yogurt, - a food that dates back 8,000 years. In the last 2 centuries has been a staple for many cultures – hardly fringe or yuppie. And that Dannon yogurt with the fruit on the bottom – the stuff popular with the latte crowd? Recent? Trendy? Introduced in 1947 – the year I was borne

Hummus, ground up chickpeas as the base with added ingredients, dates back to ancient Egypt. Recipes were published about the time movable type printing was invented. No doubt there were hand-written versions circulated before that. And maybe a few chiseled into stone somewhere.

The goji berry is a relatively new name for the ancient wolfberry, the consumption of which dates back thousands of years in China.  No doubt, the new name was a marketing gimmick to push recent health claims. Who would eat a “wolf” berry? This one food of the four cited in the article’s lead that might be classified as a recent health food fad, but it is hardly “fringe.” And people with neckties buy this stuff.

It took me about 10 minutes to pull quick research on these foods to confirm what my nose told me when I read the article’s first paragraph. I stopped there since the author, in my mind, lost credibility.

If it was an editor who wrote the lead, I can understand the problem. It was like the headlines written by the copy desk back when I was committing daily journalism. Sometimes they said the exact opposite of what the story said.

The point is this: in your non-fiction writing it is fair to stretch the lead paragraph as far as possible. But it should not snap away from the truth. This story's lead, left the clear impression that these foods were “fringe” and “alternative.” Reality tells us they have been consumed by million of people for thousands of years.

No, I did not read the rest of the story. And, yes, I like mixed metaphors and cliches. They are fun.

Good writing.

Novelist Richard J. Schneider is an award-winning former reporter, video scriptwriter and producer, and communications consult. He is the creator of the Vic Bengston Investigation mystery series.