Consider the following paragraph:
The art critic who reviewed the latest exhibit sure was clueless. Perhaps he isn’t an art critic at all but made the wrong turn on his way to covering his news story. Hey buddy, the mud wrestling was a left turn at 23rd Street.
Did that sound a little over the top? That’s because it employed sensationalism in an effort to keep your attention. Sensationalism essentially is overhyping…marketing pros might use it to sell you a product, journalists and novelists might use it to get you to read a story, politicians might use it to influence you opinion.
Writers ought to avoid being sensational, however. Sensational writing simply isn’t fair to your readers, who expect you to be fair and truthful. Indeed, once readers catch on to what you’re doing, your technique actually undercuts confidence in your writing and recommendations. In any case, as writers we have a broader moral obligation to do what is best for society. While your ideas may be controversial, drawing attention to them by misrepresenting them and yourself doesn’t improve society; indeed, your writing can cause harm (and that opens you to lawsuits).
Generally, you are being sensational when the following occurs in your writing:
• Appeals solely to emotions – There’s nothing wrong with asking someone to be empathetic. But when you primarily rely on fear or insults rather than reason to sway people’s opinions (as often occurs in political campaigns), the real issues and potential solutions for them are obscured.
• Intentionally aims to be controversial – Generally, if you exaggerate, misrepresent or make up facts and events, you can turn the most benign action into something that appears reckless or malicious. If that doesn’t work, the writer simply may omit key facts and leave out information.
• Aims to be loud and self-centered – Rather than actually make a relevant point about a controversial issue, your writing instead is full of exclamation points, so it’s more of a show rather than discussion. Cable news commentators often are guilty of this.
If you must sensationalize your writing so it doesn’t sound dull, then you probably need to learn more about the craft of writing or at least come up with a new topic. Craftsmanship involves paying precise attention to details, not hiding the flaws with a coat of garish paint.