We have developed the collective bad habit of overstating our points. The World Series really isn’t global… although the “North American Series With a Lot of Players from the Caribbean and Central America” is a bit wordy. We tells one friend that our other friend just said the meanest thing ever. Our newscasters are sure that the pile-up on I95 is the worst in history. The weather channel pedals the coldest March, the hottest July, the wettest September. Our boss complains that the conference was the biggest waste of time imaginable. Our ratio of extreme experiences to regular life has shot through the extremely high roof.
Language alert: when everything is extreme, nothing is extreme. Overstatement dilutes whatever surrounds it, erases the power of superlatives when we need them, and distracts the reader.
When everyone around you is talking loudly, how do you get attention? You whisper. As writers, we get more attention when we tell our stories straight, and save the overstatements for the situations when they really aren’t overstatements.
In Why Architecture Matters, (Yale University Press, 2009), the critic Paul Goldberger describes Grand Central Terminal in all its wonderful and marvelous glory without using one superlative about the station, and Grand Central becomes even more important because of the restraint:
To me, the main concourse of Grand Central Terminal is a kind of public square for New York, a railroad’s gift to the city that is nearly a century old and, if anything, more inviting than ever. Here, Beaux-Arts architecture did what it did best, which was to use the traditional elements of classical and Renaissance architecture to create beautiful and noble public places. Grand Central is a vestibule to the city; here great space is used both to allow vast numbers of people to move through easily and also to enhance the ritual of arriving and leaving the city by housing it with appropriate ceremony. Grand Central is the city’s symbolic front door, and it feels very different from, say, the Port Authority Bus Terminal or the current version of Pennsylvania Station, which is little more than a glorified subway station. When you come into the city through Grand Central, you feel from the moment that you step off the train that you are in a place that is capable of stirring your soul. You have arrived, and it is this extraordinary space that tells you so.
Mr. Goldberger doesn’t tell us that he thinks Grand Central is the greatest building ever, or the greatest building he’s seen in New York; he lets us walk through his construct of a public square to a public place to a vestibule to a front door to our disembarking selves. Goldberger lets us experience the terminal’s greatest for ourselves, and we end up where he does: concluding that Grand Central is a most amazing public structure ever.
Edit out the overstatements, and you will have restored a tool to your writer’s tool kit: the hammer of shock and awe, to be used sparingly and effectively. The rest of time, remember to whisper.