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How to Write a Trend Piece

January 15, 2011

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Trend pieces are the go-to format for all the NYT’s attempts to chronicle the ever-shifting worlds of fashion and genteel society.  They are the bread and butter of the Styles section, and the essence of why people hate the New York Times.  When we look at trend pieces, we penetrate into the vacuous, long-winded, pseudo-intellectual Heart of Darkness.  Except instead of finding Mr. Kurtz impaling Africans’ heads on stakes, we will find a pudgy middle-aged man who listens to Paul McCartney, shops at Abercombie & Fitch, and is pathologically jealous of anyone he considers a “hipster.”  That is who writes NYT trend pieces.  I don’t know them, but I can tell from their writing.  I know how they think.  If you wish to see the world through their eyes, just follow these simple steps.

1.  Find some dumbass thing to write about. Specifically, find some dumbass thing that only rich people from fashionable neighborhoods in NYC, L.A., San Francisco, maybe D.C. are doing.  Andrew Adam Newman’s “Graying Men Choosing the Touch-Up,” from last Thursday, provides us with an example.  It is about the trend of  men using hair treatments that conceal some, but not all, of their gray hair.  Too much gray makes you look old, while hiding all the gray would be insufficiently masculine.  Has this popular trend caught on among your friends and family?  Trick question:  You wouldn’t know, because today’s modern color treatments are so subtle as to be undetectable!

1(b).  Alternately, find something vast quantities of normal people out in the real world* have been doing routinely for decades without a second thought, then present it as astonishing and revolutionary because a few rich people and fashion designers have picked up on it.  Eric Wilson succeeds brilliantly with “How Cold Is it?  Enough to Make Long Johns Stylish.”  In case you haven’t heard of long underwear, it’s a form of underwear that is long, and thus typically considered warmer than the more conventional, “short” underwear.   “Are people really wearing these things? In public?”, asks Wilson, a professional writer who got paid to write this.

“After the snowstorms and frigid weather in New York this winter, it sort of makes sense that long johns would be having a moment here.”  Yes… warm articles of clothing having “a moment” when it gets cold outside in the winter… it’s so counterintuitive, but it works!  True visionary madness!  That’s what I love about fashion… its paradoxes and contradictions… the way it combines the yin and the yang, the hot and the cold, the black swan and the white swan… it lets me express my true, savage inner nature…  Also, I like to be cozy.

Wilson quotes the fashion director at Saks as saying that this is the right cultural moment for long johns, because “If they had just come out of nowhere two years ago, I do not think they would have been as readily embraced.”  Does this mean it’s time for me to roll out my latest fashion/lifestyle product?  I’ve created a prototype for the latest must-have accessory, a rectangular pieces of fabric that hip young people can place over their beds (or “cushion-enhanced sleeping surfaces”), then drape over or wrap around their bodies to preserve heat energy.  It’s woven from the coarse, curly hair that grows on a sheep, known in artisanal textile circles as “wool.”  It sounds crazy, but I’m hoping the trendsetters in Williamsburg will be avant-garde enough to try it….  Dammit, this “satire” isn’t working.  It totally isn’t any more ridiculous than the actual long johns trend piece it’s supposed to parody.  You win again, NYT.

*I don’t mean “normal people” and “real world” in a stupid David Brooks, culture war way.  I simply mean people who aren’t stupendously wealthy.  Some of these “normal people” even live in cities & drink lattes!

2. In These Challenging Economic Times. Fashion, style, and human behavior aren’t interesting of their own account.  Writing about style for style’s sake, in the Styles section, would be like art for art’s sake: nonsensical.  No, to report on fashion, you have to make it relevant.  To do that, you have to tie it in to the vast, sweeping currents of economic cycles and international politics.

But how to do this?  Doesn’t connecting something like trivial, like leggings or color-change mood lip gloss, to something vast and portentious, like the rise and fall of nations, seem like a lot of work?  No, it doesn’t have to be.  As with Philip Galanes’ humor, there’s a simple formula:  If the economy is bad, a trend reflects the badness of the economy.  If the economy is good, any trends probably reflect the goodness of the economy, although I don’t feel like looking through trend pieces from the Clinton years for evidence of this.  So, to write a thoughtful and intellectual trend piece, just remember the simple phrase “In These Challenging Economic Times,” and ITCET it up for increased cultural relevance!

Ergo, guys are dying their hair because men are “jumping into new careers and competing for these jobs against younger people.”  “Whether it’s because of career insecurity begat by a bad economy or simple vanity, use of hair color among boomer men is, not surprisingly, booming.”   “If there is any silver lining to the current recession… it could be that designers are turning toward more realistic and lasting definitions of luxury” (“Reflecting the Economy“).  And “if nothing else, it’s just nice to hear the words ‘looking for a replacement,’ and not worry about your job security”  (“The White Dress Shirt“).

3.  Gratuitous cultural references. References to the rescue again!  Pretty self-explanatory.   “But while maintaining the hair color they had in 1965 may suit Mick Jagger and Paul McCartney, most men today prefer to reduce gray, not eliminate it.”  What about the guys from the Monkees?  Or that band who did “Love Grows Where My Rosemary Goes”?  I bet the 1910 Fruitgum Company have some sweet-ass hairstyles.  “I had the distinct sense that she did not mind not knowing who Snooki was” (“Critic’s Notebook“).  I don’t know who the hell this woman is, but she’s gonna mind, when she finds out on her deathbed how awesome Snooki is.  Not even kidding.

There are two main flavors of reference: outdated ones introduced out of a panicky sense that a particular article has no spark or personality, and current ones shoehorned in to shore up an aging person’s desperate attempt to see her- or himself as hip and relevant.  Neither one is preferable.  For many painful examples of type 2, see “Crib Sheet” (shudder).

4.  Paragraph of statistics.  Numbers and statistics work like ITCET to make airy piffle seem legitimate. But no one’s gonna read them, so just shove ‘em all into a paragraph, like this one:

“It is made by Combe Inc., also the company behind the Just for Men and Grecian Formula lines. Domestic revenues for Touch of Gray grew 15.5 percent in the 52 weeks that ended Nov. 28, to $11.3 million, according to Symphony/IRI Group, a market research firm (these figures do not include sales from Wal-Mart).”

5. Never question outmoded gender stereotypes. This one isn’t a step, but rather the lack of a step.  The hair dye article is rife with expert sources explaining why it would never do to use the words “hair dye” in front of a glorious, virile male.  “’We say, “We have a product that blends some of the gray out,”’  Ms. Arens said. ‘Doesn’t it sound like less of a commitment than “color your hair” — and aren’t guys commitment-phobes in general?’”  Yes.  That is why there are no married men anywhere in the world.  Men are also “phobic about aging” and need to be “[spared]… the indignity of foils.”  The notion that grown (middle-aged!) men might not be little babies who require to be relentlessly coddled and eg0-stroked is never entertained.

For more examples and a detailed analysis of this topic, see Amanda Hess’s “A Brief History of the New York Times Gender Essentialist Trend Piece.”

6.  Only interview stupid people. Of long underwear: “It’s a very British thing,” said the designer Victoria Bartlett.  No, no it is not.  I live in the (American) south, and lots of people here wear long underwear.  Now that‘d be a trend piece!  The writer could work in lighthearted references to the Civil War, jugs of moonshine, The Dukes of Hazzard, Lynrd Skynrd…. “The idea of a southerner wearing long johns may conjure up images of Li’l Abner, sitting on a hollow log, playing a banjo, spitting snuff into a tin can, watching a sharecropper pick cotton, the flap over his derrière provocatively askew.  But in Richmond’s fashionable Tobacco Row neighborhood, boutique owner Noëlle van Driesen says “[something something something] {I could go on like this for twenty paragraphs.}”

7.  Only quote “experts” who are stupid. In a profile of a magazine editor, Douglas Quenqua writes as follows: “'[Lucky magazine] is so peppy and chipper it makes going down the Hallmark card aisle in the drugstore feel like a trudge through Germanic philosophy,’ David Brooks wrote in The New York Times in 2003.”  David Brooks is an infallibly perceptive editorial writer who once claimed that “[George W.] Bush has ennobled and saved American conservatism.”  He is also the author of Bobos in Paradise.  Thus, he is an expert on which publications exhibit sufficent intellectual gravitas.  David Brooks’ level of mental sophistication makes that one episode of Beavis and Butthead where Beavis gets stuck in a pipe look like The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire… crossed with Ulysses!

8. Add nuance. Nuance is achieved by quoting a source who thinks the opposite of what some of your other sources believe.  On the hair-dying tip:  “But Wendell Brown, senior fashion editor at Esquire, cautions men against any dyeing whatsoever.  ‘I’m not a big fan of men coloring their hair,’ he said.”  People being fans of things that some other people are not fans of will be a recurring trend-piece motif.  They are simply everywhere.  Sarah Maslin Nir finds some in her Black Swan article.  In a nutshell, the piece reports that “Some dancers say that the film holds up a mirror to a darker side of ballet…. Not everyone agrees.”

In an all-time classic of the genre, Sarah Kershaw reports that it is not possible to determine at this time whether teenagers hugging their friends is a good thing or a bad thing.  Some people think the hugs are good.  But “comforting as the hug may be, principals across the country have clamped down. ‘Touching and physical contact is very dangerous territory,’ said Noreen Hajinlian, the principal of George G. White School… who banned hugging two years ago.  ‘It was needless hugging.'”

"Huggles," Eli Steele

This piece of commentary is allowed to pass without comment.  If there’s on lesson in trend-piece-writing more important than all the rest, it’s this:  Never go out on a limb and offer an opinion or argument about your topic.  It might seem biased somehow, and besides, you have to be a public intellectual to do that.  Who are you, David Brooks?

5 Comments leave one →
  1. Eli permalink
    January 16, 2011 6:09 pm

    I could go for a “touch-up” right about now! (sex position)

  2. January 22, 2011 10:45 pm

    this blog is fantastic. i hope my being here means you’re on the cusp of a readership boom!! well done :)

  3. August 22, 2011 4:46 pm

    Oh my goodness, this is perfection.

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