Do you follow the Rodham Rule for higher ed writing?

Last summer, I gobbled up Rodham, the alternate-universe story of Hillary Clinton written by one of my literary favorites, Curtis Sittenfeld.

A line that stood out to me was when the fictional version of Hillary sends her brother a sports-related text:

“This season does seem promising, but I’m trying not to get my hopes up.”

It’s as anodyne a statement as one could possibly imagine.

Still, she follows up that text with an observation about what she’d just written:

“Then, because I’d learned from giving speeches that ending with the negative half of a mixed sentiment made the whole thing seem pessimistic, I deleted what I’d written and typed instead, ‘I’m trying not to get my hopes up, but this season does seem promising.’ ”

The lines reveal the character’s cold discipline in even trivial matters, but when I read it, I also saw something else.

Bundled into that short statement are three important truths that apply not just to speechwriting and sports prognosticating, but also to writing for higher education generally and alumni magazines specifically.

Let’s unpack them here.

1. Even if you’re a champion for something, it’s okay to have “mixed sentiments.”

In this example, the “mixed sentiment” the Sittenfeld character conjures up is pretty mild — she doesn’t want to get too invested in potential success of her favorite team.

As an alumni magazine editor and an advocate (I assume!) for your own institution, you may have your own thoughts about sharing stories with mixed sentiments.

Do you acknowledge a difficult period in a successful alum’s life? Or do you position the alum’s journey as a highlights reel of one accomplishment after another?

The alumni magazine may seem like the place to showcase just the hits. (And sometimes, administrators encourage exactly this.)

But in a word? Yawn.

Life doesn’t work that way, and readers can sense that sort of disingenuous storytelling from a mile away.

That “good news only” approach also turned out to be all but impossible in 2020, when it seemed like there was nothing BUT bad news — and a lot of that bad news was quite specific to higher education.

Those who tried to sugar-coat this past awful year were, at best, tone-deaf.

There’s good and bad in the world. There can be good and bad in your magazine. It’s important to acknowledge both.

2. You can leaven the weight of challenging topics with the idea that good things may be on the horizon.

Let’s move back to that Hillary statement: She’s trying not to get her hopes up!

But the season does seem promising.

She could have just said that she’s trying not to get her hopes up about the season. The end. But instead, she expressed hope.

The same can be true of even the most difficult stories we tell — of the pandemic, of racial inequities, of economic devastation, or of political polarization.

Yes, people at your institution are focused on these problems — and many others — that seem intractable and dispiriting. They know the nuances and challenges of these topics, and they may see a steeper hill to climb than the rest of us, who are less steeped in details of these specific areas.

In many ways, this deep knowledge is a great thing. It helps no one to be blindly optimistic about an issue when it’s not deserved.

That said, it’s rare that an issue is completely black and white. That’s a reason that one of my “3 perfect interview questions” is “What are you optimistic about?” (Read more about that and find out the other two questions here.)

One of the things I love about higher ed generally — and one of the things that drew me to alumni magazines specifically — is that education is inherently optimistic, future-focused, and problem-solving. So is much of its storytelling.

People get a college degree because they want to create a better future for themselves and for the world. People work at colleges because they want to pursue knowledge and focus on solutions, no matter how tangled a problem is.

Our storytelling should reflect that larger, optimistic truth about education without sidestepping the messiness that it contains.

3. Sequencing matters.

As the fictional Hillary notes, ending with the negative half of a mixed sentiment tinged the entire comment with its pessimism.

The reverse is true as well, as her edits make clear: a sentence (or a story!) that ends on a positive note colors the entire thing with a larger optimism.

The same should be true with our stories. I believe it’s our job to showcase the potential for progress, even in the face of difficult obstacles.

And we do that successfully when we end on a hopeful note.