What’s going on in your readers’ heads as they start to read a piece? They make predictions about content; is this something they want and need to know? They predict whether they’ll understand your prose; if not, they feel stupid and drop out. They estimate how long the piece is and if they have time for it. They start imagining a personality speaking to them from the page, what we call “voice.”
All of this subconscious calculating happens in the “path” (photo > title > caption > lead). By the time they finish your first sentence, they have a fairly clear picture of what to expect. Fairly clear if all these elements are crafted well and fit together, leading readers in.
Imagine a piece as a journey through unknown territory. Readers need a map and a guide. All of those devices at the top add up to a map, and the lead creates the guide. As readers start to read the text, they start judging the voice to see if they trust it. If they think the persona talking to them seems reliable, they keep reading. You have established “authority.” But if they don’t trust the voice, they don’t expect skilled guidance, and they drop out.
What establishes authority? Clarity and power. If the voice of the lead speaks clearly, the reader expects to keep understanding it. The reader expects not to get lost.
Readers are not up to speed on your voice at the beginning, so you start simply. You don’t write sentences like this:
In an effort to disarm recent allegations of ordering torture of prisoners in murky foreign settings, members of the former Bush administration, including some at the very top, who have kept silent on the subject until recently, have begun, in ways that suggest a coordinated campaign, to use friendly cable-news and talk-radio shows to create the illusion of widespread foiling of sinister plots.
Roy Clark calls that “a suitcase lead,” too much stuff crammed into too small a bag that won’t quite close. For maximum clarity, you begin with simple sentences with simple structures to ease your readers in. You don’t have to tell readers the whole story in the first paragraph. You predict the whole story, the whole journey, and readers follow you if they expect to keep understanding you.
You achieve power by certainty of tone. Simple, clear sentences imply you know what you’re talking about. Saving qualifiers until later simplifies early statements. You use strong verbs and avoid adverbs, etc., all the devices of clarity we’ll discuss elsewhere on this blog.
I think of myself as saying subconsciously to my reader at the top, “This is a tricky journey. I’ve been there; you haven’t. Take my hand, and we won’t get lost. Okay? Here we go. First, let’s….”
[You probably weren’t taught anything I’ve said here. Let’s hear your thoughts on lead writing.]