Writing leads

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.]

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Published in: on May 21, 2009 at 9:23 am  Comments (6)  

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6 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. As usual, a great piece and no one ever taught that to me 🙂

  2. Thanks, and now you know. The truth is that writers know very little about how readers actually read. The ideas in this blog, though, are based on believable research. Try the techniques and let me know how they work.

  3. I’m interested in your thoughts on story leads in the Wall Street Journal. Those leads seem to be much more complex than leads on general newspapers’ stories. WSJ reporters often pack a lot of information into the lead, including analysis or what the event underscores. First, do you agree or disagree with that about WSJ leads? Secondly, if so, give us insights on how the WSJ does it so smoothly?

  4. WSJ leads are complex and simple at the same time. They try to tell readers as soon as possible what the story is about and why it’s important to read it. They also regard themselves as an explaining culture rather than an announcing culture. So they take responsibility for the readers’ understanding at the very top and throughout. The spirit behind all this is Bill Blundell, their former writing coach, now retired. Take a look at his book, The Art and Craft of Feature Writing (New American Library, ca. 1990).

    Whether this culture of understanding continues under Murdock is an open question.

  5. I have the book, and it’s been very interesting to read. Do you think all business-to-business publications, which includes WSJ, should have an explaining culture rather than an announcing culture?

  6. I do believe that all news publications should be explaining cultures, with different combinations of explaining and announcing. Cable TV, radio, and the Internet have pretty much taken over announcing, and what the public wants is to understand the world around them. Newspapers that survive will convert to digital, announce what’s happening in their communities, and explain it.

    I spent the weekend in Raleigh. What a great news town, and what a sophisticated reading community. The News and Observer should be one of the great newspapers of the world.


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