During a writing lab session, a student asked me how it is I could come up with tight and clear sentences off the cuff. The truth, I told him, wasn’t so much in the writing, but in the editing. I was essentially doing in my head what he was doing on the computer, which took me a lot of practice. Even more, I told him, when I do write sentences on the computer, I mostly spend time just dumping the stuff out of my head and then going back to shape and polish them. In short, I explained, write all you want, but then go back and edit the hell out of it.
Here are a couple examples of what I mean:
Here is a 46/47 word lead on an ongoing investigation about a UW chancellor and her husband’s behavior:
WHITEWATER – An independent investigation commissioned by the University of Wisconsin System into how administrators responded to sexual harassment allegations against Pete Hill, husband of former UW-Whitewater Chancellor Beverly Kopper, found “Hill’s behavior was a blind spot for the Chancellor,” according to documents obtained by the Journal Sentinel.
Start by picking this apart. What’s the first thing we learn? That there was an independent investigation commissioned by the UW system. Is that the most important thing you want to tell people?
What’s the last thing you learn? The newspaper got some documents. Is that important enough for the lead?
Let’s focus on what matters most:
- husband of former UW-Whitewater Chancellor Beverly Kopper
- accused of sexual harassment
- reports calls accusations credible
- report finds she didn’t know about it
- report finds she didn’t ask him about it
- Kopper didn’t retaliate, but people still felt awkward
Pick through those elements and you have a much stronger lead:
Former UW-Whitewater Chancellor Beverly Kopper likely didn’t know about her husband’s sexually harassing behavior on campus, but she didn’t proactively respond to the allegations once they arose, an independent investigation found.
It’s 31 words and gets you closer. Then, if you want to talk about how you got the records, the formal title of the investigative group and the “blind spot” quote (which gets mentioned twice in three paragraphs), you can do that later.
Just so you don’t think I’m picking on the pros, here’s a nice, tight lead that similarly works off of a major report from that same publication:
MADISON – Wisconsin has seen a steep decline in net migration of families with children and this could be problematic for efforts to replace the state’s aging workforce, according to a new report.
Again, it tells me what happened and why I care right up front, pushing the name of the official report and committee and all that stuff way down below.
Check out this body-copy sentence from a story about a contract between a state entity and a private corporation:
Evers and Foxconn officials are in talks to rewrite a contract that lays out what size investments Foxconn must make in Wisconsin in order to receive taxpayer-funded subsidies — a deal that currently requires Foxconn to hit targets in job creation before any state tax credits can be paid.
An edit to this can make a 48-word sentence a little clearer and cleaner:
Evers and Foxconn officials are discussing contract revisions to determine what Foxconn must do to receive taxpayer-funded subsidies. Under the current deal, Foxconn must hit job-creation targets before receiving state tax credits.
Two sentences, 32 words and much clearer. If you want one sentence, try this:
Evers and Foxconn officials are discussing contract revisions to determine what Foxconn must do to receive taxpayer-funded subsidies in an attempt to reshape the job-creation targets Foxconn must reach before receiving state tax credits.
It’s still beefy at 34 words, but it is tighter and clearer.
These would get better with more editing, but the point is that instead of trying to be perfect on the first pass, get the stuff out of your head and onto the screen. Once you have something there, you can work with it. Until then, you just have a blank screen with a blinking cursor that is mocking you.