Hell Lead: Why 66-word sentences don’t help your readers and 3 ways to avoid writing them

As mentioned pretty much everywhere in both books and this blog, the concept for writing a simple lead should be simple:

  • It should be 25-35 words long.
  • It should contain as many of the 5Ws and 1H as possible without overwhelming your readers.
  • It should focus on a single concept to provide focus and clarity to the readers.
  • It should tell your readers what happened and why they care.

Reading the original lead on this story gave me a feeling similar to trying to drink from a fire hose:

More than 1,000 students, teachers and community members marched on the Madison School District’s administrative building Friday in support of a black security guard fired for repeating the N-word when a student called him the racial slur, prompting district officials to vow better education on the history and impact on the N-word and a review of the policies that led to the staffer’s termination this week.

That’s 66 words, or almost DOUBLE the maximum of what you really want to see here. Even more, it’s not just that this is too long, but it’s also WAAAAAY too heavy. (As a brief refresher, length is how we measure leads in a word-by-word approach while weight is about how much content is in there and how all words aren’t created equal in adding to the heft of a sentence.)

When we unpack all of this info, what we learn in the lead includes:

  • About 1,000 people protested at the admin building.
  • They supported a security guard who was fired.
  • The guard, a black man, repeated a racial slur after the student used it against him.
  • The district didn’t say if it would rehire the guy.
  • The district reacted by promising to educate somebody or other on how the slur is problematic and where it came from and why it has the impact it has.
  • The district will review the policies that led to the guard being fired.

Of course, we only learn that if we can wade through all of the stuff in this lead and take the time to figure it out. That kind of “Where’s Waldo?” approach to reading this thing is antithetical to what we’re supposed to be doing with a lead and with journalism in general.

A competing publication did pretty much the same job as this lead with about half of the words:

Wisconsin’s capital city school district is facing national pressure to reinstate a black high school security guard who was fired this week for saying the N-word while telling an unruly student not to use the racial slur.

(SIDE NOTE: The district reversed itself and undid the firing, and Marlon Anderson gets to go back to work.)

The point isn’t to do a “Goofus and Gallant” comparative between the leads, as even the better of them could get some fine tuning. The larger point about this lead is that it wasn’t just one misstep of trying to overcrowd the lead to avoid missing anything. Here are a couple other sentences from the original writer that left me stunned:

This guy is 42…

The swell of support for Marlon Anderson — who worked at West High School before being terminated Wednesday — culminated in a meeting between representatives of the school’s Black Student Union and district officials to discuss the situation that led to Anderson being fired.


This one is 53 words…

Emerging after a nearly two hour meeting inside the district’s Doyle Administration Building, Anderson’s 17-year-old son Noah, who is the president of the Black Student Union, addressed a crowd on what he said was a constructive conversation but just the start on making sure African-Americans are involved in school policies that impact them.

And this one is 63 words, which is exceeds the “coked-up Jay McInnery ‘Bright Lights, Big City’ character” level of run-on…

Speaking to reporters after the sit-down, interim Superintendent Jane Belmore and School Board President Gloria Reyes said the district will take a more concerted effort in teaching students about the usage of the N-word and the harm it causes, will review policies that led to Anderson being fired, and will expedite the appeal process to his firing after Anderson filed a grievance Thursday.

The point of writing leads in the 25-35 word range and body sentences in the 20-24 word range is to prevent exactly the kinds of things that happen here:

  • The readers who want to learn something will get lost and give up.
  • The sentence construction gets so complicated that you run the risk of creating modifier problems and other grammatical issues.
  • The pace and flow of the story get all out of whack because you end up with giant sentences followed by a few stubby ones. Thus, it feels like you’re flying down the highway at 110 mph when suddenly you hit a traffic jam.

Here are some tips on how to fix these problems:

  • Know the point of your piece: Yes, stories can get overly complicated, but as investigative sports journalist Eric Adelson once told me, “If you can’t tell me what your story is in about 25 words or less, you really don’t understand what you’re writing about.” I remember at the time thinking it was a harsh assessment, especially given that he did mostly deep-dig pieces. However, when I asked him to do it for me on the steroid scandal story he was in the middle of digging into, he told me,”Players and owners both knew steroids were used in baseball, but nobody said anything because everyone was making too much money because of them.” In less than 25 words, he nailed it. If you know what you’re doing, things become easier and simpler.
  • Make one point at a time: Readers do have shorter attention spans these days, so it feels like if you don’t throw everything at them at once, you’re going to lose them. However, the “Fistful of Jell-O” rule applies here: The tighter you squeeze, the less you have. In pumping content at your readers like you’re unleashing a fire hose filled with information, you repel them instead of engaging them.
    Start each sentence with the promise to your readers that you are going to make one, simple, clear point for them. Then, deliver on that promise. If you do this, and you have a clear understanding of what your readers need, you will keep them engaged and tell them something that matters.
  • Start from the core out: The sentences in the original story we analyzed feel heavy because the writer probably built them from the front to the back. This is how you end up with major dependent clauses that try to do too much or how you end up tacking on “just one more thing” that will make the sentences you write feel unwieldy. It also comes from not really figuring out what the key point you want to make is (see Point 1).
    To minimize the risk of this, start with the core: Noun-Verb-Object. Tell me who did what to whom and focus on that. This will create a much stronger version of the sentence and also shift your attention to making the noun concrete and the verb vigorous. Consider some of these NVO constructions, depending on the story you want to tell:

    • District fires custodian
    • Protestors rebuke district
    • Citizens protest firing

When it comes to how best to tell a story, it often comes down to how simply can you write the content. Start with the simple elements that matter most and expand up on them with each layer of detail. If the sentence gets too long or too complex, you can cut back on the sentence, removing the outer layers and tightening it back toward the core. In most cases, the writing is in the editing.

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