Lead Writing 101: You’re a journalist, not William Faulkner

Given that we just spent a great deal talking about the limits on the human attention span, I figured it might be a good time to take another look at leads. If we’re seeing people with less and less cognitive focus, the last thing we want to do is write a sentence like this famous one by William Faulkner, which once held a world record for length.

In the simplest terms, a lead should do two things:

  1. Tell the reader what happened in a simple, direct and engaging way.
  2. Tell the reader why this matters to them as a reader.

This is why starting with a noun-verb-object core works really well:

  • Packers beat 49ers
  • Bucks draft guard
  • Mayor rips media
  • Company wins contract

Then, we build around that core with more of the 5W’s and 1H. That usually keeps the focus on the important stuff and keeps the audience in our crosshairs when we’re writing the lead.

As numerous people have explained to me, not every lead needs to be that strict or bare bones. I agree, as I often tell students to try something different if they think they have an angle that might better engage the readers. However, I also point out that if the “new way of doing things” isn’t working out, it’s better to back away than to press on and make things worse.

Consider the following leads that needed a significant edit, a better sense of what matters or generally just a hug:

Georgia 33, Alabama 18, Lead Writer 66:
Take a look at what is essentially the lead on this story about the national championship. I say “essentially” as the first sentence of the story was basically a throw-away sentence that just got me to this monstrosity:

With 54 seconds left in Monday night’s College Football Playoff National Championship presented by AT&T, Georgia cornerback Kelee Ringo intercepted Alabama quarterback and Heisman Trophy winner Bryce Young and returned it 79 yards for a touchdown — the longest pick-six in championship game history — cementing the No. 3 Bulldogs’ 33-18 win over the No. 1 Crimson Tide and the program’s first national championship since 1980.

I don’t know if the writer was trying to celebrate the longest pick-six with the world’s longest sentence about one, but there has to be something we can do to chop back this 66-word monstrosity.

With 54 seconds left in Monday night’s championship game, Georgia cornerback Kelee Ringo intercepted Alabama’s Bryce Young and returned it 79 yards for a touchdown to cement the Bulldogs’ first national title since 1980.

Got it down to 34 words, or almost half of what that was without losing a whole lot in there. The only keeper I wish I could have kept would have been the score. We could fix that if we felt like it:

With 54 seconds left in Monday night’s championship game, Georgia cornerback Kelee Ringo’s 79-yard pick-six off Alabama’s Bryce Young cemented the 33-18 win and the Bulldogs’ first national title since 1980.

There. We’re at 31 words and we still didn’t lose anything, really.

The problem with this lead initially was the author was trying to turn a simple thing into a NASCAR vehicle: Just keep slapping little stickers on it until you eventually run out of them. The goal of any good writing is to present content to the audience members in the way that THEY would want it. So, let’s consider things that we definitely don’t need in the lead:

  • College Football Playoff National Championship presented by AT&T: The formal title is eight words of jargon and marketing. You’re not beholden to the money gods here, so feel free to simplify it.
  • quarterback and Heisman Trophy winner: First, you tell me he was intercepted. I don’t have an exact figure, but most interceptions are thrown by quarterbacks, so we can probably trim that. Second, it’s great he won the Heisman, but it’s not necessary in a sentence that’s already oversized. If you want to argue, “Hey, it shows how great of a QB he is,” OK, fine, but it’s the national championship game. I think we can assume he’s at least functional for a paragraph or two.
  • The rankings: No. 3 and No. 1. You told me it was a national championship game already, so, again, I don’t need the specifics in this sentence. If it weren’t teams in the top five playing for this, I’d be worried.

Stuff we could keep or pitch:

  • The longest pick-six in championship game history: It’s a nice tidbit, but it’s a long way of saying something we already said (defensive touchdown). If it were the longest pick-six to end the longest championship drought, maybe that’s a deal maker. Or, if the D had sucked all year and finally made a play, maybe. Still, it’s a mouthful for very little value.
  • With 54 seconds left in Monday night’s (game): A couple things to ponder: First, it’s at the front of the sentence. If the most important thing you want to tell me in the most important sentence is the “when,” it might not be a great sentence. Second, it’s really specific, which I could take or leave (with less than a minute left or something would be fine). Third, if you keep it, you now have a lead sentence that’s got seven numbers in it: 54, 79, 1, 3, 33, 18, 1980. It looks like something my mom would have played in a game of Keno.

The point of lead writing is to pick the things you MOST want to tell people and then trim away the stuff that doesn’t make the cut. It’s not supposed to be an attempt to cram 13 facts into a single sentence for the heck of it.

Question: How do you screw up an obituary for a rabbit?
Answer: Try to say 382 things in a lead:

Marlon Bundo, former vice president Mike Pence’s family pet who was the main character in a series of children’s books by the second family and a parody book that posited the rabbit as gay in a jab at the couple’s stance against LGBTQ rights, has died.

If you missed how a random rabbit became a best-selling author and flashpoint for LGBTQ issues, here’s the John Oliver segment on Mike Pence, cued up to the bunny bit:

I would normally spend a great deal of time picking this thing to pieces, but let’s just say I have some empathy for the reporter who had to work on this thing, given the number of random weird-ass assignments I got in my career. (There is still probably a locked file at the State Journal city desk in which three poli sci profs discuss the imminent death of Boris Yeltsin and its likely impact on Clinton presidency. Spoiler alert: He lived until 2007.)

That said, here’s a good rule of thumb: If your non-essential clause is 10 times larger than your essential clause, you probably need to rethink everything about that sentence.

Full House, meet Overly Full Lead:
Here’s the big dog, quite literally. It’s a lead sentence on a tribute to comedian Bob Saget, who died Jan. 9 at the age of 65.

No gaudy feat of method acting, no gnarly Christian Bale–as–Dick-Cheney physical transformation, no brazen bit of stunt casting in any of our lifetimes can compare to the magic trick Bob Saget pulled in 2005, when the gentle doofus who’d spent eight years as America’s Sweetest and Corniest Dad—via his starring role as Danny Tanner in the benign blockbuster ABC sitcom Full House, which ran from 1987 to 1995 and made the Brady Bunch look like the Hells Angels—popped up in a modest little film called The Aristocrats and told what can credibly be described by somebody on YouTube as the “Dirtiest Joke in the World.”

Not every lead needs to be 25-35 words or a pure inverted pyramid quote, but there are limits even in the world of “narrative” or “long form” journalism.  Or as a good friend and talented journalist noted: “Someone needs to tell this weenus that ‘long form’ doesn’t mean ‘no punctuation.'”

Again, it comes down to choices. Is it crucial to tell the readers EXACTLY how long Full House ran? Or that it was a blockbuster? Or that he did BOTH of those saccharine shows? Or describe everything with two sets of adjectives (sweetest and corniest; modest and little)? Or go through the verbal calisthenics to describe the world’s dirtiest joke?

Maybe all of those have value, but maybe not all at once in a single sentence that drones on for 109 words.

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