In an attempt to help writers fix simple problems that have tended to crop up in the pieces I’ve been grading lately, we’re going to spend this week giving each one a quick look with some examples of things that went wrong and some simple solutions.
Today’s menu item: Problematic placement of time elements in the lead:
Putting the “when” in a lead is crucial in most cases, given it’s part of those “5Ws and 1H” professors preach and the way “immediacy” is included in the FOCII interest elements (Fame, Oddity, Conflict, Immediacy, Impact) used to drive audience-centricity.
Placement problems tend to arise in two key ways:
- Misplaced modifiers
- Overvaluing the time element
The first one happens a lot in speech or meeting stories, when the time element incorrectly reflects what the writer is trying to say about the event:
Mayor Bill Smith said he planned to eradicate poverty Wednesday on the steps of the city building.
A 28-year-old Oshkosh man was accused of stealing 100 computers from city employees in court on Monday.
In both of these cases, it sounds like the protagonist in the lead is really going to be busy: The mayor will get rid of all the poverty in the city on Wednesday, while the 28-year-old man stole 100 computers on Monday. (The “where” elements make these leads sound even weirder, but we’ll save that for another day.)
The second problem happens when we try to avoid the first problem by stuffing the time element at the front of the sentence:
On Friday, the West Smithton Bulls defeated the East Smithton Jaguars, 41-28, to claim the “Hamhock Trophy” in the city’s annual rivalry game.
Tuesday, President Joe Biden announced he planned to send 1 million troops to help Ukraine push back advancing Russian forces.
In moving the time element to the front of the sentence, it avoids the modifier concern, but it also tells your readers that the “when” element is the most important thing in the sentence, which can’t be right in almost any situation. If the most important thing you want to tell me in the most important sentence of a story is WHEN something happened, you have some significant problems with that lead.
SOLUTION: Get the time element as close as possible to the verb to which it applies.
Mayor Bill Smith said Wednesday he planned to eradicate poverty on the steps of the city building.
A 28-year-old Oshkosh man was accused Monday in court of stealing 100 computers from city employees.
President Joe Biden announced Tuesday he planned to send 1 million troops to help Ukraine push back advancing Russian forces.
The West Smithton Bulls defeated the East Smithton Jaguars, 41-28, on Friday to claim the “Hamhock Trophy” in the city’s annual rivalry game.
In each case, we now have the time element more appropriately couched in a spot where it doesn’t create an incorrect assumption or overvalue the “when” element. That doesn’t mean these are GOOD leads, but they are improvements on the ones we had.
The better way to fix the leads would be to emphasize what matters more in the lead from a thematic standpoint that emphasizes some of the other FOCII elements.
Poverty has devastated Springfield for too long, and the city will now make its eradication a top priority, Mayor Bill Smith said Wednesday on the steps of the city building.
A 28-year-old Oshkosh man, who police say stole scores of governmental computers and sold them for more than $1 million via eBay, was charged Wednesday with 100 counts of theft.
The United States will deploy more 1 million troops to Ukraine to help the country push back advancing Russian forces, President Joe Biden announced Tuesday.
The West Smithton Bulls broke a 58-year losing streak against rival East Smithton, earning the “Hamhock Trophy” by defeating the Jaguars 41-28 on Friday.
Obviously, there are other ways to fix these as well, but these quick rewrites show how refocusing your priorities in the lead can improve the value of the content and avoid the problems that tend to crop up when the time element is in the wrong place.