Sunday, November 30, 2014

Writing better ledes

One of the hardest but most important writing tasks is crafting a good lede. Without a compelling first sentence a story isn't likely to be read, so the best newspaper and magazine writers spend lots of time writing and revising and rewriting their ledes.

One suggestion I made to Orionites at the beginning of the semester was to use the San Francisco Chronicle as a writing model. I was struck this morning by the paper's front-page ledes:

When Linda Vida sold her house in the Oakland hills this summer, she was hoping for a buyers who would live there, put kids in the local schools and "give back or participate in the community," she says. (Kathleen Pender) 
Eight years ago, they were high school students who spent every Saturday morning together trying to gain a foothold in their adopted country by drinking coffee, eating bagels and studying one of literatures more revered and difficult masterpieces. Now... (Heather Knight) 
The cherished coho salmon that historically wriggled their way past beachgoers up Redwood Creek into Muir Woods vanished this year and are now on the verge of extinction prompting a last-ditch attempt by fisheries biologists to save the genetically unique species. (Peter Fimrite) 
Within arm's reach of his desk at Fraenkel Gallery, Jeffrey Fraenkel keeps the rejection letter from the graduate program in photography at the San Francisco Art Institute. (Sam Whiting)

Notice these are not the 30-words-or-fewer, subject-verb-object, most-important-W-first ledes you're taught to write in journalism classes. Classic news ledes are still a good choice for breaking hard-news stories, but these are features or news features and require a different approach.

Only one of these ledes is shorter than 30 words, though two others are fewer than 40. Three start with an introductory clause. Two use a list of three things as a writing device.

All four are little stories themselves. They set scenes and introduce characters. The writers use very specific language and choose words that put pictures in a reader's brain. Most of all, each is constructed to sound like the beginning of a longer story (Think "Once upon a time...").

Keeping those four things in mind are a terrific way to start writing more compelling ledes.

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