May 21, 2004

How To Write The Lead

In journalism schools across the globe, professors, early in the development of pre-emergent journalists, labor to teach their studious pupae how to write a “lead”—the first paragraph of a story … the paragraph meant to introduce the story, present its thesis, summarize what’s to come, and provide a compelling hook drawing the reader off the sidelines and into the rest of the piece.

Average leads are easy to write; great leads are difficult to write. And even with all the highfalutin education journalist students have these days, it seems the art of the lead is increasingly receding into the textual mist. Just look at two above the fold leads from today’s papers:

  • NY Times: Fierce fighting erupted today between American forces and insurgents loyal to a young rebel cleric near two shrines in this holy city, killing at least 21 insurgents, American military officials said.

  • Washington Post: Previously secret sworn statements by detainees at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq describe in raw detail abuse that goes well beyond what has been made public, adding allegations of prisoners being ridden like animals, sexually fondled by female soldiers and forced to retrieve their food from toilets.

Someone wake me. Yawnsville, both.

A great lead has punch. It is clear, it is concise, it says “here’s the story, and why you need to read the rest.” And in this month’s New Yorker, it has the voice of Seymour Hersh:

The roots of the Abu Ghraib prison scandal lie not in the criminal inclinations of a few Army reservists but in a decision, approved last year by Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, to expand a highly secret operation, which had been focussed on the hunt for Al Qaeda, to the interrogation of prisoners in Iraq. Rumsfeld’s decision embittered the American intelligence community, damaged the effectiveness of élite combat units, and hurt America’s prospects in the war on terror.

Two sentences, one helluva lead. Politics aside, that, ladies and gentlemen, is how it’s done, and the sands of Washington are shifting as a result.

Posted by Avocare at May 21, 2004 09:21 PM | TrackBack

Hersch is one of my journalistic gods, not because I agree with him all the time, because I do not...but precisely because of what you have pointed out. Another with this ability is Christopher Hitchens.

Posted by: Jane at May 21, 2004 11:16 PM

Jane! Glad to see you still visit ... I'll get more familiar with Hitchens ...

Posted by: Alan at May 22, 2004 09:43 AM
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