Saturday, October 02, 2010

The Lexicon of Leads

The Poynter Institute

The country's top writing coaches have harped on the subject long enough to make it conventional wisdom. Newsrooms lack an adequate writing lexicon. That shortcoming cripples conversation between writers and editors, limits creativity and restricts us all to a few tired story forms.

A lexicon is simply a collection of terms that apply to a particular skill or field of study. The fuller the lexicon, the richer the communication. You can't talk about a subject if you don't have the words. And, some psychologists would argue, you can't even think about it. At least not very productively.

All of which came bubbling to the surface when the team leaders met to consider the paper's use of anecdotal leads. The concern was that we were slipping into the habit of topping too many hard news stories with soft leads. The participants came armed with examples.
As the discussion proceeded, one thing became obvious. The examples represented a broad range of featurized approaches to news stories. And, as Jacqui Banaszynski pointed out, "It appears that we're calling everything other than a straight news lead an anecdotal lead."

That poses several problems, most of which illustrate the value of an extensive writing and editing lexicon. For one thing, while one kind of featurized lead may be inappropriate for a breaking news story, another may be just right. For another, choosing the perfect lead for a story presupposes familiarity with many possibilities. But "straight lead" and "anecdotal lead" don't frame a terribly broad range.

Here is a list aimed at improving our lexicon of leads:
Straight Leads
1. Summary Leads:
The University of Oregon must move more women into higher-level faculty jobs or face federal sanctions. (12/24/92, B1)
This is the spring from which all journalistic waters flow. Summary leads summarize (what else?) the most important idea in the story. They often top inverted-pyramid news stories, the most traditional form. Because a good summary lead makes meaning instantly clear, it's often the preferred form for breaking-news and issue stories.

2. Blind Leads:
The state's land-use planning agency on Friday chose a former city planner from Eugene to be its new director. (5/6/89, D4)
A blind lead is a summary lead that leaves out potentially confusing detail. The lead cited here omits the name of the planning agency (the Department of Land Conservation and Development) and the city planner, who was relatively unknown statewide.
A "catch-all graf" immediately follows a blind lead. The catch-all includes the specific detail omitted from the lead.

3. Wraps:
Thursday's storm caused the deaths of a Salem woman who broke her neck in a fall, a Bend man who had a heart attack while shoveling snow and a Eugene teen-ager struck by a skidding car.

An editor's order to "wrap it" means to combine several items. The reporter usually packages the items under a lead that refers to all of them.

4. Shirttail Leads:
"A man taking photographs of Portland's skyline about 2:15 a.m. Sunday apparently was struck by a car and knocked into the Willamette River off the Interstate 5 ramp to Interstate 84...."
"Another accident Friday, this one involving a hit-and-run driver in Southwest Washington, left a Lynnwood, Wash., man in serious condition...." (10/8/90, B3)

The shirttail is the alternative to the wrap lead. The reporter writes a summary lead focusing on the most newsworthy element in the wrap. Then he hangs the remaining items, each with its own lead, from the first element's "shirttails."

Shirttail leads are traditional on meeting stories. The first lead targets the most important item on the agenda. The remaining items are introduced with an "in-other-business" transition.

Feature Leads
1. Anecdotal Leads:
Richard Leakey likes to tell about the day in 1950 when he was a 6-year-old whining for his parents' attention. Louis and Mary Leakey were digging for ancient bones on the shores of Lake Victoria, but their little boy wanted to play. He wanted lunch. He wanted his mother to cuddle him. He wanted something to do. "Go find your own bone," said his exasperated father, waving Richard off toward scraps of fossils lying around the site. What the little boy found was the jawbone -- the best ever unearthed -- of an extinct giant pig. As he worked away at it with the dental picks and brushes that served for toys in the paleontologists' camp, he experienced for the first time the passion of discovery. (Kathleen Merryman in the Tacoma News Tribune)

Here's a true anecdotal lead, as opposed to all the other kinds of feature leads. As an anecdote, the lead takes the form of a short narrative with a beginning, middle and end. The end is particularly important. It's analogous to the punch line in a joke -- it wraps up the story with a flourish that brings things to a apt conclusion.

An anecdotal lead should illustrate the story's central theme. Kathleen Merryman's anecdote, for example, explains something central about her subject, Richard Leakey.

2. Narrative Leads:
They pulled the car to the side of the road, turned off the motor and waited silently as the memories washed over them in a series of gentle waves.... (Tom Hallman, 3/8/90, B1)

A narrative lead simply launches an action line. It's not part of an anecdote, necessarily. But it puts central characters into a scene and begins telling the story that pits those characters against some kind of complication. Narrative leads are -- surprise! -- most appropriate to narrative stories. But they work on other kinds of stories, too. The bookend narrative, for example, begins with some relevant action, turns to standard news-feature style for the middle of the story and completes the narrative for the story kicker.

3. Scene-Setter Leads:
A woman with tormented eyes talks to herself as she plays a battered piano in Ward D's dayroom. Other psychiatric patients shuffle on the beige linoleum or stare from red-and-green vinyl chairs. A bank of windows opens to a fenced courtyard. Outside.... (Brian Meehan, 10/27/93, D1)

Scene-setters open with description. They may contain some action, as is the case here. But the main point is to create a stage on which action can unfold or to give a sense of place important to the focus of the story. Brian Meehan's story concerned conditions at Dammasch State Hospital. So a description of those conditions was an appropriate way to begin.

4. Scene-Wraps or Gallery Leads:
A man claiming to be a Catholic priest sits in a Santa Claus suit in a wheelchair outside a Southeast Portland supermarket, collecting money for the "Holy Order of Mary Inc."Across town, a supposed South African visitor asks a holiday-spirited shopper for directions to a local church. The South African then launches into a complicated tale that soon has the Portlander withdrawing $2,000 from the bank.... Elsewhere, a boiler-room telephone sales company.... (Jim Long, 12/13/91, B1))

Scene-wraps illustrate trend stories. They show that the same thing is happening in a variety of places. Because they consist of a series of pictures, they're also called "galleries."

5. Significant Detail Leads:
Hidden beneath a heap of inner-tubes in a tiny storeroom on an island in the middle of the Vistula River is the statue of Lenin that stood for decades inside the Gdansk Shipyard. (6/18/91, A3)

As you might expect, this story explored the continuing influence of Communism and central planning on the operation of the shipyard and the economy of Poland. The statue of Lenin -- hidden, but still in the neighborhood -- perfectly symbolized the story's central theme. And it perfectly illustrates the use of a significant detail to craft a lead.

6. The Single-Instance Lead:
For five days, Alice's husband, high on drugs, threatened to kill her. He hit her and abused her. Terrified, Alice fled the house when she finally got the chance and ran to a local business to call the police. "He would kill me. He's very scary," Alice said. "He would walk through walls if he had to." The police advised her to contact the Domestic Violence Resource Center in Hillsboro, and Alice found her way there. (12/7/89, WM1)

The single-instance lead uses one example to illustrate a larger topic. For that reason, single-instance leads are also called "microcosm leads." In this case, Alice's story was a gateway to a larger story on the Domestic Violence Resource Center.

Single-instance leads are a mainstay of magazine writing. In fact, they're almost required for stories in the most popular women's magazines. They've spread rapidly into newspaper writing, to the point that some critics now complain about their overuse.

7. Word Play Leads:
In Michael Crichton's previous novel, "Jurassic Park," a tropical island has been transformed into a zoo whose denizens are dinosaurs brought to life by a group of greedy, irresponsible scientists who have been cloning around. (2/1/92, D2)

Word-play is essentially lighthearted. Word-play leads therefore work best on less-than-serious stories. They're popular in sports and entertainment, but they can succeed at grabbing and delighting readers in other forms as well.

Dangerous Leads
1. Question Leads:
What's black and orange and the worst nightmare for teams headed to the state football playoffs? (10/28/95, C1)

Some editors simply ban question leads, reasoning that readers want answers, not questions. But George Orwell assures us that the only rule in writing is that there are no rules. So let's concede that question leads occasionally work, for all the right reasons.

They often fail because they seldom perform the basic function of a lead -- stating the central theme that organizes and explains the entire story. Furthermore, they can be irritating. Readers probably do resent frivolous questions when what they really want is news.
Still, some stories deal with fundamental questions. So a question lead can be appropriate. Nonetheless, question leads seldom represent the best solution. It pays to be especially cautious when using them.

2. Quote Leads:
Quotation leads were banned in some newsrooms, too. The rationale was similar to the justification used for banning question leads: The chances that a quote was the best way to express the story's theme were awfully slim.

But quote leads can work wonderfully well, too. Consider the famous Saul Pett lead for a 1963 AP Newsfeatures story on Dorothy Parker: "Are you married my dear?" "Yes, I am." "Then you won't mind zipping me up." "Zipped up, Dorothy Parker turned to face her interviewer, and the world." Or this intriguing opener from a Jeanie Senior story: Michael H. Walsh calls it it "teaching the elephant to dance." "That's his term for making the enormous, historic Union Pacific Railroad Co. competitive and profitable in the 20th century. (5/28/89, D1)

3. Topic Leads:
More than 40 environmentalists and developers debated before the Portland City Council on Wednesday on the future of wetlands areas in the Columbia South Shore area. (3/9/89, B4)
BOARDMAN -- The prospect of tripling this town's population with a 3,000-inmate prison was the subject of a hot debate Tuesday. (9/27/89, B1)

Orwell notwithstanding, topic leads probably should be banned. The point of a news story is to tell us what happened, what the outcome was. In the case of a meeting story, the important thing is not that the meeting took place, but the consequence of the meeting. What was the key decision? Why is that important? Where do we go from here?

Topic headings, in other words, should be restricted to information. It's hard to imagine that they can ever be an appropriate way to introduce news

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