|WORLD Magazine / Telling the Truth / Chapter Eight|
|Leads, Nut Grafs, Bodies, Ends, Headlines|
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Once your journalistic research is done and you have a strong sense of how you want to organize the material, it is time to think of a lead. Sometimes, you will have thought of the lead as you are gathering material, and the organization will flow from it. But remember that in journalism, the perfect is often the enemy of the good: Look for a good beginning, not the perfect lead.
Generally, it is better to rough out the article and then come back to wrestling with the lead. I have provided a chapter on organization before discussing leads because many writers either get hung up at the lead or construct a pretty lead that does not connect well with the bulk of the article. Remember that most leads do not have to be grabbers: They can ease readers into stories.
Feature leads, like other parts of articles, vary in length according to the size of the overall article, but their purpose remains the same: They are to give the reader a sense of what the article is about, establish a mood, and entice the reader to march on. Feature leads are not supposed to summarize the news. Feature and standard newspaper leads are opposites: The latter variety is designed to save the reader from reading the entire story, but the former is to push him or her into doing that.
There are many different kinds of leads: I have listed eight here, four of which are generally superior, four of which need to be handled with care.
Anecdotal leads are good for arousing immediate interest by involving the reader in the story. Often, anecdotes with people in them humanize what could be dry, or personalize what could be merely sensational. The anecdotal lead has to be true to the rest of the story: It should be colorful but directed, accurately representing the article and pointing the reader to it. An anecdote that is colorful but does not begin directing the reader to a deeper understanding of the problem can be used further down, but should not be the lead. The anecdote should be factual, an actual scene, not a composite or a product of the imagination.
Second on the superior list is the descriptive lead: It presents a scene without including characters or action. A descriptive lead works particularly well when the physical setting or the emotional mood is key, as in this example.
Descriptive leads are photographs rather than videotapes, but they can focus wonderfully.
Third on the superior list is the situation lead: It presents a problem and raises a sense of conflict or suspense about how a person will escape. Here is an example:
What will Al Leonard do? The lead pushes us to read on; it is a purposefully incomplete anecdote. A situation lead should end with a sense of imminent trouble, or at least a circumstance demanding resolution.
Fourth on the superior list is the multivignette lead: It communicates a sense that many people are undergoing a particular problem. You can show several actual examplesdo not make them upand thus communicate the reality.
Along with the superior or classic feature leads, four others are useful, but should be used sparingly. The summary-lead is the first type of sparingly used opener. This mainstay of news reporting is rare in a feature story, but useful when leading into a first-person account or some other story that will appear to have minor news value unless its significance is explained. Summaries of this kind should be printed in italics, with the main story in standard type; for example:
The story goes on to show, through action, the esprit de corps of the flyers, and suggests that it can readily be threatened by congressmen who do not ask about it and do not care to listen when officers tell them.
The quotation lead is the second type of sparingly used opener. It often does not work because the quotation needs to be explained, and explanation slows down the story. But if a person is quoted while in action or in an evocative situation, a quotation lead can work, as in the following example.
The book-excerpt lead is the third type of sparingly used opener. It should only be used to present a gripping story directly tied to the theme of the article that brings in foreshadowing, foreboding, or some other form of drama, tension, or suspense. For example, a story about psychobabble began:
That account of Richard Ganzs heresy and resulting excommunication from secular psychology is described in "Confessions of a Psychological Heretic," the first chapter of his forthcoming book Psychobabble: The Failure of Modern Psychologyand the Biblical Alternative. Ganzs work is the latest sally in a battle taking place within evangelicaldom over the value of clinical psychotherapy within Christianity.
And the controversy is growing.
The essay lead is the fourth type of sparingly used opener. It lends itself to pontificating. For example, this lead came in a draft and had to be excised.
This lead was actually throat clearing, a false lead before the storys real beginning in a fourth paragraph that showed the "kiosks and tables all through the city that sell anything from live chickens to furniture. . . ."
Quantitatively and qualitatively, lead writers have great variety to choose from. The length of a lead often is tied to the length of the articleshort for short, long for long. A good rule of thumb is that the lead should not be more than 10 percent of the story, but there is much leeway. The crucial point to keep in mind is that the lead should draw attention to the theme of the story, not to itself.
Lead construction is not either/or. It is not necessary to adopt one or another of the types of lead listed above; forms can be combined, as long as the lead does not dither but comes to a point. The following opener, for example, is both descriptive and anecdotal.
What comes directly after the lead goes by many namespoint statement, theme-paragraph thesis, justifierbut I like the pungent journalistic expression, nut graf.
The nut graf is the essence, the underlying idea of a story. Generally following an anecdotal or descriptive lead, the nut graf gives the basic news value and describes the significance of what the reader has just been shown. The nut graf is expository writing: After a lead that shows, the nut graf tells. The nut graf is vital because it explains that the story is not about an isolated incident, but that many people are affected.
Lack of a nut graf confuses readers and opens the door to dithering. Lack of one also wastes a good authors tool: Once the nut graf is in place, sentences and paragraphs throughout the body can be measured against it and discarded if they do not help to make the point or provide reflection upon it.
The nut graf should be one paragraph, sometimes one sentence. Here are various examples:
This abortionist shortage represents the soft underbelly of the multi-million dollar industry that has grown up around the concept of choice and personal sovereignty.
You should remember that readers want news, but they want it in an interesting, lively way. They want color but need connection. You can kill two birds with one nut grafdraw the reader forward by hinting at what is coming.
Here is an example of how to go from lead to nut. First, you powerfully present the situation.
Then comes the nut graf:
An investigative report often presents the subject in action. First comes the lead.
"What do you want? Mr. Milquetoast?" he says in a promotional tape. "Hey, flip the dial. This is me, this is real, this is Talk-Back."
Then the nut graf:
The follies of secular liberalism often lead to a three-part lead-nut opening. First comes the news, with an emphasis on how big media spun it.
Second, spotlight the contradiction.
Third, provide the explanatory nut (and sometimes a good quotation works well here).
The nut graf is a highly directed part of World reporting style. By itself, it can be obnoxious; but when it follows specific detail and leads into a strong body, readers need and value it.
Running the Race: The Body of the Story
Many stories that start well become mushy in the middle: There is no sequence of ideas and sensations, no pattern of cause and effect, no narrative, no pearlsjust puddles. Here is where it is important to turn constantly to the nut graf, and to remember that your goal is to convey information in support of that point. Ask yourself every step of the way as you write: What is my point?
Writers who are trained in writing for newspapers or writing for children sometimes fear long sentences, on the theory that they slow down readers. Actually, a well-organized longer sentence takes no longer to read than a series of short sentences, because periods are like stop signs. The real issue is complexity of material. The more complicated the idea, the shorter the sentences and paragraphs should be, in order to slow down the reader. But a narrative sentence can be long if it is good.
Keep thinking of readers, and then help them by relating the unknown to the known (for example, faraway place X is like nearby place Y). Do not overuse confusing statistics or technical information: A little goes a long way. Translate jargon into regular English, and give a face to a fact by explaining macro matters in human terms: Let the small represent the large.
Keeping readers in mind is especially important when dealing with big numbers. Instead of merely noting that the national debt is about $5 trillion, you should point out that there are about 100 million taxpayers; thus the average taxpayers portion of the national debt is about $50,000. Instead of merely mentioning that New York spent $2 billion in ten years on 25,000 homeless persons, you should do the division problem for the skimming reader and note that the per person per year expenditure was $8000.
Logical transitions also contribute to the cause of moving readers from one chunk of information to the next. Write tightly, but do not neglect transitional words such as and, but, nevertheless, still, meanwhile. Do not bury good information in the middle of a paragraph. Key points of emphasis are the beginnings and ends of sentences, paragraphs, and stories. Your best stuff should be in the most emphatic locations.
Some editors use readability formulas. Rudolph Flesch in the 1940s had a famous one: He called seventeen to nineteen words per sentence ideal, and desired 150 syllables per one hundred words. Robert Gunnings "fog index" in the 1960s had writers adding the average number of words per sentence and the percentage of words having three or more syllables, then multiplying by 0.4 to determine the number of years of school the reader would need in order to understand.
Practical literacy has decreased during the past three decades, so it is even more important to pay attention to reading capacities. Still, commonsense checking may work better than formulas. For example, reader-friendly prose places the subject before the verb, uses the active voice rather than the passive, and uses the past tense. Some novice writers think that present tense is better because it supposedly makes the action more immediate, but it also can make reporting sound like a breathless romance novel.
The most important thing to remember throughout the body of the article is the inclusion of specific detail. Beginning writers often fall in love with their material and try to compress anecdotes and description so they can force everything in. Sometimes even experienced reporters with a lot to say cut out descriptive and narrative material so they can include all their points. But good stories require showing, not telling, and showing takes space: Selection, not compression, is the key.
You may also find it possible to use quotations more concisely. Try not to quote more than a sentence at a time (unless the goal is to throw a spotlight on the sentences themselves, as in this book). When quotations just state facts, put them in your own words, unless it is important that a particular person is acknowledging a particular fact. Quote colorful words: "The sacks are juiced" is better than, "The bases are loaded."
In general, end quotations with "he said," unless you want to call attention to his particular way of saying. Noted implies that you agree with what the speaker is saying, argued that you disagree. Maintained means he is sticking to his story, insisted means that he is under fire. When in doubt, stick to saidit moves the story along, without calling attention to words of attribution.
Try to use, subtly, some literary devices, such as alliteration (words in a sentence beginning with the same initial letter), assonance (same internal sound), and onomatopoeia, which features the sounds of a word or words suggesting the meaning: Bees buzz.
Another way to summarize material quickly is to quote public-policy jargon but, instead of going on about it, merely place the question under the biblical lens.
Journalists sometimes fall into some of the mistakes listed above, but if you are a typical writer you will be particularly susceptible to the sin of coveting so-called inspiration and not working unless you have it. Remember, though, that although good writers work in a variety of ways, they all work hard. Some prefer morning, some afternoon; some write by hand, some type at computers; some need silence, some do well with children running through the room. The common denominator in success is perseverance: keeping at it, staying with it. Like a baseball player, you might get a hit the first time up and then strike out four times. Similarly, you might strike out in the first inning and hit a game-winning home run in the ninth.
When you do get stuck, ask yourself if you have done enough reporting. If the answer is yes and you still are stuck, you might try to describe to a friend what you saw or found out; type your good quotations, write lead-ins and follow-ups to them, and then eliminate some of the quotations; imagine yourself telling the story to a childand then, and then. When the writing is going very poorly, you might try typing a page or two quickly without worrying about the sense of it; then print out the page(s), circle what is important, and rearrange the circled materials into an outline.
Other writing tips include: Be sure to identify in some way the people you quote or cite; vary sentence structure and length; andas T. S. Eliot said when a young writer asked for advicewhen it is cold, wear long underwear. For a good, brief compilation of basic stylistic pointers, you might pick up the classic and readily available little book by Will Strunk and E. B. White entitled The Elements of Style.
Of the several different types of endings, summary endings (like summary leads) are functional but weak. Four popular kinds of endings are the metaphorical, the next step, the nail-it-shut, and the circular. With all four kinds, do not hesitate to appeal to the emotions as well as to the intellect.
A metaphorical ending works well when you want to evoke a response either by making a biblical reference or placing the problem you have reported on in some other cultural context. For example, a story on the highly publicized tug-of-war concerning an adopted child ended, "No one is proposing that the child be cut in half physically; most people are hoping that Jessica will not be sliced and diced emotionally."
The next-step ending tells readers what happened after the time span emphasized in the article. Here is the end of a story about a woman who did abortions in China but escaped having one herself.
The nail-it-shut quotation has one of the persons quoted strongly elucidating the storys central theme.
We have already discussed circular structure in stories; circular endings that bring back for a final look a central character of the article can increase reader identification.
In all these types, look to make a Christocentric point if you can do so without preaching at readers or seeming smarmy. An article about illegal Chinese immigrants in jail ended powerfully.
Now as in the past, only that power can yank humanity out of sin and individual men and women from the clutches of those still totally captive to it.
Some of my favorite headlines, of the many excellent ones written by World managing editor Nickolas Eicher, are "No Advance, No Retreat," to discuss Newt Gingrichs decision to turn down a book advance but stick with his writing plans; "PC on the Pecos," concerning a review of a new, ideologically up-to-date Disney movie, Tall Tale; "God Save the Monarch," over a story concerning butterflies; "firstname.lastname@example.org," for a story about computer pornography, pedophiles, and children; "Political Science," for an article about how the federal governments subsidies for scientific projects do better at propping up particular interests than promoting breakthroughs; and "Foundation of Lies," concerning the Foundation for New Era Philanthropys pyramid scheme.
There are some technical details to be mastered, but the bottom line on these top lines should be: Have fun.
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