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The Lede Desk: Fighting the Scourge of Boring Writing


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newspaperIt was a dark and stormy night in New York City, so why was I instead  slouching on my couch in sunny Rome?

Because I was concocting a weather report-anecdote-question-postural opening for this blog post.

It is probably safe to say that no journalist is fully immune from cliches, especially in the openings of their articles, which many of us insist on calling ledes (in that cliquish, intentionally misspelled way, just like we write “graf” for paragraph, “hed” for headline, and so on).

To curb the plague (or fight the scourge, or buck the trend, or stem the tide) of the cliche lede, some time in the 1990s Steve Twomey, who at the time was a writer assistant national editor at the San Jose Mercury News, distributed a memorandum around the paper’s newsroom. The memo came from a fictional Lede Desk. Twomey, who had won a Pulitzer Prize for a fantastic feature article he had published in 1987 in the Philadelphia Inquirer, knows a thing or two about writing well, and the memo (to which, he says, other Merc writers also contributed) showed by example how not to write a lede.

When I studied science writing at the University of California, Santa Cruz, one of my teachers of newspaper news writing, Glennda Chui–who at the time was a science writer at the Mercury News–distributed copies of the Lede Desk Memo to her class, and I have religiously kept those pages with me all these years.

Glennda, who herself shared a Pulitzer Prize with other Mercury News staff for their coverage of the Loma Prieta earthquake of 1989, has graciously given me permission to post the memo here, and so has Twomey. I hope it will help future journalists to avoid falling into the same traps. (It’s really hard to say anything without using cliches, isn’t it?)

I certainly have violated many of these rules in my ledes over the years (including rule 2, rule 3, rule 6 and rule 10). I hope Glennda will forgive me.

So, what do Davide Castelvecchi and two Pulitzer Prize winners have in common? Not a lot, unfortunately, but we all do love the Lede Desk.

The San Jose Mercury News Lede Desk Memo

Before all future stories go belly-up, bringing the Mercury News to a crossroads and necessitating sweeping recommendations in the wake of diminishing sales, welcome to the lede desk. Or meet the lede desk. Or this is the story of the lede desk. You’ll catch on. What if all stories began like these:

1. First, the good news: On one occasion, many years ago, this kind of lede worked. Now the bad news: It doesn’t anymore.

2. What do you use when you can’t think of a lede?
A question.

3. “Whenever I feel stymied for an opening, I find a good quote and use that,” said Joe Reporter.
“Yeah,” said his assigning editor, “that’s always a cheap and dull-as-shit way to start a story that no one will read.”

4. Joe Reporter leaned back in his chair, put his feet up on his chair and admitted that describing how someone was sitting was a pretty stupid way to begin a story.

5. Outside, the snow lay deep and crisp and even. The sky was a deep, cloudless blue, the temperature hovered at zero, the wind howled out of the west.
Inside, a reporter had opted to give the weather rather than think of a better lede.

6. When Joe Reporter got back to the office one day not long ago, he plopped himself down in the newspaper morgue, hauled a couple of stacks of old papers and sifted through page after page, looking for a good idea for a lede.
He decided to use an anecdote.

7. Take one vague story idea and an 18-inch hole on the page, add a couple hours of mediocre interviews and two old clips. What do you get?
The desperation recipe lede.

8. Like the captain of the ship of state, piloting his country through the turbulent waters of international seas, a reporter often finds himself facing waves of doubt about his lede, and ultimately he turns to what he thinks is a safe harbor, the metaphor or simile lede.
There, his lede sinks.

9. What do a lazy reporter at the Mercury News, an unthinking editor at the San Francisco Chronicle and sleepy copyeditors at the San Francisco Examiner all have in common?
They all just love to pieces the “what do these things have in common” lede.

Real life example: (INSIGHT News Service) TORONTO — What do nuclear waste and retired people have in common?

10. You might think it’s great to set up a false premise in the lede, only to knock it down in the second graf before getting to what you really mean to say.
You’d be wrong.

11. When Joe Reporter left home that morning, little did he know that when he turned in his lede, his editor would spike it.
Joe had failed at predicting the future.

Real life examples:
Knight-Ridder Newspapers – When Robert Stevenson went out drinking last night, he didn’t expect to pay with his life.
OAKLAND, Calif., June 29 /PRNewswire/ – When Nancy Seymour went shopping for ice cream last week, little did she know the experience would save her life.

12. Do you often find yourself meeting someone in the lede of a story who you found to be pretty hackneyed in the introduction?
Meet the “Meet Joe Interesting” lede.

13. Consider the following; ledes that ask you to ‘consider the following’ are showing up with increasing frequency in this newspaper.

Many thanks to Steve Twomey and Glennda Chui for their permission to reproduce the Lede Desk Memo.
Image courtesy of ArtFavor/Open Clip Art Library

About the Author: Davide Castelvecchi is a freelance science writer based in Rome and a contributing editor for Scientific American magazine. Follow on Twitter @dcastelvecchi.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.






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