Readers’ Plea: Get to the Point
What journalists call “anecdotal leads” are like the drip, drip, drip of water torture to some readers, who want the facts fast and clean and don’t want reporters “to fluff it up,” as an old rewrite man once put it.
Straight leads are most often seen on breaking news stories. Anecdotal or feature leads usually give a fresh perspective, especially when readers have heard or seen the main elements on radio, television or the Internet.
Complaints on anecdotal leads have been steady; they spiked when I asked readers in my March 11 column for their opinions on story length. While many readers asked for brevity, some were highly critical, as one Silver Spring reader was, of “too many long anecdotal openings, often reaching the point only after 15-plus paragraphs (I’ve counted them). Send reporters to journalism refresher courses to learn the W’s. These can be skillfully woven into the lead by a careful writer.”
The five W’s are who, what, where, when and why; that’s the way leads were written for years. But that began to change in the 1970s when anecdotal leads emerged as a way to pull readers into a story. Research showed that readers wanted the human element and reporters liked the literary leeway.
Those reasons don’t cut it with some readers, who find it aggravating not to know for several paragraphs exactly what the story’s point is.
John Schappi of the District wrote: “Our problem is not with the length of the story but with the length of time it takes to find out what the story is about. . . . We are given stories that start off with human interest anecdotes that make you read through several paragraphs and, all too often, even to the jump to learn what the subject is.
“I’ve dubbed these stories “Look, Ma! I’m writing!” because they seem designed to show off the author’s storytelling capabilities rather than his/her reporting skills.”
His daughter, Ann Schappi of Alexandria, agreed: “The interesting thing is that papers are more than a dozen years behind the news trends — feature-style writing was a fine way to lure the ‘non-news reader’ into buying the paper in the pre-Internet days. Now, people are on information overload and used to Blackberry-screensized bits of meaning. So you better write tight and get to the point fast — if you don’t grab the readers’ attention in the first one to three sentences, most aren’t going to bother reading further.”
David Slone of the Charlottesville area made this point: “The focus of your paper should be on the time it takes for folks to read and understand the news you present. . . . Make the reader the focus — not the writer or the narrative strength of the piece.”
That’s easier said than done. A strong narrative is something good reporters live to write. But you have to have talent to pull it off.
Looking at editions from Monday through Thursday this week, stories on Page 1 and the Metro section cover tilted toward straight leads — 25, compared with 19 anecdotal leads. Style had mostly feature leads, and Business stories were a mix. Feature leads are a staple in Sports, because ardent fans already know the scores and often the details of games the night before.
Roy Peter Clark, a senior scholar and writing teacher at the Poynter Institute, a school for journalists in St. Petersburg, Fla., has pushed anecdotal leads for 30 years as a way to freshen newspaper writing.
“A lead is a promise of what else is to come. Most newspaper writing was stale and conventional. Most leads were stuffed with facts and were incomprehensible. They shoved every- thing in the suitcase of the first paragraph and then sat on the suitcase until it closed,” Clark said. “There is an inevitable tendency of storytellers to build up to the important news, sometimes to readers’ benefit and sometimes to the readers’ detriment.”
But he still likes his news stories straight. “The more important the news is in the article, the more important it is that you deliver it early.” Exactly.
My rule as an editor was that readers had to be certain what was happening by the fourth paragraph, which can be done by putting in a “nut graph” that tells readers why a story is important.
Clark sees problems when such beginnings lead a reader the wrong way — bait and switch. Or when a dramatic anecdote doesn’t fairly represent the rest of the story. Or worst of all, when the anecdote is too long or uninteresting and the reader falls away because “the reporter dumps the rest of the stuff in his notebook in the story.”
Tom Rosenstiel, director of the Project for Excellence in Journalism, thinks reporters should be “very judicious” about anecdotal leads. “Nothing tells a story better than a killer anecdote. If the story is newsy at all, there are ways to use anecdotes right beneath the lead.”
Not one reader complained about the anecdotal leads on the stories about the problems at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, because the articles grabbed you immediately with facts and led you to the reporters’ conclusion quickly and compellingly.
No matter how it’s written, a lead should draw an interested reader into a story. If it doesn’t, the lead fails. The Post must respect readers’ time by quickly making it clear what a story is about. Deborah Howell can be reached at 202-334-7582 or at ombudsman@ washpost.com.