Friday, July 08, 2011

How not to write ledes

Dogs flew spaceships! The Aztecs invented the vacation! And when it comes to lede writing, everything in your J-textbook is wrong!

The Oakland County Sheriff's Office said Thursday that police and U.S. marshals in St. Paul, Minn., arrested 34-year-old Darius M. McCrary, who is the suspect in the fatal shooting of his ex-girlfriend in front of her children last Thanksgiving.

Here are some mildly heretical suggestions to keep you from producing the same sort of thing:
1) The active voice is overrated
2) Outcome is more important than process
3) All facts are (ideally) true, but not all facts are equal

Notice how much active voice we have to wade through before anything interesting turns up. In the main clause, an office is saying something. Look at the size of the subject noun phrase in the complement clause: "Police and U.S. marshals in St. Paul, Minn." At last, we get to an interesting verb: "arrested." But its magic effects don't last long, because if you aren't keeping up with the daily doings of 34-year-old Darius M. McCrary, you aren't given much reason to read on.

Let's start with some basic assumptions. Sometimes it's more important to know who said something; sometimes it's more important to know what was said.  Most arrests are going to fall into the latter category. That's going to move the local constabulary to the far end of the lede. Second, your choice of verb voice should reflect what you want to emphasize. In most arrests, again, that's unlikely to be the agency doing the arresting. (Exceptions should be obvious: "A newly formed anti-cluelessness unit of the Grammar Police arrested three peevologists Thursday.") Third, your instincts about who qualifies as a "headline name" are probably better than you think. If you're thinking that most nonpublic people should be introduced by residence, occupation, the event that made them prominent, or something similar, rather than by name, you're right. Taken together, that points toward:

A man accused of killing his ex-girlfriend in front of her children on Thanksgiving has been arrested in Minnesota, police said Thursday.

Embrace the passive! Favor outcomes over procedures! You too can preserve all the pathos in barely half the space.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

The revised version also makes clear that the shooting, rather than the arrest, was in front of the children.

6:27 PM, July 10, 2011  

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