Journalists could learn a lot about lead-writing from nursery rhymes, which specialize in bright, natural beginnings. The tortured syntax of formula journalism — the habit, say, of beginning with a clause that delays the lead’s true business — is not for nursery rhymes.
A lead’s “true business” is usually revealed by a straightforward presentation of actor, action and acted upon. That means Jack and Jill went up the hill to get a pail of water. It means little Jack Horner sat in the corner eating a Christmas pie. It means little Bo Peep has lost her sheep and can’t tell where to find them.
What is the “true business” of the following lead?
Probing an urban legend from their Staten Island childhood — that of Cropsey, a maniacal child killer and escapee from the nearby Willowbrook mental institution — documentary filmmakers Joshua Zeman and Barbara Brancaccio expand the story to include the real disappearances of children, the hunt for (and trials of) a suspect, and the exposés of the horrific conditions of Willowbrook, which made big news in 1972 via the investigative reporting of a young Geraldo Rivera.
Must we sift through the wreckage of this sentence? It’s enough to say that it begins with a rudderless verb and anchorless phrase, interrupts its own uncertain flow with bewildering allusions to a maniac and an insane asylum, and at last introduces the lead’s subjects, filmmakers Zeman and Brancaccio. But wait! The sentence is hardly over. We now slosh through the flotsam and jetsam of missing children, a search for a suspect, the suspect’s trials, exposés of horrific conditions and — gasp! — the investigative reporting of a “young Geraldo Rivera!”
The lead’s true business? I’d guess it’s something like:
Joshua Zeman and Barbara Brancaccio’s latest documentary expands on an urban legend from the filmmakers’ Staten Island childhood.
Here’s another news lead that goes adrift:
Bowing to pressure from the Obama administration, the White House and BP on Wednesday agreed to create an independent $20 billion fund to pay claims arising from the worst oil spill in U.S history, suspend paying shareholder dividends for the rest of the year and compensate oil field workers for lost wages.
That “bowing to pressure” phrase demonstrates further hazards of “backing in” to the lead. Not only does it delay the subject (the White House and BP), but in this case that subject is wrong. The White House did not “bow to pressure” from the Obama administration; how would that work? Nor did the White House create a fund or act jointly with BP to suspend shareholder dividends and compensate oil field workers. Rather, the White House insisted that BP take those actions, and BP acted alone. Leading off with actor and action unravels this tangled syntax:
BP bowed to pressure from the Obama administration Wednesday and agreed to create an independent $20 billion fund to pay claims arising from the worst oil spill in U.S history. The company also will suspend shareholder dividends for the rest of the year and compensate oil field workers for lost wages.
Here’s another say-nothing opening phrase, from a metropolitan daily:
After months of deliberation, disagreement and diplomatic jockeying among its members, the United Nations Security Council on June 9 endorsed a resolution approving a fourth round of sanctions against Iran — sanctions critics say are watered-down and doomed to fail.
The Economist’s lead on that same story (June 12-18, 2010) reveals the lead’s “true business” by starting with the resolution:
The resolution against Iran endorsed by the United Nations Security Council on June 9th is the fruit of months of diplomatic toil. Yet even its supporters do not expect this fourth round of sanctions to succeed where the other three did not.
A final example:
Returning to solo work after recent forays with Lewis Forever, the A Team of sibling performance collectives, Isabel Lewis presents “Strange Action.”
To make this lead more meaningful, we have only to begin with Isabel and follow with the action:
Isabel Lewis is returning to solo work after her recent forays into …
The restriction against “backing in” to the lead doesn’t apply to the whole story. Once we (and the readers) are clicking along, we can vary sentence structure as needed for variety, cadence, sense, transition and logic. Reading the work aloud is our best counsel on how and when to do that.
But overall, when approaching a story, we’ll do well to remember that old Mother Hubbard went to the cupboard to fetch her poor dog a bone. And that the cow jumped over the moon. And that the owl and the pussycat went to sea in a beautiful pea-green boat.
Actor, action, acted upon: the clearest and most logical syntax English can devise. No wonder the bright beginnings of nursery rhymes have pleased readers for centuries
Paula LaRocque is author of “The Book on Writing,” “On Words” and “Championship Writing.”