During this week’s Slate Culture Gabfest podcast, Dana Stevens, a regular returning from book leave, noted her writing problems: the things she does that she notices when editors point them out. One of them she mentioned was “long windups.” It brought back memories; I, too, suffer from that writing fault.
In journalism, the first paragraph of a story is known as the lede, so spelled to distinguish it from lead, the metal used to make type. The coinage always irritated me, since I cannot imagine a sentence in which you could mistake one for the other. “I don’t like the lead on this story.” Could that possibly refer to the type in the pressroom? “This linotype machine isn’t working because the lead is too cold.” Is there any universe in which the first paragraph of a story could affect the operation of a typesetting machine (linotype machines were the devices used to set type for newspapers before computers. Each had a pot of molten lead. Did you think I meant “molten first paragraphs of stories”?)
Anyway, I was thrust into the past by the comment because I, too, had a problem with long wind-ups, AKA overwrought lead paragraphs. In the days when stories were typed on paper, I would often burn through one or two dozen sheets trying to get the first paragraph right. I rarely had trouble after that.
Newspaper stories are organized in an “inverted pyramid” which means the first paragraph should contain sufficient information that you could know what the story was about just from reading it. The most important information comes first, followed by successively less important information. This organizational form was required in the days of nearly illiterate press operators, who had to cut stories without the aid of editors at the last minute. In an inverted pyramid, you never ran the risk of losing important information.
The lede in a newspaper theoretically included who, what, when and where and why (The 5 Ws). Most of mine did.
Magazine ledes, on the other hand, are different, as I discovered in 1986. Magazine articles are, for the most part, not organized as inverted pyramids. The lede is usually a scene setter, and almost never deals with the five Ws. It can be a quote or an anecdote. The 5 Ws are generally dealt with a few paragraphs later, in what is known as the “nut graf.” (Yes, journalists also have another spelling for paragraph) Important information should be spread evenly throughout the article.
In fact, many magazine articles end, not with the least important information, but with a “kicker,” which is often the best quotation of the story. Alternatively, magazine articles can also end with “only the future will tell,” which offers questions or predictions about the future.
In a way, nearly everything I have written to this point in this blog entry could be considered an “overwrought lede” for the small story I wish to tell on myself. I chose to consider it context.
In 1992, I went to work for Windows Magazine, where my editor was Mike Elgan. After we had worked together for a year or so, he told me one day, “In every story you turn in, you take several paragraphs to clear your throat before you actually begin telling us something.” He told me he had considered writing a Microsoft Word macro that stripped the first three paragraphs from every story I turned in, to save him the trouble. I tried, with limited success, to change my habit of long windups, overwrought ledes and throat-clearing, but, as you can see, I have it still. What some people call a fault, I prefer to think of as a style.