A visit with your writing coach: The perils of the anecdotal lead

Transcript:

When I discuss news writing on talk shows, listeners usually call in to complain about the anecdotal lead. Not that they know what to call it, but they do know how to describe it. Their complaints go something like this:

“I hate beginnings that don’t have any news in them. I hate beginnings that bore me with someone I don’t know who is doing something I’m not interested in. I hate to plow through all that stuff before I get to the news.”

If I ask for an example, they say: “All you have to do is look in today’s paper.” So I look in today’s paper, and this is the first lead I read:

“Dee Drake put down the rag she had been using to wipe the counter, put her hands on her hips and exhaled a small, exasperated sigh. It was another day of government gridlock, and the news out of Washington, playing on the television set above the bar, called for more of the same . . . . “My husband’s on Social Security and Medicare,” said Ms. Drake, the bartender at Alonzo’s Station Tavern, and resumed her wiping.”

Who would guess that this story is a report on the economy?

It’s hard to understand the media’s attachment to anecdotal leads. Most such leads are attempts to humanize stories. We begin with one person—a microcosm intended to represent macrocosm. When it works, fine. But it usually doesn’t work because most anecdotes are less interesting than the article itself and are therefore merely tedious impediments that delay the story. Check out the following anecdotal leads:

  • “It wasn’t gossip but good news that sent Georgine Farrill scrambling Saturday afternoon to call neighbor Charlotte Smith.”
  • “Aimee and Mark SooSoo owed so much money on their credit cards that the minimum payments alone added up to $2,000 a month.”
  • “It’s a sign of our changing times that LaRue Templeton showed up for the interview wearing a jump suit.”

The first thing we ask when reading such leads is “WHO?” Then our minds wander to other imponderables: So gossip sends Georgine Farrill scrambling? Is the SooSoo surname spelled correctly on their credit cards? How does LaRue’s jumpsuit signal “our changing times”?

To see how wrong-headed this approach is, consider that you and I meet not on the printed page or computer screen, but face to face. Would I begin our conversation by telling you that Georgine Farrill, whom you don’t know, phoned Charlotte Smith, whom you also don’t know? Or that the SooSoos, who live near Detroit and whom you’ve never met, are in debt? Or that LaRue Templeton, whoever he is, wears a jump suit that proves times are a-changin’?

Of course not. Such face-to-face approaches would be as bewildering and annoying as they are boring. So why the media’s blithe assumption that they would work in writing?

Such leads proliferate in part because some editors insist that writers get a human being in the lead—as if that were some journalistic Holy Grail. But just being human isn’t intriguing, and where did we get the idea it was? If the people in the lead are both unknown and dull, how could that capture our interest?

Consider an inherently interesting story—the closing of a hospital. In this case, Capitol Hill Hospital in Washington, D.C. Now, how do you close a hospital? What happens to all that equipment? You can’t just unplug it. What happens to the staff? What happens to the patients? Are they and their tubes wheeled to the exit on gurneys and stuffed into a U-Haul? See how fascinating this is?

Yet here’s the actual lead on the closing of Capitol Hill Hospital: “Rosalie Hansen placed her last patient yesterday.”

In focusing on one unknown employee and her uninteresting task, this humdrum lead ignores everything that could fascinate.

When you ask reporters or editors about anecdotal leads, they say they don’t usually find them interesting, either—but the readers do. Really? Who said? The readers themselves say they don’t find them interesting. We’re just not listening.

So we read: “Larry Nix and his wife, Linda, celebrate their birthdays, as well as their wedding anniversary, in May.” Now there’s a riveting piece of information. Or we read: “The tall fence, small cells, and prison scrubs are familiar to Yvette Jones, a Richland Hills Resident who said she used to work at a Texas prison.”

These are stories about (surprise!) a gift certificate scam and a protest against detaining immigrant families—both inherently interesting because of their news value. Their leads should have, but did not, reflect that news.

That’s not to say all anecdotal leads are bad. Some work well—forming a seamless and natural segue from anecdote to story. But when they work, it’s because of one vital factor: Both subject and anecdote capture our interest.


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Paula LaRocque, one of America's foremost writing coaches, is an author, editor, and communications consultant. She has conducted writing workshops for hundreds of media, government, academic, and business groups across the United States, Canada, and Europe. She has also been a writing consultant for the Associated Press, the Drehscheibe Institute in Bonn, and the European Stars & Stripes in Germany. She has been a columnist for the Society of Professional Journalists' Quill magazine for more than 20 years. Her commentaries air regularly on National Public Radio in Dallas. She is also the author of three books on writing. Since leaving The Dallas Morning News in 2001, Paula has been writing fiction and has completed the first two of a mystery novel series. Currently, she's a member of the Mystery Writers of America, Sisters in Crime, Inc., and the Dallas-Fort Worth Writers Workshop.