| Skilled writers write leads to their stories that are compelling, clear and concise. But copy editors sometimes encounter leads that do not meet those important standards. In such instances, the editor is obliged to improve the lead's quality. Here are some of the issues that arise in flawed leads.
Wordy Leads: Most brief statements are easy to understand. Leads need to be easily understood. So brief leads are desirable. But leads must give the reader the essence of the story. Often that obligation tempts a reporter to load up the lead with a horde of facts and scores of words. Writers (or their copy editors) rebuffed such temptation when creating these classic leads:
Today, the Japanese fleet submitted itself to the destinies of war — and lost.
The moon still shines on the moonshine stills in the hills of Pennsylvania.
In the beginning, God created the heaven and the earth. (Book of Genesis)
Only in Russia could Peter and the Wolf die on the same night. (Stalin's death)
Fifty thousand Irishmen — by birth, by adoption and by profession — marched up Fifth Avenue today.
Misleading Leads: A writer's determination to write a compelling lead can prompt such sins as distortion, overstatement and editorializing. Copy editors must prune away any such flaws. The lead should be a straightforward summary of the story or its essence. It should accurately set the mood and tone of the story. It should guide, induce and direct. But it must be accurate and supported by the body of the story. Good editors avidly combat misleading leads. An important tip: Whenever possible, read a story through before you begin to edit. That gives you a broader perspective from which to work, which will improve your editing. It also provides an opportunity to determine if the writer has captured what the story really is (or, at least, what the writer is trying to tell you what the story really is.)
Illogical Leads: Non sequiturs can lead to illogical leads. So can the practice of backing into an idea. Look at this flawed example and an improved version:
Example (flawed): Hoping to reduce a flood of over-budget spending that has plagued the city government for the first six months of this fiscal year, all five city council members voted last night to add the positions of purchasing agent and a data processing manager to the city payroll.
(Sounds illogical to add jobs to reduce spending, doesn't it?)
Example (improved): City council members agreed last night that the city could save money with more professional purchasing practices and more effective use of computers.
Council members voted to hire a purchasing agent and a data processing manager as part of an effort to combat six months of over-budget spending.
Backed-Into Leads: Some of us are attracted to chronological order. Such an attraction can result in stories that read like the minutes of a meeting. The most interesting stuff may not show up until paragraph 19. With each story you edit, ask yourself: Does the most interesting and important stuff show up in the lead — and do so quickly? If not, fix it.
The city council met last night to discuss creation of two new positions.
After a lengthy discussion, the city council voted 7-0 to create two new positions on the city's administrative staff to deal with purchasing and data processing.
The two positions, purchasing agent and data processingagent, will be filled as soon as possible, Mayor Mike Amyx said. She said the city clerk would advertise the positions in accordance to state hiring practices.
The two positions are being created because . . .
(Oh, fourth paragraph and, finally, the news. But this is just an example, and I didn't want to make you read a 10- or 20-paragraph story. Sometimes the real news is buried much deeper into the story. Seek it out, then either have the writer move the news to the top or, if the writer is not available, do it yourself.)