Writing Under Pressure: Capturing It All in 40 Words or So

  By Mike Feinsilber

“Why, no. You simply sit down at the typewriter, open your veins and bleed.” –Sports columnist Red Smith when asked if writing is hard.

It was a prestige assignment, but a tough one. Reporters sat before computer screens at the political conventions and puzzled over how to come up with a first paragraph that would sum up what they and most of their readers had just witnessed. Writing a good lead under deadline pressure is always a challenge. Reporters who do it see scant exaggeration in Red Smith’s characterization of it as a bloodletting.

Not only must reporters produce a one paragraph summary of what they, alone or in consultation with editors, judged was the news of the night, they must also get into that first paragraph:
*A suggestion of the atmosphere, the emotion, the context.
*A whiff of analysis, giving the reader another’s perspective on what he’s witnessed.
*With luck, a touch of elegance, too, some music to go with the words.
And the clock is ticking.

The lead must be clear, immediately graspable. It fails if it isn’t. A lead’s additional purpose is to draw the reader into graf 2. (Graf 2 is also tough; if it only elaborates on the lead, the reader is likely to find something else to occupy his mind. My suspicion is that readers are always looking for reasons not to read.)

For this exercise in second guessing, let’s look at the leads published by the New York Times, Washington Post and Wall Street Journal after nights three and four of the Democratic convention. Bear in mind that, whatever bylines rode atop these stories, the leads may well reflect the hidden hands of copy editors or, since these were important stories, their bosses. Lots of Monday morning quarterbacking goes on in daily journalism.

At the bottom of this enterprise, I’ll identify the papers which ran the leads under examination. If you’re a close reader of newspapers, you might be able to sense which papers ran which leads.

Thursday, September 6

Lead 1:    CHARLOTTE, N. C. – Democrats led by former President Bill Clinton gave a rousing defense of Democratic economic philosophies Wednesday, promising that re-electing President Barack Obama would produce changes in an economic system they said was often stacked against the middle class.

I like “rousing defense.” It certainly was that and “rousing” gives this lead energy.
I stumbled on “Democratic economic philosophies.”  Seems to me they were defending one Democrat’s economic philosophy, singular. That distracting plural was used because the structure of the sentence dictated it.
My chief gripe concerns that dangling participle,  “promising that …” People think in subject/predicate sentences and tucking a new element into the lead  confuses; readers forget the start of the sentence.
Lots of verbs in this busy lead – led, gave, promising, re-electing, would produce, said, stacked. Too many verbs have a follow-the-bouncing ball effect. People don’t know which is the verb that drives the sentence.
Final nitpick: the  “often” adds a needless word.

Lead 2: CHARLOTTE, N. C. – Former President Bill Clinton and President Obama hugged on stage Wednesday night after Mr. Clinton delivered an impassioned plea on behalf of Mr. Obama’s re-election, the 42nd president nominating the 44th to a second term with a forceful and spirited argument that Democratic values would restore the promise of the middle class.

Was that Clinton-Obama embrace important enough to make it the subject of this sentence? Nah. The writer was looking for drama but these hugs have become conventional at conventions.
I’m no fan of the overused “after” le.ad – this happened after that happened. People like things told chronologically. (A journalist writes: Three passengers and the pilot walked away safely Friday after their place crash-landed…  A civilian says: A small plane crashed into a field and the three people aboard and the pilot walked away safely!)
“Impassioned” – good word choice, right on target. I also liked “forceful and spirited.”
But is anything achieved with that 42nd-44th arithmetic? Seems contrived. Including the 42nd-44th device, we have three references in this lead to Clinton and three to Obama, all in one crowded sentence.
Interesting that this is the second lead using the phrase “middle class.”
This is a long lead, but the verb count is held to four – hugged, devoted, nominating, would restore.
And this lead, more than any other here at least offers some music.

Lead 3: CHARLOTTE  — Former president Bill Clinton delivered a spirited defense of President Obama’s handling of the nation’s struggling economy here Wednesday night, criticizing the agenda and philosophy of Mitt Romney and accusing the Republican party of ideological rigidity and an unwillingness to compromise.

This is a double dangler with Clinton both criticizing and accusing. That said, there’s meat in this lead: Clinton’s accusations are spelled out. That element is missing in leads 1 and 2.
“Spirited” is another good descriptive.
The “here” is unnecessary and a bit old-fashioned. The dateline tells where it happened.
The phrase “ideological rigidity” says a lot in two words.

Friday, September 7, 2012
Lead 4:  CHARLOTTE, N.C. – President Obama accepted the Democratic nomination for a second term on Thursday night, making a forceful argument that he had rescued the economy from disaster and ushered in a recovery that would be imperiled by a return to Republican stewardship.

Another dangler, but this one strikes me as unobjectionable. “Forceful” is a good word choice.
This lead captures the partisan nature of Obama’s speech. Everyone knows that he accepted renomination – no news there – but it still seems appropriate to say so anyway.
Verb count: 5.
I like this lead, best of the lot.

Lead 5: CHARLOTTE, N.C. – President Barack Obama portrayed himself as a stout defender of the middle class and a leader with a plan to create jobs across the U.S. economy in a speech Thursday accepting the Democratic nomination for re-election.

To my ear, “portrayed himself” carries a tinge of skepticism, perhaps purposely. “Leader with a plan to create jobs across the U.S. economy” seems labored. And “stout” seems forced. The writers didn’t mean “corpulent” but that’s what came to my mind.

Lead 6: CHARLOTTE – President Obama appealed to the nation Thursday night for another four years in office, asserting that his policies are slowly returning the country to economic prosperity while arguing that his Republican opponents would pursue a course that would set the country back and harm the well-being of middle-class families.

“Appealed to the nation” is a powerful phrase, especially at the start of the lead.
Another double dangler – asserting and arguing — with a lot trailing behind them.
Would anything be lost if the final phrase read: would set the country back and harm middle-class families. That trims seven words from a long lead.
More nits: “another four years in office” could be “another term” with nothing lost; “economic prosperity” seems redundant; “prosperity” says it all.  And that double “would” – “would pursue a course that would set” is downright ugly.

The moral: Read what you’ve written. If it is good, it could be better. Read it again through your reader’s eyes. Red Smith notwithstanding, you don’t have to bleed. Breaking a sweat is OK.

The sources: Lead 1: Wall Street Journal; Lead 2: New York Times; Lead 3: Washington Post; Lead 4: New York Times; Lead 5: Wall Street Journal; Lead 6: Washington Post.

  As a reporter, Mike Feinsilber attended 18 political conventions. That’s a lot considering they only occur every four years.

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