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Posted at 9:28 AM ET, 12/20/2010

John McPhee on writing leads

By Ian Shapira

John McPhee knows how to lure readers into his stories. Even if those stories are about the seeming monotony of truck drivers, McPhee, a Princeton writing professor and New Yorker magazine writer, can get you right away. In Saturday's Wall Street Journal, Prof. McPhee teaches readers and writers the craftsmanship behind the lead.

Here's his lead:

You're wading around in your notes, getting nowhere. You don't see a structure for the piece you're trying to write. You don't know what to do. So you stop everything and hunt through your mind for a good beginning, a good way to scissor in. Then do it; write it; get a lead on paper.

Pretty good lead. He's setting up the scene of tension, that moment all writers feel when they blink at the screen, feel nothing, then go to Starbucks, and approximately five hours later tap out something that might possibly work.

Then, he offers an example of someone's bad lead but doesn't the cite the author or publication:

Here is an egregiously bad one from an article on chronic sleeplessness: "Insomnia is the triumph of mind over mattress." Why is that bad? It's not bad at all if you want to be a slapstick comedian. But if you are serious about the subject, you are indicating at the outset that you don't have confidence in your material, so you are trying to make up for it by waxing cute.

(You're probably wondering what unsuspecting writer out there just became the target of a Pulitzer Prize winner's lesson on writing leads. McPhee politely does not say.)

Eventually, McPhee gets around to parceling out his tips: Avoid "blind leads. " These are the leads in which you withhold the name of the person you're writing about -- building up the reader's expectations, forcing them to guess, who could it be? -- and finally, after a few suspenseful paragraphs, reveal the identity. Blind leads, essentially, are a gimmick.

Finally, in the last few paragraphs, McPhee gives us some ingredients in the secret sauce: "The lead, like the title, should be a flashlight that shines down into the story...A lead is good not because it dances, fires cannons or whistles like a train, but because it is absolute to what follows."

That seems logical. But sometimes I like it when stories veer off in the end and take you in a direction that is not absolutely tied to the top. In the case of McPhee's piece on leads, I wished, at the end, he could have given some advice on kickers.


By Ian Shapira  | December 20, 2010; 9:28 AM ET
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Comments

I wish your Style writers would learn to lead. More than once, I've given up 3-4 paragraphs in because I don't know what the story is about.

Re kickers: Sometimes they reveal the writer's bias or POV. It can put the entire article in context--for good or bad.

Bob Griendling
www.NewsCommonsense.com

Posted by: bob16 | December 21, 2010 1:05 PM | Report abuse

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