Take, for example, the lead story in The New York Times on Sunday, November 8, 2009, headlined “Sweeping Health Care Plan Passes House.”… The 1,456-word report begins:
Handing President Obama a hard-fought victory, the House narrowly approved a sweeping overhaul of the nation’s health care system on Saturday night, advancing legislation that Democrats said could stand as their defining social policy achievement.
Fewer than half the words in this opening sentence are devoted to saying what happened. If someone saw you reading the paper and asked, “So what’s going on?,” you would not likely begin by saying that President Obama had won a hard-fought victory. You would say, “The House passed health-care reform last night.” And maybe, “It was a close vote.” And just possibly, “There was a kerfuffle about abortion.” You would not likely refer to “a sweeping overhaul of the nation’s health care system,” as if your friend was unaware that health-care reform was going on. Nor would you feel the need to inform your friend first thing that unnamed Democrats were bragging about what a big deal this is—an unsurprising development if ever there was one.
Michael Kinsley starts this piece with the subhead “Newspaper articles are too long,” and he nearly lost me right there with that too-short, too-simplistic statement. I figured it was just another newspaper-bashing article for the sake of bashing newspapers. Long-form writing is exactly what newspapers are good for and what will secure their continued place in the media mix of all but dilettantes.
Turns out, however, that Kinsley is not really complaining about long articles but about long-winded writing. And there he has a good point. His example is spot on highlighting the difference between what the lead of this article says and what the average person would say in explaining the same thing.
I might quibble with some of Kinsley’s other editing suggestions – there is no one way to write anything, like there is no one way to paint a picture and no one way to pimp your ride. It is a mixture of creativity and technique.
But the lead is the indisputable critical text in any text. It is the first impression that you never get a second chance to make. And if it does not connect, odds are the reader is gone – just like I was almost gone with Kinsley’s subhead because it did not correctly or clearly explain his point.
Get the lead right and all else falls in place. In a daily newspaper news section, if you’re really using the medium to its best advantage, that means get to the point.