Weekly Propaedeutics Newsletter Week 5, April 3, 2011

from Matthew Robertson, The Epoch Times

1. From Murray’s book.


Look closely at lead writing from the inside. Usually we look at good leads after they are written. We need as well to look at the techniques that produce effective leads.

Three seconds and the reader decides to read or turn to the next story. That’s all the time you have to catch the reader’s glance and hold it; all the time you have to entice and inform. Let’s look at the design of my first paragraph:

Three seconds and the reader decides to read or turn [2] to the next story. That’s all the time you have to catch a reader’s glan[3]ce and hold it; all the time you have to[1] entice and inform.

The point of emphasis are at the beginning and the end of the paragraph; the points which will draw a reader to significant information.
I could have written that first paragraph in this way:

The time it takes most readers to decide to read a story or go on to another story is three seconds. The writer has to entice and inform, to catch the reader’s glance and hold it, all in a very short time.

I think the first paragraph is more effective because the significant information is at the points of emphasis. Not all paragraphs should be written in this way, but it is a technique that can help some weak leads become strong leads.

Three 2-3-1 principle can help other paragraphs in the story, and it is also good to remember in organizing an entire piece of writing, for studies have shown that readers remember best what they read last.


I do not like the term is “delayed lead,” because the lead is what the reader reads first.

Sometimes the reader reads a direct statement of the news first. Other times the reader is given an anecdote, a description of a place, an introduction to a person, a quotation, or any number of other techniques that are variations on the direct, hard news lead.

John McPhee is one of the best nonfiction writers of our time. Most of his books are in paper editions. One of the best ways to introduce yourself to McPhee is The John McPhee Reader, edited by William L. Howarth, which has a fascinating introduction describing McPhee’s work habits.

McPhee’s remark when he spoke at the University of New Hampshire about writing leads was worthy of close attention:

“The first part — the lead, the beginning — is the hardest part of all to write. I’ve often heard writers say that if you have written your lead you have written 90% of the story. You have tens of thousands of words to choose from, after all — and any one can start a story, then one after that, and so forth. And your material — at this point — is all fresh and unused, so you don’t have the advantage of being in the middle of things. You can start in any number of places. What would you choose?
It is easy to say what not to choose. A lead should not be cheap, flashy, meretricious, blaring a great fanfare of trumpets and then a mouse comes out of its hole. Blind leads — wherein you with hold the name of the subject and reveal it after a paragraph or so — range from the slightly cheap to the very cheap. I used to love doing blind leads.
Leads must be sound. They should never promise what does not follow. You pick up the newspaper and read an exciting action lead about a man being gunned down in the street. Then the story turns out to be about the debt structures in Chicago banks.
Leads are the flashlights that shine down the story.”

2. Recommended readings:
World Wide Words: Right as rain http://j.mp/gLnKxJ – “Right as rain” is a latecomer to an illustrious collection of curious similes.
The Worst of Times by Jacob Laksin – City Journal http://j.mp/hgdE48 how nyt is on the decline
Respecting Teachers in the Sunshine State by Marcus A. Winters – City Journal http://j.mp/foJiNY

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