Inside the NYT’s self-critical effort to energize its A-1 writing
The 10-member focus group of writers and editors was resolute in its conclusions:
Our paper has too many anecdotal leads and we often don’t think creatively about other approaches.
Our stories don’t get to the point soon enough, and they run on too long.
We pack too much material into leads.
We often don’t lace breaking news stories with enough drama or sense of the moment.
The beleaguered newspaper: The New York Times.
You gotta hand it to these guys. In a world where the best newspapers tend to be the ones that are getting worse at the slowest rate, the NYT performed a self-critiquing drill that would benefit any paper: The editors picked 10 staffers and asked them to evaluate the quality of writing on A-1 for a 10-day period in November.
A couple weeks ago, the paper distributed the criticism to the entire staff. The most interesting point–one that afflicts all news organizations–was that there is too often a timidity about NYT news stories on A-1.
“One of the most salient points that people made was that we have this habit of saving the good writing for the features, whereas most of what we do is news stories, and people don’t feel the same obligation or desire to write those stories,” Executive Editor Bill Keller was quoted in a memo prefacing the critiques. “Those are the stories, you’ve got them by the throat most of the time because news happens. Something blew up, something happened. Those are the stories where we really need the writing most. I’d like a lot more unorthodox approaches to conventional news stories.”
Here are excerpts. (Virtually every staffer took pains to point out that there is routinely a lot of wonderful writing in the NYT, but I spared you from this.) As you read, think about the biggest void in the quality of writing at your paper. If you were executive editor, what “fix” would you push hardest for?
In long takeouts and many feature articles, the nut graf often does not appear on page one, but trails off onto the jump (especially in those pieces with short page one runs) and sometimes the nut graf is lost altogether. The reason for many of these problems is the delayed lead, a technique that is much overused and should appear sparingly on the front page. Every writer working on non-breaking news sees a feature as an opportunity to show off as a writer. Fine. But many anecdotal leads run way too long, leaving readers to wonder what its all about.
We can assume that readers are going to at least look at every story on Page One. The only question is whether we can get them to read on after the first graf. So I think it is desirable to have something in that lead paragraph to lure the reader on: a word, a phrase, a concept or twist, a bit of color that suggests this is going to be fun or intriguing, perhaps a suggestion of mystery or some other invitational teaser. Donald McNeil’s piece (Nov. 6) on birders looking for early signs of avian flu is a good example:
DAVIS, Calif. — Bang! Inside an improvised duck blind — her parked car — Grace Y. Lee presses a switch, and her gun blasts a square of light volleyball net over the dirt road she is watching.
Use a quotation high up. Somewhere in the third, fourth or fifth graf of every story there ought to be a quotation, and it should be attributed to an identifiable source. There are several good reasons for doing this. One is it reinforces the point of the lead. Another is that it gives verisimilitude to a story, by including a voice other than the writers. It also gives the writer a chance to vary sentence structure, and from the readers standpoint it is a breather from the writers prose, stepping back from the lecturing voice to offer some evidence. There is another good reason for a high-up quote. It forces the writer to look through his/her notes for a voice that backs up and summarizes the point of the article. Doing this helps the writer focus on the articles fundamental point.
I think the hardest task in journalism is to write a breaking story beautifully to get the facts straight, of course, but also to vivify a report with color, detail, graceful prose and telling observation, all seamlessly woven under the gun of deadline. Many of our reporters and correspondents are great deadline writers, and their talents should be recognized as often as possible.
What I found over 10 days is that there simply wasn’t enough good writing in features as well as in hard news and analytical pieces. My impression, in fact, was that the hard-news side of the ledger was most in need of improvement. The writing there could be leaner, faster, more direct without losing the sophistication and perspective we pride ourselves on.
Too often our straight news stories were difficult, stop-and-go reads. A relatively smooth passage would often be interrupted by a thicket of words: a sentence or a paragraph clotted with clauses and qualifications or flabby with excess verbiage, requiring a second (or third) read. In a couple of cases the writing obscured the underlying point of the piece, forcing the reader almost to divine it, between the lines. I hungered for clear, brisk writing. I often grew impatient as a reader and disappointed as a Times staff member. And the thought occurred, more than once, that the writing had not kept pace with the photography and even the headlines on the page. The pictures often came at events from fresh and unexpected angles, literally and figuratively, and the headlines showed clarity and wit. But the writing was in many cases still the Gray Lady’s: dense, lofty, a bit tired, and not readily digestible homework.
I found too many clichés and overused expressions. A sampling: The initiatives are already setting off a tug of war…High-profile battles…World-class collections…A palatial office…adding clout to an already powerful City Hall that is determined to aim high…under the watchful gaze of the police…because of safety concerns…bringing much of her cast and crew to tears…a case that has already cast a long shadow over the White House…that, in a nutshell…
I found a frequent tendency to use boilerplate nobody-talks-like-this headline language in the bodies of stories: Lawyers sought to quell any speculation…the Getty is under siege…Google’s recent moves have stirred concern…A public figure is facing an indictment….the museum is facing serious questions…homeowners are facing six-figure repair bills…That line of attack deepened his political woes by helping to sow doubts…
A perennial habit that we still haven’t kicked: the impulse to throw everything into the first paragraph no, the first sentence; A two-sentence lead is a rarity.
One 54-word example:
MAR DEL PLATA, Argentina, Nov. 4 President Bush’s troubles trailed him to an international summit meeting here on Friday as anti-Bush protesters turned violent just blocks from the gathering site, and Hugo Chavez, Venezuela’s fiery populist leader, rallied a soccer stadium filled with at least 25,000 people against the United States. [Rallied a stadium?]
Perhaps the driving force is to say as much as possible before the jump, but I frequently found myself wading through one long sentence after another. To take an example: the lead story on Nov. 11, on the Senates vote to limit the rights of non-combatant detainees, offered nine mostly lengthy sentences in the page one run, each a full paragraph in most cases. The word counts were 39, 56, 50, 24, 16, 53, 23, 46, 54, 47.
Compare that to a briskly written report on the same day, right next door, about a decision by House leaders to postpone a budget bill. (The well-turned lead: Facing defeat, House Republican leaders on Thursday abruptly called off a vote on a contentious budget-cutting bill in a striking display of the discord and political anxiety running through the party’s ranks.) The word counts here were 32, 22, 25, 36, 28, 18, 42 (and the one with 36, connecting two different thoughts, could have easily been two sentences, of 24 and 12).
[Too often, McDonald says, the Times features are assesmbled as a paint-by-numbers exercise:] Step A) start assembly by introducing an unfamiliar person by name in the lead; B) attach two or three grafs of anecdotal material; be sure to use the enclosed quote applicator; C) fasten the nut graf securely (note: if the nut slips below the jump, adjustments may be necessary). So it was refreshing to come upon this feature lead, courtesy of Gardiner Harris:
LONG PRAIRIE, Minn.- Polio was pronounced dead in the Western Hemisphere years ago, after one of the most successful public health campaigns in history. But now it is stealing through a tiny Amish community here in central Minnesota, spreading from an 8-month-old girl to four children on two neighboring farms.
There was no waiting here to find out what the story was about, and though I would have avoided letting “spreading” compete with “stealing” (wonderful word choice), that second sentence is nevertheless compelling enough to pull you into the story.
Reading the front page carefully over the last week and half has left me with two principal impressions: This newspaper is really good. And this newspaper isn’t nearly good enough.
What I found especially troubling: the ways in which the shortfalls of many stories — the vagueness, flatness, familiar cadences, cliched approaches — amounted to opportunities for a reader to slip away, invitations to distraction.
Even before this exercise, I believed that one of the greatest obstacles to steady or increased readership of all newspapers, and of ours, was how busy people were, how many other ways they could get information, how many other things they could be doing. I believe that all the more now. As I read the front page, I was repeatedly struck by how infrequently I lost awareness of the time I was spending on the activity. Seldom was I tugged along so expertly or enjoyably that I became truly absorbed. Often I grew confused or bored, and thus remained conscious — or was reminded — of where and how else I might focus my energy.
When stories left me cold, the reason was often because they seemed too beholden to conventions: a drearily prefabricated structure; a predictable rhythm; a tired, almost trite Times-ian voice. I understand that convention is a necessary fallback and failsafe, given the pace of daily journalism. And part of what makes our newspaper so successful is how deftly and smoothly we do the conventional.
The story on Friday, Nov. 11 , about colicky babies and the ethnic array of potential remedies used on them could have begun with the fifth paragraph’s inventory of those remedies, which would have seemed logical, even inevitable. It could have begun with a generic anecdote or description of a baby gripped by colic.
But the way it began was more inspired, original, even organic, the product of a writer sitting down, reaching for a bit of poetry, not reaching TOO far, using crisp and short sentences, finding a novel rhythm and only occasionally stumbling, as with the forced alliteration of cornucopia of colic cures. As I read the first three sentences, I literally smiled and wanted to keep reading because I was so delighted with the energy in the approach:
Nearly 200 languages are spoken in New York City, and in all of them, the wail of a colicky baby needs no translation. Nursed, burped, rocked, changed and cuddled, the baby still howls. Is it indigestion? Gas? Nostalgia for the womb? Nobody really knows.
So in this city where 6 of 10 babies have at least one foreign-born parent and pediatricians come from every corner of the world, a cornucopia of colic cures serves as a kind of Rorschach test of child-rearing culture in migration.
The phrase “nostalgia for the womb” — terrific. That first sentence, which foreshadows the theme of cultural diversity — also terrific.
[Bruni also praised this anecdotal lead:]
A year ago, Melanie Fischer, a lifelong Californian, was not entirely sure where Missouri was. So when her husband proposed that they consider moving there, she raced to locate the state on a map printed on her children’s placemats.
On her children’s placements — what a terrific detail in a terrific lead. The lead strikes directly, in the way that the Amazon story doesn’t, to the main aspect of this story’s appeal: the unlikely nature of the migration. People in sunny, coveted California are moving to places so much less sunny, and so much less coveted, that these people don’t really know the first thing about them.
A. Ledes that we rely too heavily upon:
(1) “But” ledes: The story begins with a statement, or paints a picture, that is precisely the opposite of what the story is actually about. The word but is used to introduce the real point of the story.
There is nothing intrinsically wrong with but ledes, except that they can become lazy shorthand for better writing. And when overused, as I would suggest they were in this sampling of papers, they give the page a sense of predictability that dulls the reader to the story because he/she knows the real point is yet to come.
(2) Colon ledes: The story opens with a statement in need of elaboration, followed immediately by a colon and the elaboration.
These kinds of ledes, in moderation, are fine and sometimes quite clever, but when multiple examples occur in the same paper, or within the same story, it signals unimaginative writing or perhaps hasty rewriting. One easy test for reducing or eliminating these kinds of constructions is to remember: People don’t speak this way.
As it ran:
As Iowa finishes harvesting its second-largest corn crop in history, Roger Fray is racing to cope with the most visible challenge arising from the United States ballooning farm subsidy program: the mega corn pile.
The mega-corn pile has fast become the most visible challenge arising from the United States ballooning farm subsidy program. Soaring more than 60 feet high and spreading a football field wide, a mound of corn behind the headquarters of the West Central Cooperative here resembles a little yellow ski hill.
(3) Stranger ledes: The story opens with someone who we have never heard of before, and who in fact we will probably never hear about again. This non-person serves anecdotally to make a point that the story elaborates upon. Again, too much of a good thing is not a good thing. And there should be a particular effort to avoid using people in these sorts of ledes with names that, at best, will cause the reader to stumble and, at worst, stop reading any further.
This is not meant as a general repudiation of anecdotal ledes; sometimes they work brilliantly.
4) Official ledes: These are the ones that typically accompany government coverage and attempt to do too much in one sentence or paragraph. In a related matter, some of the big-news ledes assume too much general knowledge on the part of the reader. While we don’t want to dumb down the news, we also have to consider that on a big story especially one that leads the paper we might draw readers who otherwise wouldn’t be interested in the subject. For example, the piece about Bush in Argentina includes two shorthand references to Hugo Chavez in the first two paragraphs: “Venezuela’s fiery populist leader” and “Mr. Chavez, who has tried to use the summit meeting to stage a showdown with Mr. Bush” But we never get an explanation about why the two men are at such odds (clearly it is much more than the free trade accord.)
B. What we need more of on Page One:
(1) Dialogue/quotations that captures the way people really speak, not simply make the intended point of the setup graphs. [Pam] Belluck’s piece on floating islands on Sunday, the 6th, did this the best. “It was raining crazy,” he recalled. “I said, That winds going to blow that thing right over here. Ten minutes later it did. When it moves, it moves pretty quick.”
(2) Quotations that bring a story alive, and break up the long explanatory narrative that often runs dry. In the same Sunday paper, the piece on the Getty Trust was full of wonderful detail and information, but the sizeable front page run did not include a single voice that let us hear one of the players in his/her own words. While it is wise to shy away from the formula of set up graph, quotation, set up graph quotation, it is also unwise to keep dialogue/voices out of a story that is about people.
(3) Descriptive writing that helps bring the reader into the story and paints a picture that creates a visual image only the reporter can bring about. Though certainly disturbing in its detail, and perhaps at moments too graphic, the Tavernise piece on the Iraqi suicide bombing on Friday, the 11th, did this well: “The force of the explosion tore limbs from bodies and flung them into Abu Nuwas Street, in the heart of Baghdad, along with pieces of bread and beans from breakfast plates. A human scalp hung fro ma piece of plaster on the ceiling. ” In a war context, this kind of writing can make the reader uncomfortable, and might even offend some, but it also helps convey the horror in a straightforward and objective manner.
(4) Action. The old rule that it is usually better to write in active rather than passive voice, should have as a corollary that it is better to write actively about an event a reporter witnesses. We should have more scenes in feature stories that unfold before our eyes with the action driving the narrative. A good example of this is the McNeil piece on avian bird flu. Who can’t be drawn into a story that begins with a sound? “Bang!”
First, I think that the Times should be striving for kinetic energy at every opportunity. It should be thinking about topspin in the writing: the power of words and images to propel the reader forward. We do not always do this, sometimes because of the realities of deadline, and sometimes because of laziness.
[ As a good example, he cites] this piece, “Tornado Slams South Indiana; At Least 22 Die” serves as an example of when and how to use a quote.
Well after most of his neighbors had gone to bed, Jerry Blackburn, a resident of the Eastbrook Mobile Home Park, was up late watching television when he saw the tornado warning.
Mr. Blackburn said he called to warn his son, who lives about a half-mile away, and then set off with his wife, Judy, to his son’s home to take refuge in the basement.
”We just barely got to the foot of the steps when it hit,” Mr. Blackburn said. ”I heard this roaring noise.’
Blackburn’s quote is dramatic, succinct, and well-placed in the story.
I also liked the set-up to “In Zimbabwe, Homeless Belie Leaders Claim. The author quotes Mugabe pooh-poohing the notion of people made homeless by his “civic beautification program, quoting him from a recent television appearance. Then: “Clearly, Mr. Mugabe has not been to Bulawayo.”
Very, very nice.
Too often, I think, when looking for an alternative to a straight-news lede, we immediately fall back on the most familiar choice: a long, winding anecdote. Even when editors conclude that a long anecdotal lede isn’t effective, the options usually involve either compressing it to a slightly shorter anecdote, or switching to a straight-news approach.
But on stories that are not hard news (and even, sometimes, on straight stories too), the best ledes are often neither of the above. While it’s hard to generalize, these alternative approaches typically hit on short, grabby, surprising, often counterintuitive ways to sum up the essence of the story. Imagine if you had two sentences (o.k, maybe three, but short ones) to explain to a friend what’s fascinating about this story.
There’s no formula for such ledes, nor would we want one. But often they encapsulate a quick reversal, suggesting, in effect: You might think A, but were here to tell you, its really B. Or something like: It used to be A; then it was B. But now, its C.
A good recent example was the A-1 story about how every company in the country is afraid of Google:
Wal-Mart, the nation’s largest retailer, often intimidates its competitors and suppliers. Makers of goods from diapers to DVD’s must cater to its whims. But there is one company that even Wal-Mart eyes warily these days: Google, a seven-year-old business in a seemingly distant industry.
In fact, this one could perhaps have been even tighter: It seems every company in America fears Wal-Mart. So who is Wal-Mart afraid of? Google.
I’m going to use a sailing analogy that will make you roll your eyes, but trust me. It works. When hoisting a sail up the mast, the edge has to be fed into a track on the mast’s edge. If the first few feet are fed in correctly, the rest is likely to follow. Not guaranteed to, but likely. If the edge gets out of the track and is hoisted anyway, there is much flapping and noise and a great deal of canvas involved, but no coherence or forward motion.
The more ambitious the story, the more essential it follow a logically coherent track. Otherwise, the payoff for the ambition is distracting and unproductive flapping.
In attempting to evaluate the quality of writing on the front page, I considered several elements: the power of imagery; the originality, liveliness and authoritativeness of language; clarity; the use of quotes; the sense of mood, feeling and whimsy; an avoidance of clichés. But as the mother of an 11-month-old baby, who repeatedly challenged my efforts in this exercise by drooling on and trying to gnaw on my newspapers, I ultimately decided that the critical question was this: Would the writing in our front page stories compel a frenetically busy (and often sleep deprived) reader like myself to read beyond the jump?
If truly evocative writing is what we are after — the kind that makes you see, smell, feel, laugh or shiver — then the answer is mostly no. After 10 days of reading, I found that kind writing decidedly in short supply on the front page (and elsewhere, for that matter.)
There were certainly some stories with strong and lively writing. Listen to this paragraph from Sabrina [Tavernise]‘s story [on the bombing of a Baghdad cafe that killed 29 people]: The bomb left a breakfast frozen in time. A fork rested on a plate as if a diner was about to return Lime wedges and saltshakers were scattered on a table, where blood was drying.
Or this lede from Jim Yardley’s piece on flaws in the Chinese justice system:
At his most desperate, when he had no more borrowed money for his son’s defense, Xie Yujun went to a hospital. He knew of China’s black market in body parts. He wanted to sell his eyes.
But too often, I think, good writing is assumed to be little more than rather hum-drum anecdotal ledes on top of rather mundanely written stories.
The front-page must obviously carry more than vividly told stories with mood. Even for me, a writer who has probably written one too many anecdotal ledes herself and may continue to do so, the Sunday paper of Nov. 6 seemed startlingly dominated by anecdotal ledes. And evaluating the front pages over this period made me wish that more writers and editors viewed hard news and news stories as potential stages for lively writing. I was drawn to strong, clear authoritative pieces like …John Broder’s piece on Arnold Schwarzenegger was another example of a well-written news story. I loved his lede:
Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s carefully honed image as an Olympian above politics, the peoples governor, a man too wealthy to be bought, the invincible independent, all came crashing down on Tuesday as California voters delivered a verdict on his four ballot measures: No, no, no and no.
I didn’t see enough that was clear and compelling and inviting as possible. Clear, yes. We do a pretty good job there. But we come up short on compelling and inviting. Perhaps that’s because we seem to rely on either the straightforward news lede or the anecdotal.
Pam Belluck offered the quick hook with “The island of Island Pond had it in for Andrew Renna.” But it isn’t just the short paragraph that can be compelling. Three paragraphs later Pam writes:
The island, about the size of a football field, made a beeline for Mr. Renna’s house — crushing his three-foot chain-link fence, swamping his red-blue-and purple flagstone patio, wrecking his dock, flooding his shed, hobbling his weeping willow, and drowning the oregano, cilantro, tomatoes and peppers in his garden. Then, with an insouciant shrug, it came to a standstill in Mr. Renna’s backyard, an interloper squatting in stubborn silence.
What detail. You have no problem picturing the onslaught. It was good, though, that we edited out “eponymous” and “peripatetic.”
Ledes were almost always serviceable; a few were terrific, a number were appealing. There were more than a few, though, that I wished had gone back for another attempt at being tighter, sharper, fresher or more focused.
Ledes in The Times are long. Many lede grafs are two sentences, with a surprising number of three-sentence ledes. A typical front page might look like that of Saturday, Nov. 12. The word count ran from 37 words (the A-hed), to 49 words (the offlede), with the other stories respectively 39, 72, 42 and 38 words. At the very least, those ledes were visually daunting.
During the review period, there were only two front-page ledes that were under 20 words:
My general observation is that reporters at The Times tend to write pretty long ledes, often slowed down by one or more clauses. A number of newcomers to my department have commented on how the length of ledes gets far less vigilance here than they were accustomed to at other papers.
While some people certainly are tough-minded and graceful about decluttering ledes, a number of editors and reporters have remarked that it is not unusual for ledes to get longer and more cluttered with clauses in response to queries from the news desk, copy desk or top editors.
The fact is, you can only stuff so much information in a lede without making it deadly or overwhelming. A careful reading of the front page suggests that reporters and editors in virtually every department can be more disciplined in selecting what information is in the lede – and what isn’t.
Most startling to me were how few beguiling, one-sentence direct ledes appeared. Arguably, those are the hardest to write and the most memorable; more of them would enliven Page One, as well as accelerate the pace.
There were a surprising number of clichés or weirdly mixed metaphors that survived, including “bare-knuckled,” “weighed in the balance,” “at a crossroads,” “carefully honed.” “Bang!” to communicate a gunshot should be avoided. There was too much journalese: “parlayed,” “causing consternation,” “fired with zeal.” Normal people don’t talk that way.
The article about the mother accused of killing her child had a 72-word lede, followed by a paragraph nearly twice as long. Each relied on a bunch of sentences that were mostly of the same length and had the same subject-verb-object construction, all of them recitations of the this happened-that happed-then that happened variety. Repetition can be powerful; this was monotony. Some other writers, too, didn’t have a sense of rhythm.
Other than Sam Dillon’s use of the word “screwball,” there were few vocabulary choices that were just delightful. And few, if any reporters used analogies or figurative language that helped illuminate a point.
I came away from this review feeling that there’s a kind of bipolarity creeping into the writing. Features during this period were extremely writerly; some, I thought, really gilded the lily. We seemed less ambitious about the writing of our news stories. At times we even sounded a bit jaded about our own stock-in-trade, news. This was not a problem on big news days. But it was a problem on days of less obvious news.
You just can’t have an anecdotal lead on a news story if you don’t have a telling or powerful anecdote like the astonishing, appalling story Shaila Dawan led with on Nov. 13:
BATON ROUGE, La.– The Parrs and the Arceneauxs, friends for more than three decades, died together during Hurricane Katrina in the Arceneaux home on Fable Drive in the town of Meraux, east of New Orleans in St. Bernard Parish. All four of them were huddled together, wearing life vests.
That much, their children thought, was straightforward. Until the bodies were returned to them from the central morgue at St. Gabriel, La., and the death certificates arrived.
I know there’s concern at the paper now about writing with voice. I’m not advocating a politicized voice, of course, or even a snide or snarky one (OK, sometimes I do advocate that I wish we could be a little less solemn, sometimes, particularly about politics). Yet [when these pieces are written properly] the writers are all very much in control of their information, sure of what it means. There’s solid reporting, but it’s being deployed to build a story, an essay, even, that is making a point or even more than one. One happy result is clarity. The writers don’t hesitate to take the reader by the hand and guide them through, using assertion, not just quotes.
Here’s what I took away from these hard-thought critiques: We need more declarative writing, rather than eliptical writing. We need more writing that, bolstered with deep reporting, proclaims the story, rather than tip-toeing around it. And we need more editors at more papers to seek out more staffers to attack the biggest problem in journalism, which does not involve the Internet or bigger Index pages or more “lifestyle” coverage. The biggest problem is that we are boring our readers to death, both by how languid and stilted the typical newspaper story is, and by the pedestrian ideas that the typical newspaper writes about. The reason the NYT is the best is that it recognizes, institutionally, that the hardest but most important climb is the journey from very, very good to great.
Next at newsthinking.com: Other NYT staffers respond to the critiques.