Making sense of a landmark decision
NYT vs. LAT on Supreme Court execution case offers lessons in sequencing and sidebars
I’d like you to compare the Los Angeles Times and New York Times stories of June 20 on the Supreme Court’s ruling that held the execution of mentally retarded murderers was unconstitutional.
These are good stories to break down because they put tremendous pressure on the writer to incorporate many things at once–context, perspective, impact, history, forecast…and scads more.
You’ll notice differences that can’t be dismissed judgmentally, in terms of right and wrong. In both versions, the writers were able to establish a logical, powerful flow. They simply used different sets of priorities to sequence their stories. This presents you with an opportunity to read both versions and ask: What would I have done? This is what writers need to do when they read: Examine everything that passes before them, weighing the variables so they can move with more confidence and speed when it becomes their turn in the ring.
Every reporter who tackles a deadline story like this looks at her first draft and realizes she has either crammed too much or failed to insert enough of the right material in the right order. She begins massaging it, and then realizes she has gotten the density right but gotten the sequence wrong. She begins massaging it yet again, and again, until she runs out of time. At 2 a.m. she awakens and realizes what she could have done better. The goal is to have that insight at 10 p.m., before you hit the “send” key, so you can get a good night’s sleep.
Let’s go through the stories; then we’ll look at how each paper handled a sidebar by another author that was published on the front page the same day.
We start with the L.A. Times. The first graf signals the writer’s desire to make you understand the constitutional rationale:
WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court on Thursday declared an end to the execution of convicted murderers who are mentally retarded, saying the nation has reached a consensus that it is cruel and unusual to put to death a person with the mental age of a child.
The mathematical underpinning of the word “concensus.”
Eighteen states that impose the death penalty have passed new laws exempting prisoners who are retarded, the court said. In the last decade, only five states–most notably Texas–have executed killers whose IQs measured 70 or less, the standard threshold for defining retardation.
The writer is determined in the next two grafs to make you understand why the court found execution of the retarded is (1) cruel and (2) unusual.
“The practice, therefore, has become truly unusual,” said Justice John Paul Stevens, speaking for the court.
It is also cruel, he said, since those with a diminished mental capacity are more likely to act on impulse and less likely to consider the consequences.
The writer shows you the judicial extrapolation from that calculation:
The ultimate punishment of death should be reserved for the worst of murderers, Stevens said. Since retarded people are less culpable for their acts of violence, they must be “categorically excluded” from capital punishment, he concluded.
Thursday’s 6-3 ruling extends to all of the 3,701 inmates condemned to death around the nation, as well as to future cases. California has by far the nation’s largest death row, with 603 inmates. A state prosecutor predicted that very few of them will be spared by the ruling.
The dissent, three grafs of it:
Justice Antonin Scalia read an angry dissent in the courtroom, accusing his colleagues of adopting the “arrogant assumption … [that they] have moral sentiments superior to those of the common herd.”
He mocked the “empty talk of a national consensus” on the issue and predicted that the ruling will cause chaos.
“The symptoms [of retardation] can be feigned ….This will turn the process of a capital trial into a game,” he said. Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist and Justice Clarence Thomas joined his dissent.
The writer understands that what you’ve read so far begs the question: Just what is retardation? It will take five grafs:
Stevens said the court was reluctant to define mental retardation and left that task to experts, trial judges and state legislators.
However, his opinion relied on the standard used by the American Psychiatric Assn. and the American Assn. on Mental Retardation. These groups define mental retardation as a “significant sub-average general intellectual functioning.” Typically, “mild” mental retardation describes people whose IQ level is measured from 50 to 70.
This intellectual deficiency must be combined with a limited “adaptive function” at home, at school or at work. “The onset [of these difficulties] must occur before age 18,” the psychiatric association said.
This definition appears to exclude people whose mental ability declines sharply while in prison. But the uncertainty of who is retarded and how it is be measured will likely spawn a series of legal battles in the lower courts.
However, the high court’s opinion is firm in saying that once an inmate has been judged to be mentally retarded, the state may not impose a death sentence.
The impact of the ruling:
James Ellis, a law professor at the University of New Mexico who successfully argued Thursday’s case on a behalf of a Virginia inmate, Daryl Atkins, said “there aren’t any good numbers” for how many inmates may be affected by the ruling.
While some legal experts have estimated that up to 10% of the inmates on state death rows are retarded, state prosecutors say they believe the number is much smaller.
The background that tells how this issue evolved through the legal system: How did we get here?
In 1989, the Supreme Court ruled that judges and jurors must consider mental retardation as a “mitigating factor” during a sentencing hearing, a reason to spare the life of the convicted murderer.
Moreover, many prosecutors do not seek a death sentence if the accused is retarded.
California does not by law exclude mentally retarded defendants from capital punishment, but state prosecutors say they do not believe many such individuals are on death row now.
“In sheer numbers, very few [of California’s death row inmates] will be affected” by the ruling, said Dane Gillette, a California assistant attorney general who coordinates the capital cases. “But I suspect quite a few will file claims raising the issue. I think we will see a new interest in being tested.”
Since 1991, according to Amnesty International, 12 people whose IQs tested at 70 or below–or who were borderline mentally retarded–have been executed in the United States.
William F. Schulz, the group’s executive director, said Thursday’s ruling “has finally ushered the United States into the circle of civilized nations when it comes to such executions…. Our justice system has now caught up with the moral sensibilities of the American people.”
He referred to opinion surveys showing that, although most Americans support the death penalty, they oppose the execution of mentally retarded individuals by an overwhelming margin.
Focusing more narrowly on this case and the difficulties it posed:
But the case decided Thursday, Daryl Atkins vs. Virginia, 00-8452, also illustrates the difficulty of the issue.
On an August evening in 1996, Atkins and a friend had been drinking when they walked to a convenience store intending to rob a customer. They spotted Eric Nesbitt, an airman at Langley Air Force Base. Atkins put a gun to him, took control of his truck and drove him to a bank machine. After forcing Nesbitt to withdraw $200, Atkins drove him to a field and shot him eight times.
Later, we get the background on how the “concesus,” so crucial to the logic of this ruling, evolved:
Thursday’s ruling marks the fourth time that justices have announced a categorical exclusion from executions.
In 1977, the year after they restored capital punishment, the justices barred death sentences for rapists and others whose crimes stopped short of murder. In the South at that time, a significant number of inmates facing death were not charged with murder.
In 1986, the court exempted those who are insane. In 1989, the court….
Here’s the New York Times’ version. The lead is similar, except that it tries to be more emphatic by saying the constitution “bars” execution, and using the adjective “landmark:”
WASHINGTON–The Constitution bars the execution of mentally retarded offenders, the Supreme Court declared today in a landmark death penalty ruling based on the majority’s view that a “national consensus” now rejected such executions as excessive and inappropriate.
The numerical foundation is here, but you will notice the writer does not get as quickly to the nuts-and-bolts constitutional logic, the explanation of cruel and unusual:
Of the 38 states that have a death penalty, 18 now prohibit executing the retarded, up from 2 when the court last considered the question in 1989. This “dramatic shift in the state legislative landscape,” especially when anticrime legislation is extremely popular, “provides powerful evidence that today our society views mentally retarded offenders as categorically less culpable than the average criminal,” Justice John Paul Stevens wrote for the 6-to-3 majority.
The trade-off is that this version is better and quicker on the question of impact:
The decision, in the case of a Virginia man with an I.Q. of 59 who was convicted of committing a murder and robbery at the age of 18, could ultimately move 200 or more people off death row. Mental health experts believe that as many as 10 percent of those convicted of capital murder are mentally retarded, although states often dispute the claim in individual cases.
In fact, Virginia is disputing the evidence that the defendant in this case, Daryl R. Atkins, is retarded. The Supreme Court said today that it would be up to the states to develop “appropriate ways” to apply the new constitutional prohibition. The generally accepted definition of mental retardation is an I.Q. of approximately 70 or less accompanied by limitations on abilities like communication or caring for oneself.
The dissenters today, Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist and Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas, disputed that there was a real or lasting consensus against executing the retarded. In a dissenting opinion that he read from the bench, Justice Scalia said that 18 states out of 38 was only 47 percent, not even half.
In the absence of an authentic consensus, the majority had simply enshrined its own views as constitutional law, he said, adding, “The arrogance of this assumption of power takes one’s breath away.”
Further, he said, “there is something to be said for popular abolition of the death penalty; there is nothing to be said for its incremental abolition by this court.”
Chief Justice Rehnquist said the majority had improperly gone beyond looking at state legislative action to consider polling data and international opinion as well. “If it is evidence of a national consensus for which we are looking, then the viewpoints of other countries simply are not relevant,” he said.
The writer used some interesting international perspective:
The 15 countries of the European Union filed a brief on behalf of Mr. Atkins, as did a group of senior American diplomats who told the court that the practice of executing retarded offenders was out of step with much of the world and was a source of friction between the United States and other countries.
Amnesty International said that since 1995, only three countries were reported to have executed mentally retarded people: Kyrgyzstan, Japan and the United States, which the organization said had executed 35 mentally retarded defendants since the court allowed states to reinstate the death penalty in 1976. The court’s decision today “will provide the U.S. criminal justice system with a critical tool to uphold human rights standards,” the organization said.
The decision overturns a ruling of the Virginia Supreme Court.
Okay, here’s the constitutional logic on cruel-and-unusual. It comes later, but because it comes later the writer is somewhat less pressured, and feels free to let it run a little longer, and deeper–connected to the historical foundations of the concensus, which the L.A. Times version left to the end of the story:
While the justices disputed the outcome, there was no dispute on the basic analytic approach, unique to the Eighth Amendment, that depends on a sense of community norms to decide whether a practice violates the prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment. All agreed with the statement of Chief Justice Earl Warren in a 1958 case, Trop v. Dulles, that “the amendment must draw its meaning from the evolving standards of decency that mark the progress of a maturing society.” Rather, the debate was over whether the evidence supported the evolution that the majority discerned.
The court’s previous examination of the retardation question came in 1989 in a Texas case, Penry v. Lynaugh, in which Justice Sandra Day O’Connor’s controlling opinion said that there was no current consensus against executing the retarded but kept the court’s door open to future developments.
The developments came quickly. From the original two states, Georgia and Maryland, the list of states exempting retarded people from capital punishment grew to include New Mexico, Kentucky, Tennessee, Arkansas, Colorado, Washington, Indiana, Kansas, Nebraska, South Dakota, Arizona, Connecticut, Florida, Missouri and New York, which excluded the retarded when it reinstated its death penalty in 1995. The federal death penalty, reinstated in 1988, exempted the retarded.
When the court agreed last year to revisit the issue, it did so in a case from North Carolina, but North Carolina abolished the death penalty for the retarded last summer, before that case, McCarver v. North Carolina, No. 00-8727, could be argued. The justices then substituted the case they decided today, Atkins v. Virginia, No. 00-8452. It appeared earlier this year that the Atkins case might become moot as well. In February, the Virginia State Senate voted unanimously to abolish capital punishment for the retarded, but the House decided to delay action until after the Supreme Court decision.
The advantage of what this writer choose is that you now have great context to appreciate the words of the justices:
Surveying this rapidly changing landscape, Justice Stevens noted that the numbers alone did not tell the full story.
“It is not so much the number of these states that is significant, but the consistency of the direction of change,” especially in a strong anticrime climate, he said.
Even most states that nominally allow executing the retarded were not actually carrying out such executions, Justice Stevens said, concluding, “The practice, therefore, has become truly unusual, and it is fair to say that a national consensus has developed against it.”
The opinion, joined by Justices O’Connor, Anthony M. Kennedy, David H. Souter, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen G. Breyer, did not end there. Justice Stevens went on to consider whether there was any reason the court should disregard or disagree with the legislative judgments. He concluded that, to the contrary, the state judgments were supported by a review of various factors making the death penalty particularly inappropriate for retarded defendants.
“Some characteristics of mental retardation undermine the strength of the procedural protections that our capital jurisprudence steadfastly guards,” Justice Stevens said, adding that as a result, “mentally retarded defendants in the aggregate face a special risk of wrongful execution.”
Among the factors he cited were their “diminished capacities to understand and process information” and to reason logically and control impulses. These characteristics do not mean that retarded defendants who are competent to stand trial should not face criminal punishment, Justice Stevens said, “but they do diminish their personal culpability” and indicate that the usual justifications for capital punishment, retribution and deterrence, are less applicable than to defendants with normal intelligence.
The writer decides to explore whether this decision might affect the court’s eventual policy on execution in general:
This part of the opinion might have broader significance for the court’s death penalty jurisprudence, said one death penalty expert, Professor Michael Mello of Vermont Law School.
“It shows that a majority of the court is willing to take a fresh look at the real capital punishment, how the system really works,” said Professor Mello, a former defense lawyer who opposes the death penalty.
He predicted that the court might be open to….
Both papers ran sidebars on A-1, but with distinctly different voices.
The L.A. Times took a featury approach that attempted to show you the kind of person affected by the ruling:
Convicted killer Johnny Paul Penry, a longtime resident of Texas’ death row, loves coloring books and believes in Santa Claus.
Fellow inmate Doil Lane hates to be without his crayons.
“He sends me pictures all the time,” said Austin lawyer William Allison, who has represented Lane for five years. “Pictures of firetrucks and flowers and ice-cream trucks. All of his letters start with the exact same sentence: ‘How are you today. I am find [sic].’ ”
Penry, whose IQ scores range from 50 to 63, and Lane, who psychiatrists say has the mental capacity of a 6- to 8-year-old, may have finally won reprieves Thursday when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that executing the mentally retarded is cruel and unusual punishment.
But only now do we get to the meat:
The ruling is sure to spare some among the more than 3,700 prisoners on the nation’s death rows, although nobody knows for certain how many.
California has 603 men and women on death row, and the Department of Corrections says that at least two are “developmentally disabled,” a category that includes mental retardation as well as autism and epilepsy. As a result of a federal district court order, the state is expected to assess the mental capability of all of its death row inmates by the end of the year.
Some defense attorneys have estimated that as many as 6% of California’s death row prisoners are mentally retarded, but “no one knows” for sure, said Nathan Barankin, a spokesman for Atty. Gen. Bill Lockyer.
Beyond saving the lives of some of the condemned, Thursday’s ruling is expected to set off a scramble in 20 states, including California, that have not previously prohibited the execution of retarded inmates.
The states will have to define mental retardation and handle what prosecutors expect will be a deluge of appeals from inmates who claim that they fit the bill.
“The opinion left it very much in the hands of the states how to deal with enforcement of this new restriction,” said Ward Campbell, capital case coordinator for the attorney general’s office in Sacramento.
He predicted a new wave of litigation in death penalty jurisprudence, causing delays in a system “that….
Was it worth it? The story starts off like a human-interest piece but then evolves into a piece that tries to give you a sense of how the states will respond. Would it have made more sense to just jump in and write a news analysis? The New York Times thought so. Here was how the top of its sidebar read:
The Supreme Court ruling yesterday that executing mentally retarded people is unconstitutional offered the states almost no guidance on who must be considered retarded and who gets to decide.
The decision will therefore spur vigorous legal activity on two fronts. In the courts, defendants accused or convicted of capital crimes will argue that they are mentally retarded. In the 20 states that currently allow the execution of retarded people, the legislatures will have to draft statutes establishing procedures to determine who is retarded.
Justice Antonin Scalia, in his dissent, noted that the mere possibility that the court would rule as it did yesterday had generated appeals from people on death row who had not previously argued that they were mentally retarded.
Despite questions about how the ruling will play out, defense lawyers hailed it as a landmark decision that limits the reach of capital punishment after years in which the Supreme Court’s rulings had made it easier to carry out executions. The lawyers said they viewed the ruling as a ratification of a national consensus against executing the mentally retarded.
“After 15 years of absolute drought, this case gave the court the occasion to add its voice to the ongoing debate about the system being broken,” said George Kendall, a staff lawyer with the NAACP Legal Defense Fund.
Polls show that most Americans….
RECOMMENDED READING: A troubling court ruling for journalists, described last week in the New York Times:
Four reporters for The Philadelphia Inquirer were fined $1,000 each yesterday and three of them were sentenced to community service for violating a trial judge’s order barring reporters from identifying or contacting jurors after a murder trial of a rabbi in Camden last fall.
The unusual order made a crime of a common news-gathering tactic, interviewing jurors about their deliberations, and threatened a penalty of six months in jail for contempt of court. Before he imposed more lenient penalties yesterday, Judge Theodore Z. Davis, of New Jersey Superior Court in Camden, called the case a conflict between two of society’s major institutions, the judiciary and the press, and scolded the reporters for defying the court.
“If the media has the right to basically say, `We don’t care about your order, we’re going to do it our way,’ it’s sheer anarchy,” Judge Davis said. “In life, as in law, a line must be drawn.”
Floyd Abrams, a Manhattan lawyer and First Amendment expert, called the ban on publication of a juror’s name after a trial virtually unprecedented and said the order barring communication with former jurors was “contrary to general rules adopted by courts elsewhere.”
He said that “the perpetuation of a news-gathering ban after the trial was over was unjustified” and a disservice to “deeply rooted First Amendment interests.”
The editor of The Inquirer, Walker Lundy, said the newspaper would appeal. “I am stunned that a reporter would be sentenced to jail for asking a question,” he said.
The order was issued in July by Judge Linda G. Baxter, who presided over the trial of the rabbi, Fred J. Neulander of Cherry Hill, on charges of arranging the killing of his wife, Carol, in 1994.
Later, Judge Baxter repeatedly refused to relax the order, even after she declared a mistrial because the jury was deadlocked. She said she was leaving the order intact to protect jurors’ privacy and ensure that an impartial jury can be selected for a second trial, now scheduled for September.
In April, New Jersey’s Supreme Court threw out the ban on naming the jurors but upheld the edict against contacting jurors until after the second trial, in order to protect the rabbi’s right to a fair trial.
Contempt proceedings started against the four reporters–Joseph Gambardello, George Anastasia, Dwight Ott and Emilie Lounsberry–soon after their bylines appeared on a front-page story on Nov. 16 that identified the jury’s forewoman and quoted an unnamed juror.
In a contempt hearing last month, three jurors and other witnesses testified that all but Mr. Gambardello had tried to interview jurors. Ms. Lounsberry and Mr. Ott were sentenced to 10 days of community service and Mr. Anastasia to 5 days.
A dummy’s guide to the hard-core basics
Writing coach Steve Buttry offers a handy checklist of all the easy stuff we continually forget. Print this out and carry at all times.
Posted June 17, 2002
So, I’ve decided to make a career change. I’ve decided to leave editing and go back to reporting. It will be the third time in my life I have junked an editing job and gone back to reporting. I mention this because, for all my confidence, I still find myself thinking, “Damn! It’s been nine years since I was a reporter–what do I do?” It was here that I ran into Steve Buttry, who has created a great bunch of tips for desperate–or overconfident–reporters, both of which I am about to become.
Steve, who is writing coach at the Omaha World-Herald, has broken our work down into four stages: Keeping a Sharp Focus, Writing the Lead, Sharpening the Lead and Keeping it Rolling. His tips are all obvious and they are all things that you have probably done–and then, in too many cases, forgotten to keep doing. Kudos to Steve for his elemental wisdom. He now takes the mike:
KEEP A SHARP FOCUS
To write a strong lede, you need to identify and understand the focus of your story. Using any or all of these techniques before you even start writing can help strengthen your story, especially the critical top few paragraphs:
Ask what the story is about
As you gather information and as you write, ask yourself frequently why a reader would want to read it. Bruce DeSilva of the Associated Press suggests asking these questions as you try to find the story’s focus: Why do you care about this? Why did you want to write this story in the first place? What touches you emotionally? Who is benefiting/being harmed, making money/losing money? How are readers being affected by what you have found? What is new here? When you know what the story is about, you know what you need to tell the reader at the top of the story.
Write a theme statement
Jack Hart of The Oregonian suggests that before you write the story, try writing a theme statement of no more than six words. This will help you identify the focus. As you write the lede, the nut graph and any difficult parts of the story, refer to the theme statement and make sure you’re maintaining the focus.
Write a headline
Writing a headline for your story might help find your focus. Or a logo, if it’s a series. Or a budget line. Whichever of these devices you use, you have to write a good one. As DeSilva says, “no ‘Unit Mulls Probe’ garbage.” After you’ve finished the story, take another look at the headline. Make sure the point that you addressed in the head is high in the story or you lost your focus.
Tell your story in three words
Bill Luening of the Kansas City Star recommends identifying your focus by boiling your story down to a three-word sentence: a noun, an active verb, and an object: “These generally emerge as themes, rather than a story focus, but they can lead to a theme statement. Maybe, if the story is a narrative, you can get them to outline the complication, development and resolution this way. The story of the Pied Piper then would be, Rats Overrun City. City Hires Ratman. Ratman Kills Rats. City Stiffs Ratman. Ratman Steals Children. Moral: Keep Your Word. Or…Flutists Kick Butt.”
Tell someone about your story
Especially if you are struggling to find the focus, you may find it helpful to tell someone about the story. For some people, conversation forces brevity and focus. DeSilva suggests the bus stop test used by Henry McNulty, former ombudsman at the Hartford Courant: “Suppose you are at a bus stop and someone leans out the bus window and shouts, ‘What is that story you are working on?’ The bus engine starts and begins to pull away from the curb. What are you going to shout?”
Find the surprise
Did something surprise you as you researched this story? Maybe that should be your focus.
Identify the emotion
Luening asks writers, “Where does the emotion lurk? Where, as a friend of mine here calls it, is the ’emotional center’ of what they’ve discovered?”
Use story elements
You can find your focus by identifying the story’s most important elements. Is this a plot-driven story, or is character the most important element? Or setting? Or conflict?
Organize your information
Identify the most important points of your story and the information that most clearly supports those points. This should be the heart of the story and in many cases the total story. If you identify more than three or four points, you probably have too many. An outline may help you organize.
WRITING YOUR LEDE
Your lede sets the pace for your story. A brief, breezy lede invites the reader into a story with the promise of a lively pace. A ponderous lede invites the reader to move to the next story, in which case it doesn’t matter how long or how good the rest of your story is.
As you’re reporting, think about the lede. Are you observing an exchange that might provide a scene the lede? Did you just hear the fact that belongs in the lede? Don’t lock in on one lede so that you miss a better one that comes up. Use the reporting process as an audition for potential ledes. Write them down as they occur to you, either in your notebook or on the screen.
Write as you report
After your first interview or two, start writing. You may not have your lede yet, but starting to write gets your mind into the story earlier. Keep writing after subsequent interviews. Write each time as though this is the story. You may write two or three ledes before you’re finished with the story. But have you hurt your story if your seventh paragraph, or your 15th, has as much polish as your lede?
Avoid the blank screen
Too many writers spend too long laboring over the lede before they get started writing. If you don’t have a good idea for a lede, write a simple declarative sentence and get on with the story: “The School Board meeting discussed education Monday.” Yes, it’s dull. No, you’d never turn that in. But it may get you started and keep you from wasting time staring at the blank screen. Writing the story may help you find your lede. Then you go back and write the better lede.
Use story elements
Decide which is the strongest element in your story: plot, character, setting, conflict, theme. Your lede should focus on the strongest element. Or perhaps the lede should highlight the intersection of two elements: a character in conflict, perhaps. If plot is the strongest element, beware of starting at the beginning. Newspaper readers and editors may not read long enough to find out how it comes out. Consider starting at the climax, or at least at a critical moment that establishes the conflict.
Don’t forget the basics
If you’re stuck for a lede, ask which of the five W’s or How is the most important question for this story.
Expand on the basics
Maybe your lede lies not in one of the five W’s, but in a related question: How much? So what? What next? Why not? Who benefits? Who’s hurt?
Write without your notes
This is a helpful technique for your whole first draft, but it’s especially helpful in writing the lede. Notes can be a distraction. Go back to them later when you’re checking facts.
Get to the point
If you use an anecdotal or scene-setting lede that delays your explanation of the underlying issue, introduce or at least allude to the issue in your lede.
Entice the reader
Don’t treat your lede as a suitcase into which you will cram as much as you can fit. Regard it more like a g-string, brief and enticing. If your lede captures the essence of your story in a few words, the reader will read on to learn the facts. You don’t need them all in the lede. A long lede shows a lack of confidence, like you don’t believe I’ll read the whole story so you have to tell me as much as you can as fast as you can.
STRENGTHENING YOUR LEDE
Once you’ve finished the story, go back and strengthen your lede, even if it’s good and especially if it’s long.
Challenge every word.
However long your lede is, consider whether it could be shorter. If it’s longer than 30 words, it’s almost definitely too long. A lede that long has to flow smoothly to work, and few ledes that long flow smoothly. Try writing a lede of 10 words or fewer. Maybe you can’t for this story, but it’s always good to try. Especially if your lede is more than 20 words, challenge each piece of the lede and ask whether that actually has to be in your very first paragraph.
Challenge the verbs.
Are you using the strongest appropriate verb? Is it in active voice? Never use a form of the verb “to be” in your lede without trying some alternatives. Sometimes it’s the only accurate verb, but see if a stronger verb works. Challenge other weak verbs, such as have, do and get.
Avoid vague phrases.
If your lede starts with (or uses) vague phrases such as there are or it is, see if you can rewrite it with strong, specific subjects and verbs.
Keep it simple.
Ask whether you’re trying to tell too much in your lede. Are you answering all the 5 W’s, when a couple could wait till the second graf? Don’t try to cram everything into your lede.
Make one point.
Does your lede have multiple points? If so, perhaps you haven’t decided what the story truly is about. Decide which point is most important and write a lede that makes just that point.
Remember the news.
Does your lede get right to the news? Does it emphasize the news?
Stamp out punctuation.
Many of the best ledes have one piece of punctuation, a period. Regard multiple commas or dashes as red flags. See if you can write a smoother sentence with just one comma or none. If you have lots of punctuation in the lede, read it aloud so you can hear whether it’s choppy or whether it flows smoothly.
Attribution lengthens a lede, as well as weakening it. Can you state something as a fact, rather than hedging it with attribution? If not, do you need to bolster your reporting, so you can write more authoritatively?
If you use any numbers in your lede, their impact must be strong and their meaning and relationship must be immediately evident. If the reader has to stop and ponder the numbers, they don’t belong in the lede. (They may not even belong in the story, but in a graphic). Rarely could you justify using more than two numbers in a lede.
Challenge prepositions and conjunctions.
Identify each prepositional phrase in the lede and consider whether the information it adds is worth the words it adds. Can it be replaced with a single adjective or adverb? If your lede contains and, or or but, consider whether you’re introducing another element that you should save for the second paragraph.
Challenge adjectives and adverbs.
Consider whether the lede would be stronger without each of the adjectives adverbs. What do they add? Can you eliminate them by using more specific (and stronger) nouns or verbs?
Can you eliminate a phrase without hurting the lede? Can you replace a phrase with a single word?
Write an alternative lede.
Write a shorter lede and evaluate the two side by side. Or write a lede taking another approach. Don’t accept a long lede without testing it against a shorter lede.
One hedge is plenty.
If you’ve hedged the central statement of your lede, with a “may” or “might,” do you really need to hedge again by attributing it? Consider whether you can write a stronger statement in the first place. Or at least consider whether you can make the hedged statement without attribution.
Don’t sweat the details.
An important detail might strengthen your lede, but many details bog down a lede. Tighten your lede by cutting details that can wait until later in the story. Rarely do you need both a person’s name and identification in the lede. If the name is not immediately recognizable to the reader, just use the identification in the lede. Or if the person is in the story as Everyman, just use the name and tell the reader later who he is.
Don’t get lost in process.
On many beats, particularly government and court beats, reporters must learn and understand lots of processes. Sometimes the reporter loses perspective and thinks the process is as important to readers as it is to sources. Readers care most about results. If your lede focuses on process, or includes some process details, consider whether it would be stronger focusing on results.
Try to make fun of your lede.
Did you write any obvious statements that will draw a “duh!” from the reader? Do you have any awkward juxtapositions or double entendres? If you know a smart-ass colleague who makes fun of such stories in the paper, enlist his aid by asking him to read your story in advance. If something does get by him, at least you know he won’t be the one making fun this time.
Focus on reader impact.
Does your lede tell the reader why this story is important to her? If not, should it?
Say what is, not what isn’t. Sometimes you have to tell the reader what isn’t, but usually you should tell the reader what is. If your lede has a not or a never, consider whether you can recast to say what is.
Examine the first few words of your lede. Are they strong? Do they get to the point immediately? Can you open with key words that immediately identify what the story is about?
Close with a kick.
Examine the last few words of your lede. Are they strong? Do they carry the reader right into the next paragraph.
KEEP IT ROLLING
You lede is just the first hook for the reader. The first few paragraphs make your case to the reader. Especially with a page-one story that jumps, the reader has plenty of reason to move on if you don’t make the point of the story clear and make the story compelling in the top several paragraphs.
Write without your notes.
You have most of the story in your head. You know what the most important points are. You remember the embarrassing contradictions, the clever quotes, the damning evidence. So tell the story, without the distractions of that mess of notebooks and faxes and photocopies. Flipping through notebooks can distract you from your focus. Of course, when you’re done, you need to return to your notebooks and other resources to ensure accuracy.
Keep the end in sight.
Decide where you want your story to end. Keep the end in view as you write, and use the information and anecdotes that lead you to that end by the most direct route.
First Five Paragraphs.
Gannett newspapers teach staff members to give stories a strong focus by making sure that the first five paragraphs cover these four elements: news, impact, context and human dimension. If that seems too formulaic to follow with every story, it’s still a valuable tool to use if you’re having trouble focusing your story.
For more on the “First Five Paragraphs” approach:
Journalists disagree about the necessity (and sometimes the definition) of “nut grafs.” But this much is difficult to dispute: High in every story, you need to tell the reader why she should read this story today. A good nut graf often is the best way to achieve that. A nut graf may be an elaboration of the theme statement you wrote before even writing your story.
Stories that often need nut grafs include stories with anecdotal ledes, issue stories or controversy stories. The nut graf might place the anecdote in context or answer a question raised in the lede or explain what’s at stake in the controversy. The nut graf tells the reader why this story is relevant.
Work the nut graf into the story smoothly. You don’t want a “stop the reader” graf that interrupts the flow of the story or insults the reader’s intelligence.
Kate Long of the Charleston Gazette cautions against writing a nut graf that becomes flour in the brownie: “You’re eating this nice brownie, and suddenly you hit a chunk of dry flour. Young reporter is trying to satisfy the editor who (reporter thinks) insists on the graph, so he/she sticks in a dense paragraph that breaks the flow of the story.”
More on nut grafs: