Avoiding the perils of bad ledes

As a recent Deadspin parody reminds us, clichéd thinking can generate hilariously inappropriate story tops. Watch out.

Overwrought and clichéd ledes: Avoid them like the plague.

If you’ve ever been bothered by all the bad ledes out there, you’re not alone. Welcome to the world of modern journalism and corporate writing.

We at Ragan Communications found ourselves reflecting on bad ledes this week—and cringing at our own past offences—after Deadspin’s The Concourse scoffed, “Here Is The Worst Lede About Chicago Gun Violence. We Tried To Top It.”

Deadspin writers parodied a piece by Tribune Media syndicated columnist Cal Thomas, who wrote (typo included):

Frank Sinatra’s song about Chicago, “My Kind of Town,” “a the town that won’t let you down,” seems dated in light of last weekend’s shooting spree that left 16 dead and dozens wounded in 53 separate incidents. According to the Chicago Tribune, “The victims were among 82 people shot between Thursday afternoon and early Monday.”

Deadspin came up with 25 witty alternatives, such as this: “Chicago’s Wrigley Field hosts the most famous renditions of ‘Take Me Out to the Ballgame.’ But 16 Chicagoans are now incapable of caring ‘if they ever get back,’ and won’t. Because they’re dead.”

What is it that makes our brains fall back on trite associations in writing (Chicago and the Sinatra song, Russia and “From Russia with Love”)? Whatever it is, we all must guard against the tendency.

Can a house dance?

This spring the Poynter Institute called for examples of bad ledes. Gamely, several journalists offered their own copy. One winner:

The house on 53rd Street and Huntington Avenue stood motionless. From the south side of the building, nothing looked out of the ordinary except for the police barricades that were set up.

The journalist who submitted it asked how a house could stand other than motionless. “Can it dance?” he wrote. “Perhaps sit at a funny angle?”

The American Copy Editors Society has helpfully rounded up templates of clichéd ledes. Although these are parodies, not real examples, they illustrate the problem. (I swiped their “like the plague” and “welcome to” for my lede above.)

Among their no-nos is the good-news, bad-news lede:

The good news is that on-line classes have begun.

The bad news is that most students don’t have computers.

Blather, blather everywhere…

It’s not just ledes, of course. Jargon plagues all manner of corporate communications. Looking for buzz phrases to impress your executives? The site Cheesy Corporate Lingo will help.

Cheesy lists phrases such as “back of the envelope” and “nice-to-have” as a noun, defined as a “very expensive and highly marketed service offering or product that would likely be the first thing to be cut in a downturn. ‘Time Warner Cable is a real nice-to-have.'”

A Corporate Gibberish Generator produces language of the sort your bigwigs love. Type in your company name, and you’ll get some boilerplate ready for your website. We scored with this: “Ragan is the industry leader of granular seamless, integrated, 24/7 CAD.” Whatever that means, it’s going to lead our next marketing email.

Holidays: Beware

Holidays are a time when one especially needs to guard against clichéd ledes, the copy editors society has warned. Certain topics draw clichés like, well, flies to the stuff you scrape off your shoe before entering the house.

The piece quotes a University of Missouri School of Journalism professor: “Holidays, anniversaries, weather, traffic accidents, graduation, the first day of school, victory and loss at sports: All can fall into the trap of clichéd thinking.”

On some copy desks, there are penalties for failing to quash “‘Tis the season” iterations during yuletide.

What’s the alternative?

I like the anecdotal lede, but not every editor is enamored of this approach. At some papers, writing an anecdotal lede is an invitation for an editor to hit the space bar half a dozen times at the top of the story and write his or her own snappier story top.

Besides, the approach can become clichéd. The New York Times, while allowing that anecdotal ledes can work brilliantly, warned last summer that “sometimes it seems shopworn and formulaic, a writer’s indulgence that comes at the expense of the reader’s time and patience.”

Still, Poynter’s Roy Peter Clark used to say he was prepared for those who dismissed anecdotal lede. When anyone brought him an example of a bad anecdotal lede, he would open a drawer and pull out a stack of clips with bad inverted-pyramid ledes.

It’s enough to make you swear off writing altogether.

@r_working

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