On black holes and buried leads
Updated: May 19, 2022
What makes good writing? If you're Faulkner: language gymnastics. If you're a salesperson: persuasion. If you're a news writer: clarity. If you're my 8-year-old: remembering the apostrophes.
It all depends on the writer and the purpose.
I’ve spent the past 13 years teaching college journalism students how to write more cleanly. Some struggle with writing because they learned it the wrong way. They learned that big words and complex sentences make you sound smart. They learned that you need to reach the assigned word count at all costs. They learned to trade their own voice for that of some imaginary all-knowing “essay voice” that isn’t natural. Also, their only audience has been their teacher, red pen in hand. A grader, while performing an important service, is not a substitute for a real reader.
A lot of my work at the university level involves undoing bad habits or unraveling misunderstandings. You need to know your audience, first. What does your audience want from you? Often the answer is entertainment and information. They want to enjoy reading, and they want to learn something.
My students often start out articles with statements from Captain Obvious. For example, if the news is that astronomers captured the first image of the black hole at the center of the Milky Way, they’ll start their story with something like “The Milky Way is our galaxy, and it’s full of mystery.” Um, yeah. We know. BUT WHAT ABOUT THE FIRST PICTURE OF THE BLACK HOLE?! I think they’re scared to go near the heart of the topic. They’re scared to be an authority on something they just learned themselves. But that’s why research is important: It empowers you to overcome that issue.
Think about it this way, I tell them. If you have two friends, Logan and Riley, and they have been dating for three years and then Logan cheats on Riley with Taylor, you don’t rush up to your mutual friend and say: “Guess what? Logan and Riley have been together for three years!” You say: “Guess what?! Logan slept with Taylor and broke Riley’s heart.” You naturally know, in everyday gossip, not to lead with the background.
Of course, in fiction, you’re more than welcome to bury the lead. Burying the lead can be the whole point. Imagine if Shakespeare had been a journalist and started the play with Romeo and Juliet killing themselves. It would have been a one-line play. That’s why writers need to know the purpose of any piece of writing. Are you writing to inform a reader about what’s going on in the world or is your goal to captivate theatergoers with a wonderful love story and then deliver an emotional blow at the end that will ruin the rest of their day? (We news writers know how to ruin a day with tragedy, too, but we usually do it in the first sentence and then let you get on with your coffee and the Wordle.)
Sometimes students want to lead with the date or place. They want to write: “On Saturday, in Chicago, 500 people marched in protest against deep dish pizza.” But what if every article in the paper on any given day started with the date and place? Then every article in Sunday’s Chicago Tribune would lead: “On Saturday, in Chicago.”
Tell the readers something new. Be specific. Give them details. Make it pop.
Usually, this means you have to use more than just what’s in your head. Much to my students’ chagrin, you often need to do research or conduct interviews.
Even for this silly first-person blog post, I had to look stuff up so I could make accurate references that helped illustrate points. I Googled Faulkner to make sure I remembered him correctly. After all, it’s been a while since I read half of “Absalom, Absalom!” before abandoning it. I re-read the story about the black hole to make sure that was the first image and not just the first good one. I even searched “gender neutral names” because I wanted to be inclusive in my hypothetical love triangle example.
If you want to reach readers, you need new information and an original voice. Know your audience, your purpose and yourself, and you’ll be good to go.