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News / Clark County News

From the Newsroom: Working on our writing

By Craig Brown, Columbian Editor
Published: May 25, 2024, 6:11am

One of the good things we have going for us here at The Columbian is the volunteer work done by Dee Anne Finken, a retired journalist and journalism instructor at Clark College. As I began writing this column, she was holding one of her monthly writing workshops for our reporters. She’s been doing these workshops for more than a year, and I think Columbian readers can really see the results. Our writing overall has improved thanks to Dee Anne’s efforts and those of our editing team.

The workshops are open to all of our news staff, but not mandatory. She selects several local stories and breaks down the writing, pointing out where things went well and, more importantly, where improvements could have been made to make the stories clearer, more compelling, or faster and easier to read.

It can be a little painful to see your story used as an example of where things could be improved, but Dee Anne removes the bylines and tries to be encouraging.

One of the things she discussed this month was the first paragraph of stories, which journalists call the lead, or, as some prefer to spell it, the “lede.”

Writing a good news lead is tough! I always tackle it first, to help me make sure I know what the story is about. But I have worked with some great journalists over the years who prefer to write it last.

One of the most common types of leads is the “inverted pyramid.” This puts the most important fact of the story right into the first sentence, followed by the second most important, and tapering down to the last of the story. This old-fashioned approach was easy for early-day composing rooms to trim, because they could slice off the bottom of a story that was too long. Legend has it that the pyramid lead was born during the Civil War, when correspondents had to hurry to file their stories before the opposing army short-circuited the telegraph wire. Unfortunately, at least one scholarly study has shown that’s not true. But it makes a good story.

Here’s an example of a pyramid lead from Dylan Jefferies: “At a town hall event Tuesday morning, Republican 3rd Congressional District candidate Joe Kent declared that inflation, immigration and parental rights are the biggest issues facing the United States today.”

There are many other kinds of leads, of course. There are summary leads, and anecdotal leads, which set a scene. Here’s one written by Alexis Weisend that I liked: “Life used to look a lot different for Siddhartha Fisher. He was a gifted child — class president of his elementary school and winner of a state chess championship in sixth grade.

“But cracks in his mental state started to show at age 16.”

Good reporters work hard on their writing. But does it matter? Roy Peter Clark, a well-respected journalism writing coach, recently had this to say after he assessed the leads of this year’s Pulitzer Prize winners.

“As the shape of news delivery continues to change, perhaps even the idea of a lead feels obsolete in some circles. In the era of sophisticated data visualizations, readers may find online titles and subtitles, at times animated, photographic captions, blurbs and drop-quotes, some that fade in and out like a dream sequence. There is a lot to catch your attention, even before you get to the first sentence of text.”

However, Clark’s viewpoint is what younger reporters would call “old school,” and he wasn’t much impressed with most of the leads he read. So he’s actually arguing in favor of good writing, even as he acknowledges that times have changed and journalists’ resources and writing time have diminished.

I agree with Clark. Good leads result in good stories that attract readers. That’s why I am grateful to Dee Anne for volunteering her time and expertise to help our reporters.