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Don’t Bury the Lede!

If you saw the following sentence at the start of a piece in your daily newspaper, would you keep reading?

“You don’t see a lot of naked men in advertising.”

Lots of people did — no thanks to me.

The lede I’d originally placed at the top of an essay I wrote 20 years ago was so much less interesting, that I’ve no idea what it said. Probably it made reference to the recent news event that had given me the idea for the essay in the first place: controversy over an Adidas ad.

But the Globe and Mail editor responsible for the Facts & Arguments page at the time called me up and informed me that I’d “buried the lede”. Three or four paragraphs into the piece, I’d made the observation above about the general absence of male flesh in commercial images. This sentence, she assured me, was the the one that belonged at the top.

Did I want people to keep reading, or not?

Reading this morning’s Globe, I was reminded of this advice. The comment page featured a thoughtful, articulate piece about post secondary education penned by President of Queen’s University, Daniel Woolf.

But I’m guessing that for readers of the page not already interested in the subject, the first line may have been a bit of a snoozer.

The Ontario government recently released a discussion paper on postsecondary education reform. Among the topics on the agenda: system transformation; a potential move in some programs to three-year degrees; greater use of “technology-enabled learning”; and…

Only the most committed are going to keep going after “discussion paper”, “education reform” and “system transformation”. Which is a shame, because Dr. Woolf makes some important points.

But like many scholars and administrators accustomed to writing for academic colleagues, he definitely “buried the lede”. Because later on in his op ed, he made the following statement:

Contrary to popular myth, universities are not impervious to change or insensitive to external circumstances. They would not be around 800 years after the medieval church created the institution had they been incapable of both incremental, evolutionary change and, at a few key junctures, much more profound fundamental transformation.

This is an interesting and compelling point; it offers up a contradiction, grounds an idea with concrete images, and tells people something new (or at least forgotten). It might not work exactly as written for the lede, but tweaked slightly, and then integrated into the rest of the argument with an appropriate transition, I think it would have engaged more readers.

In the Writing Compelling Commentary workshops I deliver for Informed Opinions, we spend the better part of an hour on ledes. Every participant has a chance to craft one or more options, which she shares with the rest of us. We all vote on whether or not we’d keep reading. And if we think the draft opener is eyes-glaze-over material, we brainstorm other suggestions. It’s one of the most interesting and appreciated parts of the session.

For more on common errors, keep reading…