“Bastian, you buried your lede again.”
That’s what Max Crittenden, the chief copyeditor of the Catholic Register, sometimes told me when editing my first news articles for that paper, way back in the late 1970s.
Max, an Australian who had made his name as an editor on Fleet Street in London and on the major dailies in Toronto, was decent enough to bark the statement at full volume. That way everyone else in the newsroom could enjoy my discomfort. Then he would then walk across the room and hurl the article – which I had typed on my manual typewriter on soft yellow newsprint paper and which he had marked up with his Veriblack pencil – on my desk.
I soon learned that “lede” was journalistic jargon for the all-important, interest-catching first sentence or sentences of a news story.
The editor of the paper, Larry Henderson of CBC TV fame, reinforced Max’s lesson, though fortunately for me during a private meeting in his office.
“What were you doing before you started working here?” he asked.
“I was getting my master’s degree in philosophy at Saint Louis University,” I said proudly. (It also took me awhile to learn that journalists regarded academic achievement with suspicion.)
“And who was reading your writing?”
“And why were they reading it?”
“Because it was their job.”
“Exactly! It was their job to read your philosophy papers. But it’s no one’s job to read your articles. People won’t read them if you don’t grab their interest first and then fill in the background.”
Max and Larry’s lessons helped me when I went on to become a book editor several years later. I soon discovered that many good non-fiction books are basically expanded news articles. They begin with a lede – it may be a paragraph or it may be a whole prologue, introduction, or chapter. Then, chapter by chapter, they answer the questions that intelligent readers will have about the subject.
Much of my work since then has been to help writers construct their book’s opening “premise and promise,” (click here for more on that) in order to grab readers’ interest. I assure them that their readers will happily take the time to read the rest of the information awaiting them once they are drawn in with an opening that establishes the beating heart of the book.
Consider the first paragraphs of several books randomly pulled from my shelves (where they are randomly shelved).
Bill Bryson begins his wonderful Notes from a Small Island with a prologue that starts off thus: “My first sight of England was on a foggy March night in 1973 when I arrived on the midnight ferry from Calais. For twenty minutes, the terminal area was aswarm with activity as cars and lorries poured forth, customs people did their duties, and everyone made for the London road. Then abruptly all was silence and I wandered through sleeping, low-lit streets threaded with fog, just like in a Bulldog Drummond movie. It was rather wonderful having an English town all to myself.”
Selina Hastings opens her biography Evelyn Waugh with this paragraph: “The reputation of Evelyn Waugh rests on two premises: that he was one of the great prose stylists of the twentieth century, and that as a man he was a monster. To judge the first, one has only to read his books; to judge the second one must turn to the life.” And, of course, the life is what readers are holding in their hands.
The famous New York book editor Michael Korda, scion of a famous movie-directing and producing family, deftly telegraphs to the reader that his book will fill them in on what he thought he would become and what he actually became. “I was twenty-three before it occurred to me that my future might not lie in the movie business.” Note how well this sentence supports the title of his memoir: Another Life.
If you’re writing a non-fiction book, dive deep into your material to figure out what will be most significant about it to your readers. Compose the opening of your book to signal what that is. Then organize the rest of your book to clearly and simply deliver on what you have just promised.