Wick Communications

Unpack that suitcase lede

In Editing on 6 Feb 2014 at 5:20 pm


WASHINGTON — In marathon meetings and tense all-day drafting sessions, dozens of lawyers, economists and engineers at the Environmental Protection Agency are struggling to create what is certain to be a divisive but potentially historic centerpiece of President Obama’s climate change legacy.

Go ahead, take a breath. Because here comes the next freight train-sized sentence:

If the authors succeed in writing a lawsuit-proof regulation that is effective in cutting carbon emissions from America’s 1,500 power plants — the largest source of the nation’s greenhouse gas pollution — the result could be the most significant action taken by the United States to curb climate change.

Phew. Are you getting enough oxygen?

OK, look. I tease because I love. That is the top of Coral Davenport’s very important and pretty well written piece in the New York Times about new pollution rules in the works at the EPA. It’s just sort of hard to read because it’s all such a mouthful.

I’m a big fan of writing the way people speak. Be conversational. Eschew big words for small. Write in English rather than bureaucrat-speak. And if your first two sentences are nearly 100 words when taken together, recognize that you may have a problem with wordiness. …So how does this happen? How does a perfectly good news lede turn into a tongue twister that you have to read twice? I happen to know the answer because I make this very same mistake from time to time. Such as Wednesday. Here’s a lede I wrote for this week’s newspaper:

Nearly two decades after planning began for a coordinated Coastside senior center, the two local agencies that are the cornerstone of that effort are posed to move into their new digs.

It’s shorter than Coral’s lede, but suffers from one of the same problems: It begins with a clause.

I wrote it that way because I’m smart and I know stuff, background stuff, that I think readers ought to know. Or so I convince myself. The truth is that I could have saved that stuff in the opening clause for somewhere lower in the story and written a more coherent bite-sized sentence like this:

The two local agencies that will form the cornerstone of a new Coastside senior center are poised to move into their new digs.

That’s 35 percent shorter than the first and twice as easy to understand. Is it important that it took two decades to get to this fateful day? Of course it is. Does it need to be crammed into the suitcase lede along with all my other literary toiletries? Of course not.

The opening clause isn’t always to blame. Look at Coral’s dashes and her hyphenated high-fallutin’ words. If you are using those symbols above the numerals on your keyboard, you may be your own worst enemy.

Please think about the length of your ledes. Remember that the point is to inform readers in an intelligible way. Make it easy. Work on your short game.

— Clay

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