Stop backing in to leads: how to make your writing more reader-friendly

Reporters on deadline often forget two essential truths of journalism:

  1. 1. We’re not just writing to pass along our information – we’re writing to be read. So we need to package our story for maximum readability. In other words, think about the reader.
  2. 2. Readers don’t have much time, and often they don’t have a commitment to read the story. If you write about the city library, the librarians and regular library patrons will read it. Will anyone else?

So what can we do to make our newswriting more reader-friendly? One of the key strategies is to begin sentences with a subject.

Huh? Don’t all sentences begin with a subject? Actually, no. They have a subject, but they don’t necessarily begin with it. We call this problem “backing in” – beginning with long phrases or dependent clauses that readers have to wade through before they get to the point of the sentence.

We don’t talk that way. Let’s say you’re in an unfamiliar building and ask someone where the parking garage is. His answer:

“Having worked here many years myself and having given many people directions because they did not see the sign posted next to the elevator, I can tell you that you need to turn to the left at the next hall and take the stairs down to the first floor.”

You’d probably laugh out loud. Nobody talks that way.

But reporters write that way, even in The New York Times. Look at this lead on today’s front page of the Times:

Punctuating a string of Obama-era moves to shore up labor rights and expand protections for workers, the National Labor Relations Board ruled Tuesday that students who work as teaching and research assistants at private universities have a federally backed right to unionize.

The subject of that sentence, the National Labor Relations Board, is 19 words in.

When you write, begin by asking what the story is about. What happened that caused you to write the story? Then start there.

Why was this written? Because the NLRB ruled that grad students can unionize.

The Washington Post started with the “actor,” the NLRB, as the subject:

The National Labor Relations Board ruled Tuesday that graduate students who work as teaching and research assistants at private universities are school employees, clearing the way for them to join or form unions that administrators must recognize.

Writing is more readable when you introduce the subject as close to the beginning of the sentence as possible. But then you can ask, is the subject something readers can relate to? What kind of mental picture does the National Labor Relations Board conjure up? Unless you a Beltway bureaucrat, probably nothing.

But there is a word picture in this story – the graduate students. So why not start there, like the Los Angeles Times did:

Graduate students who assist in teaching and research at private universities are employees and have a right to union representation, the National Labor Relations Board ruled Tuesday.

Just this week, veteran AP journalist John Lumpkin sent us a blogpost by Pulitzer journalist-turned-novelist Bruce DeSilva that addresses this issue.

Consider the first sentence of the King James Version of the Bible: “In the beginning, God created the Heaven and the Earth.”
Nice sentence. It’s simple, clear, and tells a big story in very few words. But if the typical journalist had written it, it would have come out something like this:
“In a series of surprise moves intended to bring all of creation into existence out of what leading scientists call the ‘singularity,’ before energy, matter or even time existed, God yesterday said ‘Let there be light,’ according to reliable sources close to the project.”
If a journalist had written the Bible, I doubt anyone would have read it.

What’s the difference between the prose of Moses and that of the journalist? Moses summarized creation in 10 words. The subject, God, is four words in, followed by a strong verb – created.

The subject of the fictional journalist’s lead is 29 words in. And it’s preceded by: two prepositional phrases, a participle phrase, then three more prepositional phrases, then a noun clause used as the object of a preposition, then an adverb clause. Then: the subject.

So are you backing in to your sentences, and especially your leads? You find out by doing something you probably haven’t done since the ninth grade. Read your story and underline the subjects and verbs. Then look at these writing issues:

  1. 1. Are your subjects reasonably close to the beginning of the sentence?
  2. 2. Do your verbs come quickly after the subject, so that readers aren’t likely to forget what the subject is by the time they get to the verb?
  3. 3. Have you chosen strong action verbs?
  4. 4. Are your leads relatively short? Readership begins dropping off past 30 words, and you should almost never write one that’s longer than 35 words. The Times lead above is 43 words; the Washington Post lead is 37; the LA Times lead is 27.

Today’s readers won’t wade through verbiage to find the news. So let’s make it easy for them.

By the way, the blogpost you just read tests out at the sixth grade reading level. It averages 13.10 words per sentence and an average 1.4 syllables per word as calculated by the Readability Test Tool – check it out because it’s a great newsroom resource. (The calculations do not include the long leads from the Times and DeSilva, which would have increased the score. If you’re curious, the NYT lead tested out at a grade level of 24.2 – a post-doctoral level. The DeSilva Genesis lead tested at about the same level)

By Kathryn Jones Malone

Kathryn Jones Malone is co-director of the Texas Center for Community Journalism. She began her career as a staff writer at the Corpus Christi Caller-Times, then worked as a staff writer for the Dallas Times Herald and The Dallas Morning News; as a contract writer for The New York Times; as a writer-at-large for Texas Monthly magazine; as editor of the Glen Rose Reporter; and as a freelance writer for numerous state, regional and national magazines. She teaches journalism at Tarleton State University.