Don’t Bury the Lead

In journalism the primary form or style of a news story is the upside down pyramid. The idea is to put the most important information at the top with information of consistently lesser importance placed at the bottom. We sometimes hear the term “buried the lead” as an accusation, and this term refers to giving improper place to the most important statement.

The advantage to writing in the upside down pyramid style is that it catches the reader’s attention, and if he or she is only considering buying the newspaper, that ever-important first line (as novelists and short story writers know) becomes a major selling point. Another advantage comes in the editorial process. The editor can cut from the bottom in order to make the article fit the available space.

Recently, I came across a well-written article about the British Prime Minister leaving his daughter in a pub. It seems the family had gone to lunch and each parent thought the eight-year-old was with the other. The final paragraph, often a single sentence in journalism, I think, includes some information specifically for American (or at least those outside the British) audience: “Sunday pub lunches are have long been traditional in Britain” is the first portion of the sentence, which explains to the foreign audience that taking children to a pub is not like taking them to an American bar; it’s more comparable to Applebee’s. Then comes that final tidbit that perhaps should have been cut: “with fare often including roast beef, potatoes, and salad along with red wine, beer or ale.”

Did we really need to know what is traditionally served on Sunday afternoons in a British pub? Yes, it’s interesting but has nothing to do with the Prime Minister leaving his child alone for fifteen minutes. Shouldn’t it have been cut just a smidgen sooner? Use that editorial discretion my Fox News Friends . . . use it well. It is obvious that the article should have begun with the traditional fare at a British pub on a Sunday afternoon, and then you could work into the fact that the man responsible for leading one of the world’s great nations forgot his daughter—by the way, their security team didn’t notice either.

I’ve done it. All this and I’ve only mentioned in passing the importance of that first line or page. In the submission process for novels, an agent or publisher might ask only for the first ten pages. Don’t bury the lead.

Not knowing whether this link will remain active until I post, I still wish to provide it for those interested or dubious.


One comment

  1. I’ve actually never heard of ‘burying the lead’ before – but I’ve heard of ‘making the reader work for it’ or the comment ‘don’t make us data-mine’ – which could be equivalents.

    I’ve also never given journalism much study. The few times I tried, I discovered I had no inclination for it. I tended to put far too much opinion on what I wrote and when I managed to keep my opinion out of a piece, it turned into something long, rambling or boring – and I never could decide what was the most important piece of information was. Though my writing skills have gotten better and I can write interesting pieces without throwing my opinions in, I still can’t pinpoint that most important point of information. In fact, in most articles I read, the information I’m most interested in ends up being somewhere in the middle or near the end.

    I wonder if it has anything to do with having such trouble starting pieces?

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