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Home > Reading Room > Write brightly, not tritely!

SPJ Reading Room

Write brightly, not tritely!
Compiled by Dick Thien, Editor-in-Residence
The Freedom Forum


Cliché leads. Avoid them like the plague.

You know them when you see them. So do readers. The cliché lead doesn’t necessarily employ a cliché. It can be an overworked formula we’ve all seen thousands of times. Here are several examples culled from a variety of sources:

The ‘He leaned back in his chair/tree/whatever’ lead
After a while, in a startling and unexpected development, the deeply sorrowful Jesus H. Christ, 33, son of the Almighty, leaned back against an olive tree, stretched out his 5-foot, 10-inch frame, put his head in his hands as tears slowly rolled down his cheeks — “quite a few tears” informed sources, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said — as His very close associates looked on.

The question lead
Ever wonder what happened to Tom Mix?
Most people don’t. The famous movie cowboy of yesterday is not a familiar name among today’s moviegoers. But ask a teenager about Lindsay Lohan, and you’ll get a complete biography.

The Webster’s Dictionary lead
Webster’s defines cliché as a trite phrase or expression. If that’s true, then this lead is a cliché, and ...

The that’s good, that’s bad news lead
The good news is that online classes have begun.
The bad news is that most students don’t have computers.

The unrelated Zimmerman lead
Adolf Munch reached into his rear pants pocket and pulled out his worn brown leather wallet. He fumbled through the small denomination of bills, crumpled grocery lists, credit cards and old photographs before pulling out a shiny, new card with his picture on the front.
Munch is one of many who have opted for the new credit cards with a photo identification on them.

The ‘that’s what’ lead
Some leads are easier to write than others. That’s what 15 reporters participating in an SPJ seminar said Monday.

The ‘What’s My Line’ lead
It’s new. It’s state of the art. It’s easy to use, and even easier to understand. It’s SPJ’s recently redesigned Web site.

The ‘thanks to’ lead
Thanks to Bud Pagel, the journalism college teaches story-telling rather than dumping the notebook.

The holiday lead
Sunday was Valentine’s Day, but you would not know it by the way the taxi drivers were treating their riders.

The go-look-it-up lead
When Dick Thien was born in 1939 in St. Louis, Franklin D. Roosevelt was president, and newspapers cost less than a nickel.

The one-word lead (variation of the ‘that’s what’ lead)
Cynical.
That’s what most people think journalists are.

The word lead (variation of the ‘one-word’ lead)
Flabbergasted was the only word that Jack Hart could think of when all the reporters completed their orientation exercises on time.

The ‘typical’ lead
At first glance, the Associated Press seems to be just another typical news organization. It’s that and more, John Quinn said.

The ‘in common’ question lead
What do Charlie Chaplin and Bill Clinton have in common?

The Rodney Dangerfield lead
Garbage collectors get no respect.
Lawyers get no respect.
But Coach Frank Solich says his Cornhuskers are going to get respect.

The time-is-important lead
Today is Feb. 15, the first day of online journalism instruction for journalists nationwide.

The I-fooled-you lead
Sex, drugs and booze.
That’s what you’ll find in newsrooms today, Kent Clark, managing editor of the Gotham Daily Planet said.

The ‘many’ lead
Many journalists don’t know they exist, but online courses in journalism are being offered by several universities.

The ‘exceptional’ lead
Most journalists have trouble writing a snappy lead, and Edgar Poe is no exception.

The ‘now-look-at’ lead
When your parents bought their first home, mortgage interest rates were only 2 percent. Now look at what they are.

The quote lead
“It was a wonderful contest, and I’m glad my pie won,” Pillsbury Doe said after winning her blue ribbon Saturday at the Whoopee County Fair.

The ‘adding to the intrigue/mystery’ lead
Adding to the intrigue of when the journalism college will move into its new building is when the number of students will justify the space.

(A person or situation can be intriguing — in other words, fascinating. But you stretch the definition beyond repair, and get into the misty world of duplicity and romance, when you fall back on this cliché lead. An intrigue is a scheme or love affair. The same logic applies if mystery replaces intrigue.)

The King James English lead
The taxman will certainly cometh to readers, and grammatical error may cometh to the lazy reporter who uses this tired cliché lead more than once every 10 years.

(The suffix –eth is used only with third-person singular, present-tense verbs — not with plurals, not with first or second persons, not with future tenses. In addition to being wrong on the grammar, such writers are mistaken in imagining that this stale device looks clever.)

The ‘not alone’ lead
George Tuck likes black and white photography. Tuck is not alone.

(Writing an anecdotal lead requires an eventual transition into the body of the story. That transition is the weak joint, the point at which writers are liable to sacrifice the reader’s interest. They have often sacrificed that interest with the non alone transition: If they can’t do better than that, they ought to skip anecdotal leads.)

The ‘Welcome to’ lead
Computer keyboards are clicking away, telephones are ringing and people are shouting across the room to one another.
Welcome to the Daily Nebraskan, the student newspaper at the University of Nebraska at Lincoln.

(The “Welcome to” gimmick is another lame transition from the anecdotal lead to the body of the story after some description of the woeful situation. This device should always be unwelcome.)

The ‘Meet John/Jane Doe’ lead
Few have professional experience.
Many have PhDs.
Too many have little regard for the media, but love to talk about the “mass media” and the “mainstream media,” whatever they are.
Most haven’t been inside a newspaper newsroom or radio or television in more than a decade.
Meet the journalism college faculty at almost any major journalism program in the United States.

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