Monday, July 13, 2009

A good, clean story wasted (maybe) by an ambling start in which Rule One is broken

and I go on, probably far too long, to explain why

Assuming one writes to be read, there is a Rule One: Keep your first sentence short. Further, do as I say, not as I do. My last post (Kill, Kill, Kill the F-22), opened with a 50-something word sentence and, in all probability, killed more readers than F-22s.

Now, how many good, clean and brief sentences must I write to cover my tracks? A baker's dozen? Four and twenty? Four score and seven? The math is unclear, but however many I must write, the Washington Post's Michael Shear is penalized for worse and probably ought to write at least twice as many as I.

In "Hearings Not Just About Sotomayor," Shear leads with a 40-word, paragraph-long sentence. He follows that one with a 47-word, paragraph-long sentence. By "historic," Shear's 100th word, I am defeated. The front-page, top-of-the-fold story has lost a reader, at least temporarily.

My newspaper bad habit being what it is, I won't quit on Shear's story, which is probably, on balance, a good one. But the Post, which like daily papers everywhere, keeps taking hard punches to the financial chin and circulation gut, ought to tighten things up. I mean, why pay editors, if they're not going to do their job? Somebody really should have kicked the story back to Shear with a pithy shorten-your-lead note.

Back in the day, when Marrianne McMullen (the person to whom I am married) was my editor, she'd invariably return my copy with the first two paragraphs crossed out. Sometimes, she'd say something like "put the point at the beginning" or "your warm-up doesn't belong in the story."

Of course, if Shear and his editors had stuck with Rule One, I'd have to find something else to blog about. Sonia Sotomayor, perhaps.

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