Don't let the Lead of 1,001 Uses (a.k.a. The Mr. Potato Head lead) overtake your writing imagination
By Gregg McLachlan
I may raise an issue you've never heard before in journalism circles, but it's one you'll likely agree needs close monitoring in the future.
In fact, I may irk some of you, but hear me out.
Some 'rules' of journalism say don't start a story with a quote unless it's a once-in-a-lifetime gem. Other rules say don't write 60-word leads because you'll lose your readers.
Yes, there may be a lot of 'rules,' but it's hard remembering all of them.
I once had an editor who said "Don't do this" and "Don't do that" so much that eventually I just ignored it all and did it anyway. My ability to filter what my editor said may have become completely clogged, but I didn't worry about it.
Sure, I may have been stubborn at the time, but I realize today that the editor did make some good points.
This month's message is about patterns. I'm not talking about the local women's institute making quilts or the reporters who, when the annual quilt-making story is assigned, mumble..... "this isn't news." I'm talking about patterns in our writing. Habits. Things that we do without realizing it.
There is one pattern that needs attention. It's journalism's all-time favourite formula lead. Open any daily newspaper on any given day and the odds are great you'll find one. Maybe two. And on a bad day, maybe three or four.
OK, I may be exaggerating a bit, but not much.
Have you got it yet?
It's the all-too-common 'May & But' lead.
Almost every journalist has done it once. Probably much more. And why not? It has 1,001 uses and can be adapted to virtually any lead.
Not sure how to start your story?
Well, it may be easy to start with this, but I need to include this too.
See, it works. Take two ideas and rather than choose one as the focus of your lead, play two different ideas off each other.
Most times, the 'May & But' lead is a runon sentence in disguise. The use of 'but' as a transition is a key clue that perhaps you're introducing a different thought. Whenever you use punctuation or a 'but,' try to see if you can start a new sentence.
And then there's 'may,' a word that lacks certainty. The Boston Red Sox may have won the World Series, but they're not resting on their laurels.
The Boston Red Sox may have won the World Series...? The last time I checked, they did win the World Series.
The 'May & But' lead is the Mr. Potato Head of leads. It has many different looks. It can transform itself to suit sports writing, life features, news stories and columns. But eventually, there are only so many ways you can put a nose on a potato. Soon, it looks the same: a potato with a nose.
Ditto for 'May & But' leads. Eventually, they start to read the same too. Yada yada yada yada may, but yada yada yada yada.
Really, we should be putting the 'May & But' lead somewhere on the list of leads to try to avoid. It may not be up there with the horrendous 'Tis the season.... lead, but it should rank in the top 20. (Yech! There's another 'May & But' sentence! It illustrates the point though: The 'May & But' lead is so easy and rolls out of our brains so effortlessly that we have to try twice as hard to be aware of it and write alternatives.)
Usually, it's what comes after 'but' that can help us form our leads.
Try this: In your rough draft, if you must, write your 'May & But' lead. It can be a starting point. Revisit it later in the writing process and ask yourself what is a stronger focus: What accompanies the 'may' or what accompanies the 'but'?
Choose one element and go with it.
And then get in the habit of relegating 'May & But' to your list of leads of last resort.
It may be hard, but it's a wise move for the sake of variety in your writing.
Here's a sampling of 'May & But' leads:
Some people may not understand, but 16-year-old Courtney Johnson is used to such reactions when she talks about her passion.
A local United Church minister says a union may help some clergy, but he doesn't see a need in his work.
The door may be mended at Luigi's Pizza, but the trust is far from restored.
The Johnsonville Minor Hockey Association may be off to a late start in registrations, but that wasn't stopping people from signing up.
It may sound a little nutty but as some squirrels stockpile food for the winter, they may be planting the seeds of future forests.
The team may have hit the canvas a few times after taking some early season lumps, but the players believe they're "picking it up" now.
They may not have become Scouts to win awards, but a trio of Scout leaders recently honoured by their local chapter will admit it's a pretty good feeling when that happens.
The big men up front may not get the recognition quarterbacks and running backs do, but they're a big reason for their team's success.
Burkesville residents may still be waiting for summer weather, but county councillors are gearing up for fall.