Saturday, January 8, 2011

When the lead strikes you

A new article on tries to get at the cause of the so-called aha lead. The article, written by Tony Rogers, features quotes from Rick Bragg; rewrite man Corky Siemaszko of the New York Daily News, Lisa Eckelbecker of the Worcester (Mass.) Telegram & Gazette and other reporters. It's worth checking out.

Sometimes that perfect idea for the top of the story can come when you're not really hunting for it. At the wrong time, in other words. A sportswriter quoted in the article mentioned above, Mike Rushton of, realized what the lead should be hours after he'd filed the story and left the stadium. It happened after he'd put himself to bed. So he pulled out his iPhone and wrote a new top. Eckelbecker, of the Telegram & Gazette, is quoted as saying her best leads occur to her when she alters her mind—sans drugs, mind you.

"This is kind of embarrassing, but I feel my best (leads) come to me when I'm almost in a trance," she tells Rogers. "If I'm struggling to come up with something, I take a deep breath and try to clear my mind. Then I think about what I want to convey. That usually helps me focus and come up with an anecdote, a scene or even an attitude that can be turned into (leads)."

Leads have come to me in the bathroom. Leads have murmured themselves out loud in my head while my body was busy walking, and I have had to stop and pull out a notebook and pen before the words disappear. If I'm without a writing implement, I pray the the words repeat inside, and when I return to my desk, I dutifully transcribe. Either way, I don't cross-examine, because I'm not smart enough for that. If it's a lucky day, a lead will pop up in my head when I'm driving back to the paper after reporting. But usually I feel I don't get adequate time to come up with a lead that does all the things I want it to do, and it ends up being second rate, because I like to spend more of my time reporting and writing the hard, nuanced parts. Maybe I need to change my behavior, or maybe I need a few good-luck charms, to get the miracle leads flowing. Then again, to quote an editor I have known, an article has a 24-hour shelf life; in other words, it doesn't have to be a masterpiece to stand the test of time. Usually the bigger stories allow for a little extra time to think about what the lead should be. In those cases, I have felt compelled to write one idea or another at the top, as if nothing else could go up there. It's not much of a creative experience, I guess. But at least I can go home satisfied.

How, when and where do you come up with leads?