By David Poulson
Stephen King recently offered advice useful for journalists covering the environment.
I don’t mean covering it as a horror story – although that’s certainly a reader engagement strategy we all use often enough.
The prolific author of scary tales like The Shining and Carrie and of the current mini-series Under the Dome, tells the Atlantic about crafting first sentences. He spends months – even years – rewriting them, often while lying in bed before falling asleep.
Any writer can benefit from what King has to say about minimalist first sentences chock full of meaning and that establish the voice that carries through the piece. Follow that link; read what he says.
That said, no journalist in the deadline-a-minute crunch for news can afford the luxury of nightly rewrites while lying in bed. My students panic when I suggest they spend half their writing time before deadline crafting a lede.
And yet I argue that it’s time well-spent. It makes the rest of the job much easier. Nail that first sentence and you’ve focused the story and launched a path to the end.
It is a wondrous relief when I get that first sentence right, or at least close enough to right that I know the rest will come.
Environmental reporters write about complex stuff. We have limited space. We know way more than we can report. And we need to engage readers with limited time and attention and perspective and context on what we report.
The challenges are steep enough that until I find that lede, I fret – even panic – if I can ever adequately tell the story. But once I do, the rest is almost following a recipe. Hard work may remain – checking facts, finding quotes, handling nuance, understanding complexity, deciding what to leave out – but the way forward is clear.
I have a roadmap and I know that I have a better than even shot of getting to my destination.
Of course, there is a whole lot more to writing than that first sentence. There’s a danger in overemphasizing its importance. As King notes in the Atlantic, “Listen, you can’t live on love, and you can’t create a writing career based on first lines.”
And I don’t want to make the case that every first sentence has to be a literary gem worthy of lengthy honing. We do journalism. In the best scenarios we have very limited time.
We rarely deal with the best scenarios.
The creation of the lede for the piece you are reading now is an example of what I’m getting at. King’s advice is relevant to any writer. But for this use I needed to connect it with journalists interested in reporting on the environment.
I had a vague idea of linking King’s genre of horror writing with writing about environmental horrors. It’s a hokey concept. And I unsuccessfully worked with it before doing what I often do when I’m stuck for a lede: I wrote a poor one just to get the piece underway.
I rarely can get far without going back for another try. And this time, about four paragraphs in, it struck me that merely including Stephen King and environmental journalism in the same sentence is a plenty good hook for my audience. He’s famous enough that I don’t have to immediately explain him. And sticking both in the same sentence prompts readers to think, “What’s up with this? I’ll read more to find out.”
As a nod to my original idea, I stuck that reference to environmental horror storytelling in the second paragraph. It just seemed to work there when I couldn’t make it work in the first sentence.
The rest of this piece was work – but I’d call it downhill writing once I figured out those two paragraphs. I’m not saying it’s a first sentence that I’ll lie in bed re-crafting. It certainly won’t show up among the favorite first lines cited by these authors, also in the Atlantic.
But in my view it does the job and was worth the additional time I invested. You may disagree. Got a better idea? Stick it in the comments below.
The importance of compelling ledes is hardly news to journalists. Writers and writing instructors rightfully talk about the importance of beginnings to readers.
But I like what King has to say about their importance to writers:
“Because it’s not just the reader’s way in, it’s the writer‘s way in also, and you’ve got to find a doorway that fits us both. I think that’s why my books tend to begin as first sentences — I’ll write that opening sentence first, and when I get it right I’ll start to think I really have something.”
Knowing that you “really have something” gives you the confidence and energy to wrestle that story to the end. Once you’re in that zone, it’s just a matter of time before you’ve got it licked.
David Poulson is the associate director of Michigan State University’s Knight Center for Environmental Journalism