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Ledes That Come in a Flash of Inspiration

That "Aha" Moment When the Start of the Story Suddenly Falls Into Place

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Ledes That Come in a Flash of Inspiration

Rick Bragg

Mike Rushton was in the press box at Lincoln Financial Field in Philadelphia, watching the Eagles battle their much-hated NFC East rivals, the Dallas Cowboys. Rushton, a writer for SportsNetwork.com, was banging out a feature on Eagles backup quarterback Kevin Kolb, and by the time he left the stadium that night the story was basically done.

But something wasn't quite right about the lede, and as Rushton lay in bed trying to fall asleep, an entirely new beginning to the story suddenly came to mind.

"The first four graphs popped in my head at 11:30 on Sunday night," Rushton recalls. "Rather than get out of bed to go to the computer, I wrote the paragraphs down on my iPhone."

The result? A terrific piece on the travails of the second-string quarterback who lives in the shadow of the team's star, Michael Vick.

It's a moment every reporter has experienced. You're struggling with the lede, the all-important opening of your story that will either lure readers in or send them packing. Nothing works until suddenly, seemingly out of nowhere, a great lede pops into you head, fully written. Often, it's all you can do to write it down before it disappears as quickly as it came.

It's the "aha" moment of newswriting, that inexplicable flash of inspiration that is so fleeting yet so satisfying.

For a Pulitzer Winner, Inspiration From Images

Rick Bragg, a former New York Times reporter who won a Pulitzer Prize for feature writing, says he experienced such moments often. For him, they were all about connecting visual images to his words.

"It happened on most stories," he says. "Usually it's just the image that sings out, 'This tells this story in a few lines, in a capsule.'"

Bragg, who's now a writing professor at the University of Alabama, describes the lede as "not so much a hook as just that image that explains, that drives home the bigger idea."

In a story he did on the death of George Wallace, Bragg says, "it was the image of an old man in ragged clothes sitting on a rickety porch in a working-class area of Anniston, a man who loved Wallace because the governor once remembered his name."

In a piece on the homeless in Miami, "it was a man named Ed Washington who lived in a refrigerator box with a cat named Two-Lane," he recalls.

And for a story on the victims of the Oklahoma City bombing, Bragg began this way:

After the explosion, people learned to write left-handed, to tie just one shoe. They learned to endure the pieces of metal and glass embedded in their flesh, to smile with faces that made them want to cry, to cry with glass eyes. They learned, in homes where children had played, to stand the quiet. They learned to sleep with pills, to sleep alone.

Bragg says that lede was gleaned from dozens of stories about "all the pain McVeigh had caused. I took a nugget of misery from each one and strung them together, to create a kind of chain of impact and suffering. In that case it was not one image but several -- his crime was so immense it could not contained by one image."

Crafting a Lede on Sept. 11

On Sept. 11, 2001, New York Daily News rewriteman Corky Siemaszko was assigned to write a "violin," what he calls "a lyrical intro summing up that terrible day's coverage."

"I got my marching orders after struggling for eight hours to get into Manhattan," he recalls. "When I finally sat down at my desk, I spied a cold cup of coffee and suddenly I knew what I had to write."

Siemaszko's piece, which he says "spilled out of me," began like this:

The morning coffee was still cooling when our grandest illusion was shattered.
Within minutes, one of New York's mightiest symbols was a smoldering mess and the nation's image of invincibility was made a lie.

Mike Sielski, a sportswriter for the Wall St. Journal, wrote this lede for a column about the way pitcher Oliver Perez tries the New York Mets' patience:

Oliver Perez is the four-year-old who won't stop crying during the six-hour flight. He's the college roommate who won't clean his side of the room. He's the directory-assistance operator who can't find any listings in 'Kalamazoo' because he thinks it's spelled with a C.

Sielski describes his thought process this way:

"It's easy to say Oliver Perez is maddening to watch pitch. He doesn't throw strikes. But how do I capture that feeling a Mets fan has while watching him pitch? What are everyday happenings that frustrate people? I just tried to think of as many as I could. Plus, 'Kalamazoo' is just a funny word, I think."

Finding the Source of Inspiration

So where do "aha" ledes come from? Hard to say. Through the ages artists, composers, mathematicians and philosophers have reported having such flashes of inspiration. (Of course, no one would equate writing a lede with say, Isaac Newton discovering gravity after having an apple fall on his head.) Researchers are using M.R.I. technology to monitor what happens in a person’s brain when he or she is doing something creative.

From my own experience, aha ledes have usually come when I've worked on an article for a while, so maybe it's a matter of connecting the dots, of finding links between seemingly disparate elements in the story.

Years ago I wrote about Japanese Americans held in internment camps during World War II. I'd interviewed a former internee, an elderly man named Paul Kusuda, and while I wasn't thrilled with the lede, the editor was yelling for the article. I was about to send it when an entirely new and much better lede popped into my head. It went as follows:

One day in America, not so long ago, Paul Kusuda had his freedom taken away.

Wrenched from his home, herded onto a train bound for a Japanese internment camp, the 19-year-old Kusuda watched the landscape roll by, wondering where his country had gone.

Where did this come from? Years later, I still don't know. I remember connecting the image of Kusuda sitting on a train with the idea of him watching his country disappear, but beyond that, I'm not really sure.

The problem with "aha" ledes, wonderful as they are, is that they can't always be summoned when they're most needed - in the newsroom, on deadline.

So some writers, like Lisa Eckelbecker, a reporter for the Worcester Telegram & Gazette, try to channel the creative process, as she did when writing about a re-enactment of a 19th century baseball game.

"This is kind of embarrassing, but I feel my best ledes come to me when I'm almost in a trance," she says. "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 a lede."

A Team Effort

But the "aha" lede can also be a collaborative effort. Siemaszko says the scribes on the Daily News rewrite desk "often bounce lede ideas off each other."

He adds: "Several years ago, when I was assigned to do a story about George W. Bush's difficulties with the English language, my colleague Helen Kennedy reminded me Bush's dad also had the same problem."

"The syntax of the father," Kennedy began.

"Is visited on the son," Siemaszko added, completing the thought.

"And thus, a lede was born," he says.

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