When I was in high school, I knew I wanted to go to college to study English--and even more specifically, creative writing. Yet, somehow, it was published in the local newspaper that I was going to study journalism. I was peeved. I didn’t want to write about what other people were doing. I wanted to invent stories.
Off I went to college to get my degree in English. While there, I took many courses where I read what other people imagined into being, but there was not one creative writing course in which I was enrolled. The closest I came was a poetry course where we certainly had to write poetry, but it was according to predetermined forms and we read just as much as we wrote.
For reasons I can’t recall, I found my way to the school’s newspaper office. This was not an elite or selective assembly…they clearly let anyone in. Though I certainly recall attending a couple of meetings, I don’t think I ever actually wrote anything for the newspaper and I definitely never took a journalism course.
After graduation, I was desperate for a job like every well-educated, under-experienced post-college student. Fortunately, I was able to land a long-term substitute position for the first semester and then, without missing a day of work in the interim, landed a second long-term substitute position in a different district. While my first position was as a seventh-grade English teacher, my second position included teaching a journalism class. Like so many, it was clear that the people who hired me assumed that having a degree in English somehow translated into being skilled, if not at least knowledgeable in journalism. As you know, I was neither. So, I got a copy of the textbook and did my best to be the cliched one chapter ahead of the students.
More than anything else, the learning I walked away with regarding journalism is this…when you write in that style, you need to assume that people will skim. As a result, you should use an “inverted pyramid” whereby the most important information is first because that is, at best, what people will read. Hence the expression, “Don’t bury the lead.”
Northern Michigan University defines a lead in this way:
A lead is an opening paragraph that gives the audience the most important information of the news story in a concise and clear manner, while still maintaining the readers' interest. If a reader does not read beyond your first paragraph, they should still have an idea of what your article is about and the most important information from that article.
Clearly, I do not write my Lyon’s Letters in a journalistic style. Most of my posts start with an experience I’ve had, an antidote, or another hook that draws readers in using a style that intentionally twists so that you do have to read the whole post in its entirety to really understand my point. However, in many ways, emails are much closer to journalism than to the informational and/or entertaining essays I tend to write each week. It seems like the subject line of an email would be a wonderful place to include a lead sentence. Yet, the subject line is more like a title or headline to an article than a lead. It’s meant to briefly give a hint of what’s to come, but not summarize the gist of the email.
Years ago, I tried to start a small revolution. While I maintained all the aspects we currently use when writing emails, I also added a lead before the salutation. I literally wrote the word “LEAD” in all capitals with a colon and then did my best to summarize the text of the email into one sentence. In truth, this wasn’t easy. It’s very difficult to take everything that was said over many sentences or paragraphs and distill it into a single summarizing sentence (although Chat GpT could do it easily for a writer now). Nevertheless, I think it helped the reader to understand what my point was.
Unfortunately, this stylistic novelty didn’t last long. In the haste of everyday work and communication, not to mention years of not including a lead, not only did I wax and wane with my diligence in remembering to include the lead, but it didn’t really catch on. Even so, I think in addition to the standard, “To” and “Subject” lines in an email, having a “Lead” line that would prompt the writer to craft a single summary sentence would be so helpful to the reader. After all, Einstein, one of the smartest people to ever live, said, “If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough.” I guess it's as simple as that.
P.S. For schools, this is testing season. Final exams, APs, SATs, and a host of other assessments. I am a fan of assessments, but so often people see tests as the end of learning. As an educator, I see tests differently. Assessments are a next step to understanding the learner. My Catch of the Week is one of the best books I’ve ever read about testing and learning, David Schmittou’s, Making Assessment Work: For Educators Who Hate Data But Love Kids. I happen to love data and I love this book. Schmittou’s straightforward, practical approach to assessments and learning is spot-on and user-friendly. I cannot express how much I think all educators (and parents) should read this book!