How Shall I Begin?

The Magazine Writer’s Most Soul-Searching Dilemma

Do not expect to be introduced to any awesome breasts in Brill's Content. Because the magazine's mission is to cover powerful media, the staffers seem doomed to narrate stories that take place in sterile environments. So it's not fair to blame the contributors to the fall issue for dull leads that take place in, respectively, a hotel convention room, a network TV studio, and the reception area of an ad agency. But PJ Mark finds a way around the white noise in the lead to his profile of two agents at William Morris.

"If Suzanne Gluck and Jennifer Rudolph Walsh were actually one person instead of two," Mark writes, "she would have four kids and two husbands, earn more than $1 million a year in salary, and be responsible for 24 books spending more than 13 years on the bestseller list." As is often the case, the funny lead here is a signal of an entertaining story to come.

A surefire way to spruce up a lead is to put yourself into it, preferably revealing the lengths you had to go to get the story. Thus, in the August Esquire, Mike Sager lets us know right away that the privilege of meeting Roseanne Barr at her mountain retreat will be followed by "a long, dark, treacherous ride home." Beginning his profile of a band-for-hire in the August 20-27 issue of The New Yorker, Mark Singer tells us he's spending the afternoon with the musician "idling in hair-tearing Hamptons-bound stop-and-barely-go Long Island Expressway traffic." And in the lead to his Talk story on Nepal's self-destructing crown prince, Patrick French recalls how, when he flew into Kathmandu, "apart from the nervous flight attendants and a couple of dejected Nepalese, I had the Boeing 767 all to myself."

The best leads arise when the entire piece is autobiographical. Consider how Jennifer Senior begins her account of breaking up with her analyst, in the August 20 issue of New York: "Recently I was lying on my analyst's couch, wishing I were wearing a wire." Or this first sentence from the fall issue of Brill's Content, in which Geoff Lewis deconstructs the language of high tech: "I confess. I did it. I am responsible for the dotcom meltdown." With leads like that, it's obvious Senior and Lewis have stories to tell.

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