The Art of the Lead


A few years back, a male magazine writer I know was dating a female editor from another magazine. She let him in on one of her trade secrets: when a manuscript lands on her desk, her first step is to cut the lead paragraph, because most stories read just as well without it. Talk about a ball-buster. In recounting the editor’s little secret, my friend told me that was the moment he began having doubts about her.

Lead grafs are hard to write, and writers prize them like children. They can reflect conscious narrative choices—or they can seem arbitrary and expendable, which would confirm the theory of the high-handed paramour. Consider the rhetorical tricks on display in the following leads from the September issues of Talk, Vanity Fair, and Esquire, and from a recent New Yorker.

• The Borrowed Quote To kick off her story on “It” girls for Vanity Fair, Evgenia Peretz doesn’t reach far for a definition. She just turns to Rudyard Kipling, who wrote the following: ” ‘Tisn’t beauty, so to speak, nor good talk necessarily. It’s just It. Some women’ll stay in a man’s memory if they once walk down a street.”

• The Statistic Talk‘s Rebecca Johnson seems to know she’s not writing about a remarkable individual, just the subject of a trend story. Thus she begins, “Statistically, Kristin Whiting should not be single: At 32, she’s seven years past the age at which the average American woman first gets married.” Then Johnson gets personal by revealing that she herself is engaged to a “slightly bald investment banker.” How exciting: One statistic meets another.

• The Telling Anecdote Extraordinary subjects yield better leads, as David Owen shows in the August 21 & 28 Sports Issue of The New Yorker: “On a hot Sunday afternoon last May, Tiger Woods conducted a golf exhibition in Oklahoma City. During the hour before he appeared . . . a member of his entourage held a trivia contest. . . . One of the questions: In what year was Tiger Woods born? The first guess, by a very young fan, was 1925.” Like a pro, Owen gets right to the point: “Woods has accomplished so much . . . that it’s easy to forget that he’s only twenty-four.”

• Reverse Anthropomorphism If the subject’s been written about to death, you might open with an animal, vegetable, or mineral metaphor. Thus, for a Steve McQueen piece in Vanity Fair, James Wolcott pulls out something cold and hard (“McQueen bonded with metal, making steel an extension of himself”), while Talk‘s Nell Campbell selects an organic trope for Nicole Kidman: “In Australia, which celebrates achievement even as it suspects ambition, it’s called Tall Poppy Syndrome—stand out too much, and you’ll get chopped down to size.” Note trendy opium motif.

• The Erotic Fantasy When profiling a young actress, never rule this one out. Vanity Fair‘s Michael Schnayerson leads his Gwyneth Paltrow story with the suggestion that when he asked for an interview, the first issue was, Your place or mine? Paltrow responds by “bringing a meal to a journalist’s place on the Upper West Side.” (When they finish lunch, she “jumps up to clear the table.”) Just what every man dreams of: a celebrity-turned-Stepford wife.

• Male Bonding If subject and writer are male, they might engage in a competition to create drama. Esquire‘s Tom Chiarella starts his profile of Billy Crudup like this: “It’s raining on the first tee, pouring, actually, and for a second the whole thing staggers against the possibility of a rain-out. Billy Crudup locks eyes with me. ‘Dude,’ he says, ‘I want to play. I’m a player.’ The rain, I tell him, doesn’t scare me. ‘You’re a player, too, then,’ he says.” And they’re off.

• The Double Entendre Best used when femme meets femme. Thus, Talk‘s Nancy Haas starts by quoting busty widow Darcy LaPier Hughes, to wit: “All I can tell you is that these suckers are the real McCoy.” In case you missed the joke, Haas rubs it in: “She is referring not to her anatomy, but to the provenance of the paintings, bronzes . . . and French tapestries that surround her.” The graf ends with a wink: Speaking of her late husband, LaPier Hughes says, “Mark was only interested in the best, the biggest, and the most expensive.”

• The Movie Pitch In writing his Hollywood saga for Talk, Josh Young always keeps the audience in mind, collapsing his plot into the first two sentences: “For 22 years they watched each other’s backs. Now they are at each other’s throats.” His next few sentences flesh out the plot (“Together Jeff Berg and Jim Wiatt built [ICM] into one of the foremost talent agencies in the entertainment industry. . . . But now the former partners have turned on one another with a vengeance”), and he winds up by comparing his plot to another one we all know: Berg-Wiatt “is shaping up to be the biggest battle of the moguls since Jeffrey Katzenberg and Michael Eisner parted ways.”

• The Museum Inventory The New Yorker is the home of the anti-lead, an unplotted accumulation of detail. Consider Larissa MacFarquhar’s “Horse Country,” in the Sports Issue. “Two hundred years ago, Midway Farm, just outside Charlottesville, Virginia, was a tobacco plantation of around seven hundred acres,” MacFarquhar begins. “The main house on the property is a red brick Federal with a white-columned porch; there is a dark stain on the floor of the living room that house tradition claims to be the blood of a fallen soldier. Over the years, Midway’s land has been divided many times. One tract is now . . . owned by a professional stable named Millington; Quail Ridge Farm, next door, was also carved out of the original plantation. The surrounding countryside . . . ” And so on, for 206 words, before she breaks into a trot.

• The Cliff-Hanger The Sports writers were apparently competing to see who could write the longest lead. Roger Angell came close with 293 words, but Malcolm Gladwell took home the gold with his essay on performance anxiety. Gladwell’s lead, a muscular 314 words, puts us inside Jana Novotna’s head as she runs through a series of serves at Wimbledon, and ends, just short of climax, with three questions: “Did she suddenly realize how . . . close she was to victory? Did she remember that she had never won a major tournament before? Did she look across the net and see Steffi Graf—Steffi Graf!—the greatest player of her generation?” He leaves us panting for more.

• Brevity, the Soul of Wit They could all learn something from New Yorker editor David Remnick’s profile of boxing trainer Teddy Atlas. In a spare 175 words, Remnick unpacks the trainer archetype: He is an “unheeded Polonius” or “background figure” who “knows that his pleas and instructions most often go unheard.” While others strive for authority by constructing a wall of words, Remnick clinches it in the first sentence: “Most cornermen have no more to offer a fighter than a bucket to spit in.”

The same could be said for some magazine writers.

Cynthia Cotts will be on vacation for two weeks. The next Press Clips will appear online on September 19.