What’s the Story #36

Most nonfiction writers I know can’t really get going on an essay, a chapter or even a book until they have set the direction and tone of the narrative at the outset. This part of the writing process—finding a good beginning—can take a long time, but it is absolutely crucial.

Journalists call the beginning of a piece “the lede,” and in the textbook journalism, the lede covers the famous Five W’s—who, what, when, where and why, and sometimes how. (Journalism revived the archaic word “lede” to avoid confusion; back when metal type was still set by hand on the presses, “lead” referred to the metal strips used to create space between lines.)

In creative nonfiction, the lede functions somewhat differently. Because the primary purpose is not so much to communicate quickly the basic information of a story as it is to draw readers in, the beginning of a story may not capture the Five W’s; often, some of those essential questions are purposely held back to enhance suspense and to allow the narrative to develop more organically.

The lede also has a more complex function for the writer; it tells the writer where to take the reader and when to introduce ideas, themes and characters. The lede, in other words, leads. It gets the writer going and fuels momentum. From this point, writers can often move quickly through the first draft. Sometimes, they revise along the way; other times, they forge ahead without stopping, hungry to follow the road to the end.

Yet even though a writer may have worked for a long time finding a lede that leads, the original lede may not be an essential part of the finished piece. While revising, the writer usually has to return to the beginning of the piece and decide whether the first lede is still necessary. Often it is not; the first lede was just a tool or triggering device that allowed the writer to get to what I call the “real lead.”

Of course, I am certainly not the first or only editor to distinguish between the first lede and the real lead. Elie Wiesel, in his introduction to The Night Trilogy, a collection made up of his memoir, “Night,” the two novels, “Dawn” and “Day,” writes that his editor made significant cuts to “Night,” especially at the beginning of the text. He accepted his editor’s decision, he writes, because “I worried that some things might be superfluous. Substance alone mattered. I was more afraid of having said too much than too little.”

During the editing process for this issue, with the permission of the writers, we eliminated the original beginning of three essays and started them a few paragraphs or pages later. Our goal was to make the beginnings more immediate, to eliminate some writerly throat-clearing, to help plunge readers into the heart of the story—the action, the theme, the substance—from the very beginning.

Did these changes, in fact, make the stories more effective, as Wiesel suggests? And what, if anything, was lost in the editing process? In a special online forum created for this issue, you can discover which stories got “new” beginnings. We’ll post the original pieces as they were submitted, with graphics that help demonstrate not only what was removed during editing, but also what was moved further into the pieces and, in some cases, what was added. In addition, you’ll be able to read editorial statements about the process as well as comments from the writers, whom I’d like to thank for being so good-natured and for allowing us to reveal some of their revision processes and the hard work that usually goes on out of readers’ sight.

You’ll also be able to join online discussion about the pieces and, more generally, about the “first lede/real lead” process. I hope you’ll join us at creativenonfiction.org.

About the Author

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Lee Gutkind

Lee Gutkind is the author and editor of more than thirty books, including You Can’t Make This Stuff Up: The Complete Guide to Writing Creative Nonfiction–from Memoir to Literary Journalism and Everything in Between, Almost Human: Making Robots Think, The Best Seat in Baseball: But You Have to Stand, Forever Fat: Essays by the Godfather, and the award-winning, Many Sleepless Nights: The World of Organ Transplantation.

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