Anecdotal ledes: The kudzu of journalism

In the 1930s, the Civilian Conservation Corps had a problem. Overfarming in the American South had weakened the soil, and left large swaths of land in danger of erosion. To keep Alabama from washing into the gulf, the CCC hit upon what must have seemed an ingenious solution: Pay farmers $8 an acre to plant kudzu, an Asian vine that was excellent at holding soil together. Unfortunately, kudzu proved excellent at many other things as well — growing 60 feet a year, growing back in all directions when cut back — with the end result that it’s now an invasive pest across the entire region, running wild across the farmland it was supposed to protect.

“Good ideas gone bad” is a common meme these days, understandably so — how’s that internal combustion engine going, guys? — and I’d like to add another nominee to the list: the so-called “anecdotal lede” in newspaper and magazine articles. You know what it looks like, even if you’ve never heard the term: “Mary Jones, a 43-year-old homemaker in San Bernardino, never thought she’d be applying for food stamps” (or “voting Republican” or “learning how to use an iPad,” etc.). It’s become a staple of modern journalism — open to any page of your daily newspaper, if you still have a daily newspaper, and you’re sure to find at least one.

Like kudzu, the anecdotal lede was introduced to deal with dirt — in this case, preventing news articles from being as dry as it, by providing a personal story to ease readers into whatever greater issue was going to be addressed in later paragraphs. It was a nice try, but at this point it’s fair to say that the anecdotal lede has outgrown most of its original usefulness.

As Dan Baum, a writer who was initially excited at moving from newspapers to the anecdotal-lede-loving world of fancy-pants magazine writing (New Yorker, Rolling Stone, et al.), has written:

I relied on the anecdotal lede for years. It felt like the thing that made me a writer as opposed to a mere reporter.

The anecdotal lede can be a fine thing. I still use it occasionally. More and more though, I find myself — as a reader — skipping over other people’s anecdotal ledes. Yeah, yeah, I think. Very nice. But what’s this story about?

As a reader and an editor, I second Baum’s emotion. I recently had the pleasure of reading four straight article submissions that began with near-identical anecdotal ledes, and the effect was beyond soporific — by the end, I practically had to pry my eyelids open to make it to the second paragraph. Some of this was the sheer repetition — by now, the anecdotal lede has become a journalistic cliche, and most anyone who’s picked up a magazine knows it. But on top of that, lots of stories aren’t best told by starting with someone’s personal tale — yet writers persist in shoehorning their articles into that format anyway, because they’ve been told that kudzu is a miracle cure.

Baum’s solution is what he calls the “conceptual lede,” which is what I’ve tried to do here: Kudzu isn’t a character (well, not unless you count this one), and I’m not presenting a single personal anecdote that’s a microcosm of my greater point — I’m making an analogy. (Baum presents as his own example a New Yorker article he wrote about post-Katrina rebuilding efforts that opens with New Orleans circa 1803.) I could have started with “I was reading article after article that began the same way last week, when it occurred to me…” but that seemed boring, and worse, not all that helpful in getting my point across.

Baum concludes that anecdotal ledes still have their place, and I’d happily agree: Sometimes the best way to draw the reader into the article is to start with an individual’s personal story. But not always. And that should be the overriding factor in writing any lede: What’s the best way to quickly convince a typical reader that this is worth reading? There should be a couple of hard-and-fast rules — start from a place the reader is already familiar with, get to the point early, don’t be boring — but otherwise, every article should be treated as its own case.

To do otherwise is to send kudzu to do the job of a writer.