Burying the Lead

Not long ago, I edited an article about a researcher at a large university. The article started by talking about his exact relationship to the university – how he’s chair of this and professor of that. Then it said that the two institutes within the university of which this researcher is a part have a shared mission of healthcare innovation and, “in keeping with those two objectives,” he is developing a new technology for creating living tissue that will be used mainly for testing pharmaceuticals. Then the article talked a bit about how this tissue creation occurs, through advances in 3-D printing, then it talked about how previous generation 3-D printers had limited abilities and couldn’t do the tissue creation thing.

Then, in the third-to-last paragraph, it mentioned that he and his team had printed an artificial cornea and blood vessels and, oh, by the way, he just got a grant to develop a manufacturing process for human heart tissue.

Or, as I would put it: He made a !@$#!! cornea, !@$#!! blood vessels and is working on manufacturing !@$#!! !@$#!! !@$#!! human heart tissue.

There’s a term for this, ladies and gentlemen. It’s called burying the lead. And here’s how it happens: A writer assigned a story about such-and-such starts talking to Mr. So-and-So and gets all the background and the basics and what fellowship the guy holds and where, then they start talking about his work. Then they start talking about the fruits of his work. Then the reporter fails to register the jaw-dropping fact that this man is making hearts and eyeballs. Instead, the writer just regurgitates the information in the same basic format as the one in which it was laid out to him.

It’s like the old Nora Ephron story about how when she was in high school, her journalism class was asked to write a lead for a story about some school board bigwig who oversees such-and-such and is holding a faculty meeting on Tuesday to discuss whoseits and whatnot. All the students wrote leads incorporating those events and the visiting dignitaries' name. None of the students wrote the lead the teacher was looking for, which was: There will be no school on Tuesday.

The lesson here: Always home in on the piece of information that’s most interesting or pertinent for the reader and weight it accordingly. It’s what good writers do.