The Best Thing I Ever Read About Writing

The greatest thing about the writing craft that I ever read was in “I Feel Bad About My Neck,” by the late Nora Eprhon.

In that book, Ephron recalls a lesson from her high school journalism teacher, Charles O. Simms, on how to write a story lead – the first sentence or paragraph of a newspaper story.

“He writes the words ‘Who What Where When Why and How” on the blackboard,” Ephron recalled. “Then he dictates a set of facts to use that goes something like this: ‘Kenneth L. Peters, the principal of Beverly Hills High School, announced today that the faculty of the high school will travel to Sacramento on Thursday for a colloquium in new teaching methods. Speaking there will be anthropologist Margaret Mead and Robert Maynard Hutchins, the president of the Univesrity of Chicago.’

“We all sit at our typewriters and write a lead, most of us inverting the set of facts so that they read something like this, ‘Anthropologist Margaret Meand and University of Chicago President Robert Maynard Hutchins will address the faculty Thursday in Sacramento at a colloquium on new teaching methods, the principal of the high school Kenneth L. Peters announced today.’

“We turn in our leads. We’re very proud. Mr. Simms looks at what we’ve done and then tosses everything into the garbage. He says: ‘The lead of the story is “There will be no school Thursday.”’”

I wish I’d thought of that. I wish I could say that, as I was reading the assignment, I figured out the right answer before it was revealed. I did not.

If there’s ever been a better lesson about reader-serving writing, I’ve never found it.