It’s All Journalism: Long-Form Journalism and Avoiding a Terrible Lede

It’s All Journalism is a weekly conversation about the changing state of the media and the future of journalism.

A barber once rescued Stephen Fried from a terrible lede.

Fried, an author and long-form writer, was struggling once to come up with a good beginning for a story he had written, a personality profile of Ricardo Muti, the former conductor of the Philadelphia Orchestra.

“I wrote this sort of terrible lede, which my editor crossed out. He said, ‘Go find another lede,'” Fried said.

There was nothing in the story that fit the bill.

“Ricardo Muti was known, besides for all his musicianship, he was known for his hair,” Fried said. “And so, out of utter desperation, I called the Philadelphia Orchestra and asked who cut his hair. And I went and, out of just complete fear of my editor and losing my job, I interviewed his barber. I attached the best part of the interview as the lede of the story to the rest of the story.”

Fried’s editor was satisfied and praised his ingenuity.

Sometimes, a solution is just an act of desperation.

Other times, according to Fried, it’s the writing process itself that can save the writer. This is especially true when it comes to thinking too much about a story.

“Thinking is not useful before writing,” he said. “Thinking is useful after trying the writing. Thinking about the writing doesn’t always make the writing any better. So what I’m saying is, especially when you have to build something big, that has a lot of foundation and you might have to tear out part of the foundation and build another way, outlining and thinking it through is not gonna solve the problem.”

The longer a story is, the more problems a writer can encounter.

“It’s not part of the reporting process,” Fried said. “It’s part of what your brain brings together when you’re writing. So, there’s no substitute for writing, even to have what you’re writing suck, but for you in understanding why it sucks, understand what you have to do. And you think that you can avoid that step by thinking really hard and not writing the thing that sucks, and that’s the big lie. Because, you should always just try to write.”

A common trap for writers is fixating on the lede. They write and they rewrite, trying to get it perfect.

“We write the beginning over a million times and then we don’t write anything else,” Fried said. “And one of the things that I’ve taught myself when I catch myself doing this is to stop writing the beginning, and to just start writing at chapter two and come back to the beginning. Because, in reality, a lot of times your lede is something that you find as you write in. The chances of it coming to you at the beginning before you start writing are much lower than if you start building. And you will either find it while you’re building or it will make more sense what it needs to be once you’ve built the rest of the draft.”

Enter Ricardo Muti’s barber.

On this week’s It’s All Journalism podcast, producer Michael O’Connell talks to writer Stephen Fried about long-form journalism. He will be talking about long-form journalism and presenting a writing workshop at the 2015 AAN Convention, which takes place July 16-18, in Salt Lake City. Fried is an adjunct professor at Columbia University’s graduate school of journalism. He’s also a non-fiction author. His books include Husbandry, The New Rabbi, Bitter Pills: Inside the Hazardous World of Legal Drugs and Sex, Lies & Dirty Laundry — Inside the Minds of Married Men. The Wall Street Journal and the Philadelphia Inquirer named his latest book, Appetite for America: Fred Harvey and the Business of Civilizing the Wild West — One Meal at a Time, on of the top 10 books of 2010. For more about Fried’s work, visit his website.