Write great beginnings

Journalists call story openings “ledes.”

Whether you call them beginnings, openings or ledes, you need to agonize over them – because you have about 250 words to grab your readers.

“Begin at the beginning,” the King said, gravely, “and go on ’till you come to the end. Then stop.” Lewis Carroll.

Up top, identify the message of the e-mail, web page or article. Learn new ways to begin a piece of writing. “A lead ought to shine like a flashlight, down into the whole piece, if possible,” says John McPhee.

Avoid these bland, trite leads

  • An apology or complaint: As you probably know….
  • A panorama or vague overview: Urban sprawl is a problem each of us faces every day.
  • A truism, a cliché, the obvious or platitudes: We are dedicated to being the world’s best at bringing people together – giving them easy access to each other and to the information and services they want and need – anytime, anywhere.
  • The Adam-and-Eve approach: Back when the company was founded….
  • There’s good news and there’s bad news….
  • A dictionary definition.
  • To whom it may concern.
  • Dear Sir or Madam.
  • Enclosed (or attached) please find.
  • It has come to my attention.

What Ed Snider taught me about writing nonfiction


In 1966, Ed Snider, the billionaire entrepreneur who died recently at 83, co-founded the Philadelphia Flyers hockey team. He also developed and acquired 10 additional businesses, including SMG, an early sports-arena management company; WIP, an early all-sports radio station; and SpectaGuard, a security company. Oh, yes, and the Spectrum, the late, great indoor sporting arena in South Philly.

Snider bundled his companies into an entity called Spectacor, which occupied a mansion on the south side of Rittenhouse Square. It was there that I met Snider, whom I was to profile in Spectacor’s employee newsletter.

Snider’s office, the top level in his elevator-free building, was as impressive as his business empire. His reputation was even greater: He was a towering figure in the world of sports, well known for the emotional support he gave to his players, the presidents of his companies and his friends and colleagues in the city and country.

I was literally and figuratively breathless when I arrived at the fourth floor. But Snider put me at ease, and he spoke with ease. Across the world’s largest wooden desk, he talked about his love for his family and players. He interspersed comments and memories with gestures to photos of his favorite people. And he chatted at length about the wonder of having a child and a grandchild of the same age, a feat he accomplished by marrying multiple times.

The lesson he taught was that, if I just kept quiet and allowed his mind to wander, I’d get a good story. I knew that already, but he, or at least his behavior, reminded me. I didn’t interrupt with questions from my prepared list. Sometimes I smiled or laughed or said, “Oh!” – an inducement for him to keep on keepin’ on. And he did.

Well, the story wrote itself, as they say. It was easy to punctuate his musings, to turn phrases into sentences, to insert paragraph marks. Before deadline, I submitted the profile to the p.r. man who hired me. He loved the article.

I wish that were the end of the story. But when Ed Snider, later honored for his charity work by the Philadelphia Sports Writers Association, read the piece, he had second thoughts. According to the p.r. man, Snider regretted opening up as much as he did. He didn’t take back any of the details, all of which I cited accurately. He merely dismissed the entire article, which never saw publication.

RIP, Ed Snider: You taught me to keep still when I interview, even if the result did not thrill you.

Learn to write nonfiction — and that’s the truth

almost everything we say is true

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Are you dangling?

vehicle closing

When writing sentences, be careful not to dangle.

Some sentences have mistakes that make them difficult to read. Other sentences contain mistakes that make them hilarious. The funny ones often contain dangling modifiers. Learn what dangling modifiers are and how to avoid them so that you don’t make people laugh when you want them to be serious.

A dangling modifier fails to refer logically to any word in the sentence. A dangling modifier is usually a word group, such as a verbal phrase, that suggests, but does not name, a perpetrator. When a sentence opens with such a modifier, the reader expects the subject of the next clause to name the perp. If the subject doesn’t, the modifier dangles.

When writing

  • Place the modifier as close as possible to the word it modifies.
  • Put an adjective as close as possible to its noun.
  • Put an adverb as close as possible to its verb.

Here’s a favorite blooper: “The Rialto Film Institute will celebrate its grand reopening after a nearly decade-long renovation that doubled the number of screens to four on Sunday from 2 to 5 p.m.” I wonder where they got contractors to build two theaters in three hours. On Sunday from 2 to 5 belongs after grand reopening, of course, and two sentences might be better than one. Here are some other examples.

DANGLING Deciding to join the fitness club, the trainer shook Carrie’s hand. Deciding dangles because it describes Carrie, not the trainer.
CORRECT Deciding to join the fitness club, Carrie shook the hand of the trainer.
CORRECT When Carrie decided to join the fitness club, she shook the hand of the trainer.

DANGLING Upon seeing the tree listing sideways, strings were put in place to hold it upright. Upon seeing dangles because it describes the gardener, not the strings.
CORRECT Upon seeing the tree listing sideways, Jackie fastened strings to hold it upright.
CORRECT When Jackie saw the tree listing sideways, she fastened strings to hold it upright.

DANGLING Though only 14 years old, the teachers were impressed with Ariel’s grasp of Shakespearean tragedies. Though only 14 years old dangles because it describes Ariel, not her teachers.
CORRECT Though only 14, Ariel had a grasp of Shakespeare that impressed her teachers.
CORRECT Ariel, who is only 14, had a grasp of Shakespeare that impressed her teachers.

DANGLING After denying any wrongdoing, the helicopter whisked the president to Camp David. In this sentence, After denying any wrongdoing modifies the chopper.
CORRECT After he denied any wrongdoing, the president waved from the helicopter and left for Camp David.
CORRECT The president denied any wrongdoing, climbed onto the chopper and left town.

Best wishes for safe dangling.


You’ve got style

tourist season

Whose style?

Q. Recently a local seminary invited me to do some copy editing. A group of professors plans and writes articles, and the president’s executive assistant coordinates logistics, sending me “the ones that need editing.”

I’m doing my best to determine what they consider good copy editing, but there’s no managing editor, and I don’t communicate directly with the authors. And they are inconsistent. Should I make stylistic suggestions or just take my very generous pay and be happy?

A. I recommend that you ask your contact person if they would like you to create a style guide. After they say Yes, create a brief one and submitting it for review. If the profs care about style but have never had one, they will be thrilled.

If they are not sticklers for stylistic consistency, you will have chosen the style you prefer.

Your suggestion sends the signal that you are a professional editor who cares about their publication. If they accept and use your guide, it’s another way to promote your name – and work ethic.

If or when the relationship ends and they hire a new freelancer, the style guide will help your successor. Its’ a nice way to ensure good will, even after you move on.