Anecdotal leads: a cliche

Feb 28th, 2009 | By | Category: Resources

Detroit Free Press staff writer

Steve Twomey of the Washington Post used that to title a talk that basically debunked the anecdotal lead.

At the 1997 National Writers’ Workshop in Wilmington, Twomey said that an anecdote is great under only two circumstances. First, if it is exactly right, which too often is not the case, and second, if you can segue into the story quickly and without the ever-popular ”John Doe is typical of ….”

At the Washington Post, Twomey said, anecdotal leads are called ”Fred Zimmermans.” If you read the paper and Old Fred has been all over the map that day, you have a problem.

Why not use it? It’s too easy, and it’s becoming a horrible newspaper cliche.

Most of the time, Twomey said, the story didn’t need Fred. ”The single greatest problem is they use Fred and thereby have the wrong point, or no point at all.” This happens when reporters write without knowing why they’re writing — or what the point really is. ”The story has to be about somebody. When you can’t answer that question, out comes Fred.”

Twomey introduced several examples of Fred Zimmermanism. The first was a story that started off to be about a nurse. Actually, the story is not about a person; it’s about the end of an era for a building.

In another example, a non-essential anecdote pushed the nut of the story down to the sixth paragraph. That’s too long to wait. Readers won’t stay with the story that long.

Once again, the writer missed the point. The story wasn’t about the man and father in the lead. It was about patriotism, sentiment and emotion. Twomey said that the lead was used out of reflex: It’s a feature story, so you have to lead with a person.

In a third example, the lead was choked with details — details Twomey suspects readers really don’t care about nearly as much as newspapers care. Maybe the details can fit in the story at another point, maybe not. But he definitely thinks we can clean up some of our leads by asking, ”Who cares?” Finally, Twomey showed a ”when” lead.

”When” leads are one of Twomey’s pet peeves. They usually are the result of the reporter being told something, rather than actually being there.

Don’t let Fred tell you and your readers what it was like at the welfare office. Go to the welfare office and describe the scene.


  1. Leave the office.
  2. Think like a photographer, not a reporter. This is not to say photogs don’t come up with Freds on film, but they at least have to go there and look.
  3. Find what Twomey calls his Lead Bus. This is what will take him to his story, the hook.
  4. Break all the rules. Don’t write journalese; write like you talk. Write short sentences. Write more informally.
  5. The fewer things you want the reader to remember, the better your story is going to be. It’s hard not to include everything, but be ruthless. ”When you have to cut it down, you end up with something better.”

Key: Ask yourself every time, can you reduce this to one sentence? Readers shouldn’t have to work to find your point.


  1. If you’ve been to the scene and watched someone, then write the ”you are there” lead. Example: a story about parents who came to watch their child in day care.
  2. When you’re writing about a situation you have observed. Twomey calls these ”total immersion leads.” They drop readers into the situation.
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