Saturday, 4 June 2011

Only walk of life where the orgasm comes first

And so to drop intros. I remember the earliest advice I was given on intros by my first editor, the inimitable Robin Thompson. On my third day as a trainee at the Shields Weekly News I walked into the newsroom, sporting my shiny new John Collier suit, to see one of my intros hand-written on a flipchart. It was 47 words of English graduate prose. Any hope that it was there as an example of sublime writing evaporated when the editor subbed it in front of me and, horrors, my colleagues. "Aye, Peter ... it's bloody rubbish," he began in his broad Geordie before publicly crossing out the source, the bureaucratic language, the subordinate clause and the duplicated words. The result was a pithy 16-word summary of my story. "Remember Peter, this is newspapers," he advised. "The only walk of life where the orgasm comes first."
Great advice which has stayed with me forever.
Of course occasionally there is another way of telling a story. The drop intro, or delayed drop, once used almost exclusively in features, now often (in many American newspapers, too often) finds its way into news stories. The intention is to create a little suspense, dramatic effect or even humour by having the twist in the third or fourth sentence. I find myself teaching people to write drop intros more and more - not least because I help run the trainee reporters' course for the Daily Mail, one of the biggest exponents of drop intros (here's an example). The best advice, though, is to use them sparingly. A good drop can be very effective on the right story but too many are forced, particularly on hard news stories. You cannot began stories with: "When Peter Sands left home for his routine drive to work yesterday morning, little did he know what lay ahead ..." and then have some enormous tragedy in paragraph four. But you would be surprised how many trainee reporters think they can.
Anyway, I am always on the look out for good and bad examples. So it was nice to hear from old colleague Alan Cleaver (above), erstwhile editor of the Hampshire Chronicle and deputy editor of the Whitehaven News, who dropped me an email this week saying: "I stumbled across the best 'drop intro' of all time last night while doing some local history research. It concerns a small fire in a photographer's studio in Whitehaven in 1923."

The Whitehaven News, Thursday June 21, 1923
Whitehaven Studio Destroyed
Like the anguished wail of a tortured soul, only more so, the Whitehaven buzzer suddenly shattered the midnight silence of Friday night into innunmerable fragments, more or less. Its eldritch screeches eddied and swirled in the innocent ether; echoing and ricocheting from a thousand chimney pots, snarling their strident summons, bidding the dauntless fire-fighters to their nocturnal task.
Mingling with its brazen clamour varying from a hysterical crescendo of command to an almost sibilant sob of appeal, came the sudden monotonous "tap tap" upon the pavements of a  myriad steel-shod clogs
while the softer stamp of hurrying leather-clad feet, and the quiet swish of unfastened laces formed a piano accompaniment to this pedestrian cacophony.
(and so it goes on, but I won't!)
Simply brilliant! All good or bad examples gratefully received on


  1. Great piece Pete - and I love the Robin comment (demonstrating, definitely, the power of a good headline - and one with sex in it)! I can't help thinking drop intros are a declining species in an online, instant impact, information overload world...

  2. I still have the advice of Highbury tutor Frank Warner pinned on my office wall: "Because it sounds awkward, never start with a subordinate clause".