Lois at her blog Narrative Nonfiction alerts writers to an experiment at Creative Nonfiction in which the editors have published, on the journal’s web site, the before and after versions of some essays in the current print issue. The revisions essentially cnf36involve massive cuts to the essays’ openings; the web page with the essays showing the changes using contrasting type colors includes a forum for reactions from readers, who can weigh in, pro and con and mixed.

Creative Nonfiction’s editorial statement on the matter is interesting:

In textbook journalism, the lede covers the famous Five W’s–who, what, when, where and why (and sometimes how). In creative nonfiction, the lede functions somewhat differently. Because the primary purpose is not so much to communicate quickly the basic information of a story as it is to draw readers in, the beginning of a story may not capture the Five W’s; often, some of the answers to those essential questions are purposely held back to enhance suspense and to allow the narrative to develop more organically.

“The lede also has a more complex function for the writer; it tells the writer where to take the reader and when to introduce ideas, themes and characters. The lede, in other words, leads. It gets the writer going and fuels momentum.

“While revising, however, the writer usually has to return to the beginning of the piece and decide whether the first lede is still necessary. Often it is not; the first lede was just a tool or triggering device that allowed the writer to get to the ‘real lead.’

“During the editing process for this issue, with the permission of the writers, we eliminated the original beginnings of three essays and started them a few paragraphs or pages later. Our goal was to make the beginnings more immediate, to eliminate some writerly throat-clearing, to help plunge readers into the heart of the story—the action, the theme, the substance—from the very beginning.”


  • David says:

    the section on what my editors used to call “false leads” certainly does resonate. How may times have I turned in stories, spending hours on rejiggering and refining my original lead, only realizing through the offices of a good editor that I’d spend hours “trying to get it cranked,” and that it’s what takes place after the engine is cranked that counts.

  • Amen, David. I need such re-vision often myself. But, to play devil’s advocate here, it’s also very easy for an editor to cut an opening to “get into the story quicker,” especially if the opening is a scene.

    In the first essay example, “Crazy Talk,” the editors cut a vivid scene that also has an easy, natural voice. They used what journalists would call the author’s “nut graf,” or what some writers call a theme statement, as the new lead. It also has a nice voice but is rather abrupt, and it’s completely expository, not scenic at all.

    That’s an irony for Creative Nonfiction, which has championed scenes, to go the more journalistic or expository route here. In teaching students I’ve seen the weird power of scene—of visuals, of showing—in the most basic beginner essays. Consequently I’ve become hoarse this quarter croaking “show don’t tell” at them.

    It does not take much of a scene for a piece to take off, and often the right place to launch a scene is right at the beginning. And a chimpanzee could whack away such a beginning and go to the transition paragraph. The virtue is directness and speed, but a piece’s emotional resonance can be harmed or killed.

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