To write a great election story — or World Series story — rehearse your lead

Sometime this evening, election night, or early tomorrow morning, hundreds if not thousands of journalists will be working on their leads. If they are smart, and most of them are, that process has already begun. With the end of the race in doubt, writers will be immersed in a process we call “rehearsal.”

Among other benefits, rehearsal offers an antidote to procrastination. You may be gazing at the ceiling, but, believe me, thinking is working.

You may not be able to type that final lead yet, but you can “pre-conceive” the story you are going to write — to use a term of art I learned from journalism professor Melvin Mencher — and then, based on the evidence, “re-conceive” if necessary.

To spark the spirit, here are a couple of hypothetical leads:

“The man who insisted the presidential election was ‘rigged’ just won the presidency. He is not demanding a recount.”


“She doesn’t have to check her emails to know it is true: Hillary Clinton has just become the first woman ever elected as President of the United States.”

Elections are always compared to sporting events: marathons, horse races and prizefights. So it seemed fitting to consult a sports writer who can empathize with political reporters today. His name is David Haugh. He works for the Chicago Tribune. And last week he had to write a lead and column of a lifetime: The Cubs won the World Series.

The day after the victory — 108 years in the making — I went searching for writers who had captured the moment. The first piece I read was by Haugh.

I sent him a message of congratulations: “I don’t know your work, but yours was the first coverage of Game 7 that I read. I thought it was magnificent. It has everything I look for in such a story: spirit, emotion, nuance, color, insight, and maybe even a possible allusion to Shirley Povich on Don Larsen’s perfect game. It is the best piece of reporting and writing on a sporting event I’ve read this year. I will keep it in my collection of great sports writing — of great journalism. Cheers.”

Here is Haugh’s lead:

They tossed their hats and gloves into the air after the final out like joyous Little Leaguers and then threw themselves into each other's arms like brothers — and this will connect them forever.

They sang along with "Go, Cubs, Go" as thousands of fans who wouldn't miss World Series Game 7 for the world broke into song. They carried retiring catcher David Ross on their shoulders and wore wide-eyed expressions of disbelief to which every Cubs fan could relate.

The Cubs partied like it was 1908 after their 8-7 victory Wednesday over the Indians ended the longest, cruelest wait in sports.

"This about made me pass out," World Series MVP Ben Zobrist said. "An epic battle. I can't believe that after 108 years, we're able to hoist the trophy."

Of course, it’s not perfect. It never is in these special moments. But look at what Haugh accomplishes in four short paragraphs: a verbal video montage of the players’ celebration, the context of history, the score, and a good quote high in the story.

In an email, Haugh thanked me for my praise. The next day it hit me: I wondered if David had written another lead — in case the Cleveland comeback had resulted in a catastrophic Cubs loss. So I asked him.

I will quote him at length here because his remarks are a good lesson for anyone — in sports or in politics — who has to write and report an important story without knowing the outcome. In other words, what if you have essentially written the Dewey Wins story and then the race goes to Truman at the wire?

“Honestly, I didn’t have a Cubs lose lead but I did have about 300 words trying to put a Cubs loss in perspective. I was willing to let the lead write itself, describing the despair on the field or in the stands quickly — as I did with the Cubs win scenario — and then placing it above some perspective on what yet another heartbreaking Cubs’ loss meant. I had about 350 or so words ready, beginning with this passage that would have appeared right after the lead two or three paragraphs:

And so it ends, the most fun 178-game ride imaginable, the greatest Cubs season of our lifetimes, surviving October and lasting until the second day of November. How many days until pitchers and catchers report to Arizona? OK, slow down. Everybody needs to take a deep breath now.

It’s too soon for Cubs fans to look ahead, yet too painful to look back at why their team came up short to the Indians. There will be a time for Theo Epstein to have his computers analyze all the World Series data so losing makes more sense, but not now. Not with the heart still aching and the Indians still partying in the Gateway District.

Haugh goes on to say:

It seems funny now to look back at that, but I think you understand how you have to be prepared. I believed I had better stuff for a Cubs win column because I hadn’t written that one before. I felt like I had written a variation of the Cubs disappointed column before, so it was maybe less lively. I don’t know. But when the game was tied after nine innings, and the tarp came out [for a rain delay], and the first deadline was there, actually I had to file a third version that began with the Cubs neither winning of losing for one of our smaller press runs. That started:

Rain started to fall in the eighth inning Wednesday night at Progressive Field minutes after the Indians rallied to tie the Cubs at 6, creating a surreal feeling at the ballpark.

But that was nothing compared to what preceded the downpour.

Long story short: Cubs manager Joe Maddon was wrong about closer Aroldis Chapman. Very wrong.
“So it was as hectic of a night as I’ve ever had in journalism, but the most memorable one too. You end up reacting a lot more than you want, no matter how prepared you think you are. You curse the bad luck, tight deadlines, and unbelievable plot twists. Then after you file, if you are pleased with the finished product, it’s a rush. And the feeling I had walking out of Progressive Stadium around 2 a.m. last Thursday will be hard to top for me as a sports writer, ever.

Here’s hoping the writers covering the election tonight can look at themselves in the mirror tomorrow morning and feel just as gratified.

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    Roy Peter Clark

    Roy Peter Clark has taught writing at Poynter to students of all ages since 1979. He has served the Institute as its first full-time faculty member, dean, vice-president, and senior scholar.


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