July 21, 1969, was a big day for me. It was my 14th birthday, and 14 seemed so much cooler, so much older than 13. I was ready to leave the teen-age apprenticeship year behind and get on with it.
I was also heading to Huntsville to play with the Fort Payne, Ala., Little League All-Star team in a regional baseball tournament. I was pumped about making the team, but even more so for the chance to go on a road trip with my buddies that would include a couple of nights in a motel. (It had a pool!)
As exciting as all that was, it paled in comparison to the previous night, when I watched along with millions of other earthlings the live TV broadcast of Neil Armstrong stepping off the ladder from Apollo 11’s lunar landing module onto the surface of the moon. For those not of a certain age, it’s hard to imagine just how monumental that moment in time was.
Hundreds of miles away from Fort Payne on July 20, 1969, a thirtysomething reporter for the New York Times named John Noble Wilford was in Houston crafting the opening paragraph for what he knew would be the biggest story of his lifetime.
It was a masterpiece. I think it was the best lede ever written for a news story. It was eight words:
“Men have landed and walked on the moon.”
The simplicity and lack of verbal dressing in the “lede” (the spelling used by journalists for the lead paragraph) is a powerful example of the beauty of concise writing.
Wilford explained years later that he had already decided to write the simplest lede possible for the moon landing story. “There was no need for a lot of adjectives,” he said. “I felt it was something that could speak for itself.”
Actually, Wilford’s lead on the first story he filed for the “bulldog edition,” the day’s first, was even tighter, at six words:
“Men have landed on the moon.”
Obviously not every situation lends itself to such brilliant restraint, but Wilford’s take is a great lesson for all writers.
Effective, well-placed adjectives and cleverly turned phrases can bring life to a story and paint vivid pictures in a reader’s mind.
Sometimes, many times, they just get in the way.