Make that difficult second paragraph a thriller not a killer

Read this intro: Killer Barry George, jailed for shooting the TV presenter Jill Dando eight years ago, launched a new bid to overturn his conviction today. Gripping stuff, eh? Now read the second par. The Government’s Criminal Cases Review Commission raised concerns about forensic science evidence in a five-year review of the evidence.

Yawn, yawn. The example above is one similar to hundreds of second pars you will find in weekly and (dare I say it) daily papers, and even in some magazines.

The intros are catchy, compelling, and do their job – they draw the reader into the story with some hard-hitting facts. But then the second par weakens the momentum by getting bogged down with background detail like names of organisations, job titles and other information that should go lower down the story.

The second par should amplify the best parts of the intro and keep the pace of the story going. So in the example above, you need to say more about the appeal – not bore the reader with information about the name of the CCRC at the start.

Try this revised version: Killer Barry George, jailed for shooting the TV presenter Jill Dando eight years ago, launched a new bid to overturn his conviction today.

Concerns about forensic science evidence were raised in a five-year review of the evidence.

This second par keeps the pace going, and gets the reader wanting to know more. The names of the organisation can be used lower down. A busy reader skimming the text will simply not bother to read the CCRC that high up the story.

If you analyse news stories, you will find dozens of instances of what I call these ‘killer 2nd pars”. It’s a prolific problem.

Here’s another one – this time, a local paper story:

ANGRY residents today called for urgent action to deter speeding motorists from using their village as a short cut.

Good intro – sharp and to the point. It gets you reading. But then … West Blackwood Residents’ Association has demanded that Oxshire Borough Council put up ‘Access only’signs to stop vehicles speeding through their village. … a deluge of official names, adding nothing to the intro.

So the chances are that, having gained the reader’s attention in the intro, you will lose it again straight away. Why do so many good journalists write such awful second pars? I think part of the problem is that we spend time crafting great intros, but then relax, and don’t give the second par so much attention. Another cause is that many trainees have been coached at college to cover the Who, What, When and Where by the end of the third par.

That might have been acceptable in the past, but this technique will simply won’t work with modern readers. The emphasis must be on holding their attention for as long as possible. Remember, they are usually skimming the text, not carefully reading it.

New research on web reading habits shows that many web visitors only read the first two words of every par. If those two words don’t grab them, they stop reading. The higher up the copy those two words are, the more important they become.

It doesn’t take a lot of working out to realise that words like ‘the Government’s’and ‘West Blackwood’will not fill readers with excitement.

We need to heed the research – especially when more and more of our customers are reading our publications online – and turn those second pars into thrillers, not killers.

Cleland Thom is director of the journalism training organisation Potential.GB.com

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