Move The Punchline To The Top

Cartoon: as a piano falls from above one man says to another, “...from which derives the modern instrument played in concert today. Which brings me to my main point.”

One of the simplest and most effective changes you can make to a piece of writing is to move the punchline to the top.

Clearly this is bad advice for crafting jokes but when the writing in question is functional, designed to convey information efficiently, it’s a good instinct.

In the Civil Service where I worked for some time the problem was one of excessive delicacy. People didn’t like breaking bad news or issuing advice without a run up so that the typical paper would include:

  1. A rambling introduction explaining its own existence.
  2. A page or more of background going back to 1974 to ensure that when the bombshell landed, it was in context.
  3. The key item of information.
  4. A daintily worded recommendation delivered with the assertiveness of a light breeze.

In journalism this is sometimes called ‘burying the lede’ — hiding the nugget that will really grab a reader’s attention somewhere in paragraph three and opening the story instead with a description of the weather. You want to hook them, to give them a reason to read on — to get across why they should care.

For government ministers reading papers in the five minute dash from their office to a waiting car burying the lede wasn’t just boring — it was infuriating. If they needed background they would ask for it and they were far from delicate creatures.

My edits would often end up looking like this:

  1. A rambling introduction explaining its own existence.
  2. A page or more of background going back to 1974 to ensure that when the bombshell lands, it is in context.
  3. The key item of information.
  4. A daintily worded direct recommendation delivered with the assertiveness of a light breeze.
  5. Background information in an annex.

Except in rare instances of creative writing where you are intentionally seeking to create suspense or set up a payoff, use this template and you won’t go too far wrong.

One thought on “Move The Punchline To The Top

  1. I’ll tell you how we did it (I still do) in a legal context. Define issue, then state conclusion and any recommendation. Then state background, each under its own head. Apart from that: use short sentences, break up the paragraphs, indent where possible (bullet points), pare excess words or pet phrases, avoid legalese yet avoid an over-terse style, which can pall on the reader.

    It’s not all that different from good journalism, indeed one of my “effective legal writing” instructors was a former journalist in Vancouver. I still have his paper on good writing nearby. 40 years on it’s as valid as the day it was written.

    However, for the kind of writing I do on the beer historical blog (plus on whiskey, food, wine), I find a more prolix style suits me. I like a bit of circumlocution, a bit of aping Victorian orotundity (is that a word?), for fun, really. I probably lose some readers because of it, but I do it largely for myself anyway and the topics are fairly arcane.

    Anything beyond that is a bonus – which is not to say one doesn’t want attention. Part of getting it too involves I think a high degree of skill at how social media works – not one of my great talents, sadly.

    Gary

    Like

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