Financial writer’s clinic: Great title, lousy intro

“When Will Housing Recover?” This title reeled me in. I flipped directly to the article, bypassing two others. But what I found disappointed me. I’ll use this article’s mistakes to suggest rules you can follow in your article introductions.

The writing problem: Boring introduction
Then article’s first paragraph stopped me cold. It held a long-winded description of a home price index’s composition. It’s information that I might exile to a footnote if I wrote a white paper on this topic.

Here’s the first sentence of the article: “The S&P/Case–Shiller Home Price indices measure the growth in value of residential real estate in various regions of the United States.”  The first paragraph devotes 247 words to the details of the markets tracked by these 23 indices.

Three rules for an interesting introduction
1. Answer the key question. That’s “What’s in it for your readers, if they slog through your article?” The authors nailed this question perfectly with their title. But they forgot about it when they wrote their introduction.
2. Keep it short. Direct marketers have discovered that readers start to lose interest once a paragraph runs longer than 42 words. Sure, investment professionals have more patience than folks opening junk mail. Still, the authors’ 247 words–almost six paragraphs of words according to direct marketers’ standards–is way too long.
3. Don’t save the good stuff for your conclusion. If you’re like me, you learned in school that you should build your argument logically to a conclusion. Throw that habit away, if you want people to read what you write. At a minimum, hint at your conclusion in the introduction to your article.

My rewrite of the article’s introduction

Everybody wants to know when housing will recover. But you can’t make a meaningful estimate until you understand the data. It seems to us that the severity of the decline has been overstated because of problems with the S&P/Case–Shiller Home Price indices. Once we understand the data better, we can make a case for housing getting on the road to recovery by the second quarter of 2010.

The indices are dominated by states, such as California and Nevada, that have experienced a housing boom followed by a bust. In fact, price increases and declines vary greatly by state. The price of housing in roughly two-thirds of our 50 states have risen–or fallen by no more than 5%–during the two years since the fourth quarter of 2006.

My rewrite isn’t perfect. Some of the sentences are awfully long. But I feel confident that it’s more engaging than the original. What do you think?