Lead Writing Basics
Here's my advice on writing good first sentences -- that which reporters call the "lead" of the story. This is the most critical bit in your effort to grab readers' attention.
LEAD WRITING BASICS
The lead (also known as the lede*) = The first sentence or paragraph. It “tells the story.” It must be able to stand on its own – a complete account of the event that is accurate in every way, without need for further clarification. It typically sums up a story in one sentence or two.
- A good lead grabs the reader’s attention. It entices and acts as a hook.
- It must be simple, easy to understand. Think hard about what’s most important in the story -- that’s the lead in a hard-news story.
- Be specific. Avoid abstract, vague and general language. Spell out the news. You’re trying to sell your story in a crowded market.
- Based on the lead, the reader makes a critical decision: Shall I continue reading?
- Work hard to craft the lead first. Once you have it or a rough idea – clear, simple, muscular – the rest of the piece will fall into place relatively easily. Good writers hone their leads more than any other part of their stories.
Feature leads unfold more slowly. They allow the writer to tell a story in a more narrative way. The objective is to draw the reader into the story, to make them hunger to read more.
When you paint a picture with words, you draw the reader in.
- It’s 15 degrees below zero, and nearly two feet of fresh snow blankets the mountain. Whoosh! That’s Wong Kin Lu barreling back from his office, cutting new trails to his $10 million ski-chalet home.
Lateral thinking helps with feature leads. Think of an object related to the subject at hand. For instance, if writing about a takeover involving a seafood company, think of something like the ocean. Start a wordsearch from there – ocean - beach – fish – hook – swallow - might bring you to …
- XYZ Co on Friday swallowed one of the smaller financial fish on the Shanghai Stock Exchange …
- China’s top online retailer, Alibaba, reeled in Bumble Bee Tuna Corp Monday in the priciest haul in Hong Kong stock market history.
Features may have multi-sentence leads:
- A new 11-story building overlooks the river on 140th Street in West Harlem. It has a rooftop terrace, new Energy Star appliances and its very own library. It also has its very own clientele: More than half of the apartments are reserved for ex-convicts.
ADDING A COLORFUL DETAIL
- A good lead can state the key news points and include a detail that distinguishes the story from others of its kind.
The Islamic State claimed that a bomb suspected of bringing down a Russian airliner over the Sinai was built from a yellow can of Schweppes tonic water.
DON’T BURY THE NEWS
- Don’t stuff unimportant details in the lead of a hard-news story - just the main fact. Make the lead as compelling as possible within the constraint of the facts. The lead is NOT a summary. It is only the main point.
- Don’t bury the news – or as reporters say, don’t bury the lead. In other words, don’t make readers wallow through lots of words to get to the point, especially in a hard-news piece. They’ll give up and click elsewhere.
Don’t start with a question
- Never start a hard-new lead with a question. But you may do so with features -- from time to time.
- Use partial quotes in leads only if they are so colorful that you can hardly believe they were said. Then “back them up” with the full quote lower in the story.
Dean Guo Ke said Friday that Karen Gill was an “Olympic quality super-star” among SISU Journalism faculty members and the school’s best hope for landing its students high-paying jobs in the private sector.
WAYS TO IMPROVE LEADS
START EARLY: While covering an event or interviewing someone, think about what’s most important. Strive to focus a piece even as your report it. Highlight key elements in your notebook. As you return to the office, talk to yourself about the story and block out a lead in your mind.
BE HONEST: You want to hook the reader, but don't exaggerate the lead, promising more than you deliver. "The lead is a contract with the reader," says Don Murray, a writing coach, quoted by the Columbia University School of Journalism’s web site. "The story must document the lead." In other words, the rest of the story must “back up” any and every point made in the lead.
KEEP IT TIGHT: Short leads are more likely to catch a reader. If your lead is over 30 words, it’s probably too long. Review it. Are you trying to pack in too much?
USE THE ACTIVE VOICE: Not passive. It’s shorter and more direct.
Passive: Walawalastan was put under martial law on Thursday by troops led by an ousted president, the Pentagon said.
Active: Troops led by an ousted president put Walawalastan under martial law on Thursday, the Pentagon said.
- Use strong action verbs. Cut out officialese and jargon. Go for plain English.
- Analyze good leads in newspapers and online. Note what grabs your attention.
- Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good. You can come back to your lead and polish it after you complete the story.
FINALLY: Don't be a slave to guidelines. They all can be violated for good reason.
*Footnote: When journalists talk about beginnings of stories the word they use is lead. Sometimes it’s spelled “lede,” a throwback to the pre-computer age when the word for first paragraphs had to be distinguished from the word for the molten lead used to print newspapers.