Readers give you just a few seconds to capture their interest before their eye moves on to the next story, photo or link. On any platform, in any format, you need a crisp lead and a strong focus to keep the reader going.
Keep a sharp focus
To write a strong lead, you need to identify and understand the focus of your story. Using any or all of these techniques before you even start writing can help strengthen your story, especially the critical top few paragraphs:
Ask what the story is about. As you gather information and as you write, ask yourself frequently why a reader would want to read it. Novelist Bruce DeSilva, formerly of the Associated Press, suggests asking these questions as you try to find the story’s focus: Why do you care about this? Why did you want to write this story in the first place? What touches you emotionally? Who is benefiting/being harmed, making money/losing money? How are readers being affected by what you have found? What is new here? When you know what the story is about, you know what you need to tell the reader at the top of the story.
Write a theme statement. Jack Hart, author of A Writer’s Coach, suggests that before you write the story, try writing a theme statement of no more than six words. This will help you identify the focus. As you write the lead, the nut graph and any difficult parts of the story, refer to the theme statement and make sure you’re maintaining the focus.
Write a headline. Writing a headline for your story might help find your focus. Or a logo, if it’s a series. Or a budget line. Whichever of these devices you use, you have to write a good one. As DeSilva says, “no ‘Unit Mulls Probe’ garbage.” After you’ve finished the story, take another look at the headline. Make sure the point that you addressed in the head is high in the story or you lost your focus.
Tell your story in three words. Bill Luening of the Kansas City Star recommends identifying your focus by boiling your story down to a three-word sentence: a noun, an active verb, and an object: “These generally emerge as themes, rather than a story focus, but they can lead to a theme statement. Maybe, if the story is a narrative, you can get them to outline the complication, development and resolution this way. The story of the Pied Piper then would be, Rats Overrun City. City Hires Ratman. Ratman Kills Rats. City Stiffs Ratman. Ratman Steals Children. Moral: Keep Your Word. Or … Flutists Kick Butt.”
Tell someone about your story. Especially if you are struggling to find the focus, you may find it helpful to tell someone about the story. For some people, conversation forces brevity and focus. DeSilva suggests the bus stop test used by Henry McNulty, former ombudsman at the Hartford Courant: “Suppose you are at a bus stop and someone leans out the bus window and shouts, ‘What is that story you are working on?’ The bus engine starts and begins to pull away from the curb. What are you going to shout?”
Find the surprise. Did something surprise you as you researched this story? Maybe that should be your focus.
Identify the emotion. Luening asks writers, “Where does the emotion lurk? Where, as a friend of mine here calls it, is the ‘emotional center’ of what they’ve discovered?”
Use story elements. You can find your focus by identifying the story’s most important elements. Is this a plot-driven story, or is character the most important element? Or setting? Or conflict? Or theme?
Organize your information. Identify the most important points of your story and the information that most clearly supports those points. This should be the heart of the story and in many cases the total story. If you identify more than three or four points, you probably have too many. An outline may help you organize.
Writing your lead
Your lead sets the pace for your story. A brief, breezy lead invites the reader into a story with the promise of a lively pace. A ponderous lead invites the reader to move to the next story, in which case it doesn’t matter how long or how good the rest of your story is.
Start early. As you’re reporting, think about the lead. Are you observing an exchange that might provide a scene for the lead? Did you just hear the fact that belongs in the lead? Don’t lock in on one lead so that you miss a better one that comes up. Use the reporting process as an audition for potential leads. Write them down as they occur to you, either in your notebook or on the screen of your computer or mobile device.
Write as you report. Don’t wait until you have all the reporting done to start writing your story. If it’s an event, liveblog it, even if you’ll be writing a story later. If it’s a breaking story, liveblog, live-tweet or write in takes. On an enterprise story, write at various steps of the reporting process (whether you publish the story in phases or wait until it’s finished). When you just write passages without pressure to come up with a lead first, you sometimes come up with a great lead along the way.
Avoid the blank screen. Too many writers spend too long laboring over the lead before they get started writing. If you don’t have a good idea for a lead, write a simple declarative sentence and get on with the story: “This is a story about the Kingston School Board meeting.” Yes, it’s dull. No, you’d never turn that in. But it may get you started and keep you from wasting time staring at the blank screen. Writing the story may help you find your lead. Then you go back and write the better lead.
Use story elements. Decide which is the strongest element in your story. Your lead should focus on the strongest element. Or perhaps the lead should highlight the intersection of two elements: a character in conflict, perhaps. If plot is the strongest element, beware of starting at the beginning. Digital or newspaper readers and editors may not read long enough to find out how it comes out. Consider starting at the climax or at a critical moment that establishes the conflict.
Don’t forget the basics. If you’re stuck for a lead, ask which of the five W’s or How is the most important question for this story.
Expand on the basics. Maybe your lead lies not in one of the five W’s, but in a related question: How much? So what? What next? Why not? Who benefits? Who’s hurt?
Write without your notes. This is a helpful technique for your whole first draft, but it’s especially helpful in writing the lead. Notes can be a distraction. Go back to them later when you’re checking facts.
Get to the point. If you use an anecdotal or scene-setting lead that delays your explanation of the underlying issue, introduce or at least allude to the issue in your lead.
Understand the context. If you are liveblogging or live-tweeting an event, your lead just needs to be an introduction, identifying the event and the setting. Conclusions or storytelling won’t work for a story that hasn’t happened yet.
Entice the reader. Don’t treat your lead as a suitcase into which you will cram as much as you can fit. Regard it more like a g-string, brief and enticing. If your lead captures the essence of your story in a few words, the reader will read on to learn the facts. You don’t need them all in the lead. A long lead shows a lack of confidence, like you don’t believe I’ll read the whole story so you have to tell me as much as you can as fast as you can. Update: Roy Peter Clark gives an excellent analysis here of why suitcase leads need rewriting.
Strengthening your lead
Don’t worry about strengthening your lead until you’ve finished the story. Too many writers try to get the lead perfect before moving on to the second paragraph. This scene from Finding Forrester, starting at about the 2:30 mark, provides some great advice for writing leads: Write the first draft with your heart; rewrite with your head:
Once you’ve written that first draft with your heart, go back and rewrite with your head. Strengthen your lead, even if it’s good and especially if it’s long. You wouldn’t drop an F-bomb into your story without first discussing with your editor why you think it should be there and why we can’t tell the story another way. Readers don’t call up angry cancelling subscriptions over long leads, as they would with an F-bomb. They just turn to something that does a better job of catching and holding their attention. But the result is the same. So don’t post a 30-word lead online without first discussing with your editor why this lead is so good that it works despite its length.
Challenge every word. However long your lead is, consider whether it could be shorter. If it’s longer than 30 words, it’s almost definitely too long. A lead that long has to flow smoothly to work, and few leads that long flow smoothly. Try writing a lead of 10 words or fewer. Maybe you can’t for this story, but it’s always good to try. Especially if your lead is more than 20 words, challenge each piece of the lead and ask whether that actually has to be in your very first paragraph.
Challenge the verbs. Are you using the strongest appropriate verb? Is it in active voice? Don’t use a form of the verb “to be” in your lead without trying some alternatives. Sometimes it’s the only accurate verb, but see if a stronger verb works. Challenge other weak verbs, such as have, do and get.
Avoid vague phrases. If your lead starts with (or uses) vague phrases such as there are or it is, see if you can rewrite it with strong, specific subjects and verbs.
Keep it simple. Ask whether you’re trying to tell too much in your lead. Are you answering all the 5 W’s, when a couple could wait till the second graf? Don’t try to cram everything into your lead.
Make one point. Does your lead have multiple points? If so, perhaps you haven’t decided what the story truly is about. Decide which point is most important and write a lead that makes just that point.
Remember the news. Does your lead get right to the news? Does it emphasize the news?
Stamp out punctuation. Many of the best leads have one piece of punctuation, a period. Regard multiple commas or dashes as red flags. See if you can write a smoother sentence with just one comma or none. If you have lots of punctuation in the lead, read it aloud so you can hear whether it’s choppy or whether it flows smoothly.
Minimize attribution. Attribution lengthens a lead, as well as weakening it. Can you state something as a fact, rather than hedging it with attribution? If not, do you need to bolster your reporting, so you can write more authoritatively?
Subtract numbers. If you use any numbers in your lead, their impact must be strong and their meaning and relationship must be immediately evident. If the reader has to stop and ponder the numbers, they don’t belong in the lead. (They may not even belong in the story, but in a graphic). Rarely could you justify using more than two numbers in a lead.
Challenge prepositions and conjunctions. Identify each prepositional phrase in the lead and consider whether the information it adds is worth the words it adds. Can it be replaced with a single adjective or adverb? If your lead contains and, or or but, consider whether you’re introducing another element that you should save for the second paragraph.
Challenge adjectives and adverbs. Consider whether the lead would be stronger without each of the adjectives and adverbs. What do they add? Can you tighten and strengthen an adverb-verb combination by using a more specific verb or an adjective-noun combo by using a more specific noun?
Challenge phrases. Can you eliminate a phrase without hurting the lead? Can you replace a phrase with a single word?
Write an alternative lead. Write a shorter lead and evaluate the two side by side. Or write a lead taking another approach. Don’t accept a long lead without testing it against a shorter lead.
One hedge is plenty. If you’ve hedged the central statement of your lead, with a “may” or “might,” do you really need to hedge again by attributing it? Consider whether you can write a stronger statement in the first place. Or at least consider whether you can make the hedged statement without attribution.
Don’t sweat the details. An important detail might strengthen your lead, but many details bog down a lead. Tighten your lead by cutting details that can wait until later in the story. Rarely do you need both a person’s name and identification in the lead. If the name is not immediately recognizable to the reader, just use the identification in the lead. Or if the person is in the story as Everyman, just use the name and tell the reader later who she is.
Don’t get lost in process. On many beats, particularly government, business and court beats, reporters must learn and understand lots of processes. Sometimes the reporter loses perspective and thinks the process is as important to readers as it is to sources. Readers care most about results. If your lead focuses on process, or includes some process details, consider whether it would be stronger focusing on results.
Try to make fun of your lead. Did you write any obvious statements that will draw a “duh!” from the reader? Do you have any awkward juxtapositions or double entendres? If you know a smart-ass colleague who makes fun of such stories, enlist his aid by asking him to read your story in advance. If something does get by him, at least you know he won’t be the one making fun this time.
Focus on reader impact. Does your lead tell the reader why this story is important to her? If not, should it?
Say what is, not what isn’t. Sometimes you have to tell the reader what isn’t, but usually you should tell the reader what is. If your lead has a not or a never, consider whether you can recast to say what is.
Punch quickly. Examine the first few words of your lead. Are they strong? Do they get to the point immediately? Can you open with key words that immediately identify what the story is about?
Close with a kick. Examine the last few words of your lead. Are they strong? Do they carry the reader right into the next paragraph?
Tweet your lead. Try using your lead as a tweet in Twitter, the social-networking platform that allows only 140 characters (about 21 words) per entry. If it doesn’t fit in a tweet, maybe it’s too long for a lead. (You don’t have to publish the tweet, but getting feedback from the community might be a good idea.)
Lead-writing advice from Twitter
Other resources to help with leads
Bob Baker’s Newsthinking posts about leads
Chip Scanlan’s The Power of Leads
News University’s Lead Lab (taught by Chip)
Roy Peter Clark’s Writing Tools
Some great leads
Richard L. Fortman, an internationally known authority on checkers, the sport of men and kings, died on Nov. 8 in Springfield, Ill. He was 93 and a lifelong resident of Springfield. (Margalit Fox, New York Times)
When they heard the screams, no one suspected the rooster. (Kelley Benham, St. Petersburg Times)
The mystery child was born in a 2003 Chevy Tahoe speeding along Kellogg in front of the east-side Lowe’s Home Improvement Store just before midnight Tuesday. (Roy Wenzl, Wichita Eagle)
His hands shake as he breaks the bread. They shake as he lifts the gold chalice to his lips. This is the Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world. Priests say those words aloud at Mass. But this priest doesn’t. He can’t. (Colleen Kenney, Lincoln Journal Star)
Selma Koch, a Manhattan store owner who earned a national reputation by helping women find the right bra size, mostly through a discerning glance and never with a tape measure, died Thursday at Mount Sinai Medical Center. She was 95 and a 34B. (Douglas Martin, New York Times)
When the crime was committed, when four girls lay blasted to death in the shattered basement of the 16th Street Baptist Church, Bobby Frank Cherry was young and strong and confident that his world, one of white robes and closed minds, would turn forever. (Rick Bragg, New York Times)
(I included these last two examples to show that my encouragement to write short leads is advice, not a rule. The 39-word lead on the Selma Koch obituary sets up the punchy six-word second sentence. Bragg’s 44-word lead is long but perfect.)
Chip Scanlan’s Gallery of ASNE Award-Winning Leads
A few of my best leads:
The homecoming was joyous – an exuberant hug frozen forever by a camera’s flash.
Like the houses and buses and mountainsides, the language barrier stood no chance against La Tragedia.
Please share some of your favorite leads in the comments — leads you’ve read, leads you’ve written.
I developed the original version of this handout nearly 15 years ago, when I first started working as a writing coach. I have updated it several times through the years, including today. I publish it on my blog as part of a collaborative effort by several newsrooms to provide coaching in some writing basics for Digital First Media staff members. We are stressing digital skills heavily, but recognize that we also need to continue coaching and upholding high standards in writing.
Journalists argue whether you spell the term for the opening paragraph of a story lede or lead. The conventional wisdom is that lede was used back in the hot-type days to distinguish it from the molten metal used to form letters in a linotype machine. Well, I haven’t smelled hot lead in a newsroom in decades, so I spell it lead. You’re welcome to spell it lede if you prefer.