Many journalists and even authors will tell you that the most difficult part about writing a news story or an article is coming up with a good lead. It’s true: your piece’s success most often depends on how well you convey your thoughts in the first few paragraphs that gives an introduction to the main idea in the news story. If you lose your reader in the first paragraph, it’s not likely that he will ever want to read the rest of your piece or read another piece by you again.
What is the difference between a lead and an introduction, you may ask. Both are similar on almost all counts – both are opening paragraphs. A lead is usually written in a news style for informative pieces that give you an idea of the main story; an introduction is a beginning section and is the first paragraph of any piece of writing like an essay, a magazine article etc.
As conventional definitions go, a lead is the most important part of the story that gives a summary or gist of the main event – giving the who, when, where, what, why and possibly the how of the story. It should convey in one or two sentences, what the story is saying and preferably in the first two paragraphs.
Take a look at these leads –
1. Snow, followed by small boys on sleds — H. Allen Smith, New York World-Telegram.
2. Egyptian sheik Reda Shata considered himself a partner in New York’s fight against terrorism. He cooperated with the police and FBI, invited officers to his mosque for breakfast, even dined with Mayor Michael Bloomberg. – Associated Press
The first one is the lead of a weather forecast, and a memorable one to boot, while the second is that of an investigative report which was part of an award-winning series on the NYPD in 2011. Both defy the conventions of journalistic writing but at the same time, make for engaging reading.
So then what makes a powerful lead? The most significant thing about these two leads which I have used as an example is that they both fulfill the basic rules of effective lead writing – to convey the essence of the story and lure the reader to continue reading beyond the lead.
In the book, Into the Newsroom: An Introduction to Journalism, authors Leonard Teel and Ron Taylor have this to say about a good lead – “The conventional lead should summarise, certainly. This may be done in the first paragraphs or the first three or four paragraphs…a good practice for writing a summary lead is to pretend that you are talking to a friend who has an attention span of about five seconds. How do you get that friend to notice that some calamity has occurred?”
Apart from the summary lead, there are other types of leads such as
· the punch lead (using strong verbs and short sentences that is meant to give a jolt)
· the contrast lead (pitting two contrasting sentences against each other to make a strong statement)
· descriptive lead (that which graphically portrays the scene to give visual impact)
· quotation lead (beginning with a quote) and so on.
What’s important to remember is that all leads are either direct or delayed.
Direct lead – A direct lead goes to the point immediately conveying the main idea of the story. These are most common and often used in breaking news stories.
For e-g — Hijackers rammed jetliners into each of New York’s World Trade Center towers yesterday, toppling both in a hellish storm of ash, glass, smoke and leaping victims, while a third jetliner crashed into the Pentagon in Virginia. New York Times, Sept 12, 2001
While this one is a simple summary lead, it is effective because it brings out the horror and devastation of the event and is gripping.
Delayed lead – This one may begin with an anecdote, some interesting background detail or description that holds the reader’s attention to go further into the story. It may not have the conventional beginning with the five Ws and one H but could bring in some important element that takes the story forward. It is often used in a feature story but could also be used in a news story or feature that is not in the breaking story mould.
For e.g — He waited by an elevator on the 13th floor of Police Headquarters, the final stop Wednesday in a whirlwind of television appearances and newspaper interviews since his line-of-duty injury the previous day: broken teeth, swollen snout. (A recent local report in the New York Times about a police dog that became a celebrity after being injured in a rescue mission)
Just to illustrate, if I was writing about a village in Karnataka where 50 per cent of the infants are born hearing or speech impaired, what would be my approach? One way would be to simply start with the facts — Around 200 children are born deaf in ….taluk in ….district of the State. But would that make an impact? There are thousands of children born with congenital disabilities in India every year. The reader knows this…he will move on to the next story.
Another approach would be to depict that you have really been to this village and seen the plight of these people. How the disability affects them? How such large numbers are born disabled in a single village? How is life this place like?
So you could write the lead making one family or one person the focus; or even make the village the focus and then go on to examine the larger issues—statistics, expert opinions, quotes of village elders about the problems etc. Just check out this story, then you will probably understand what I mean.
Of course, in a news story the space is limited so the scope of deeply examining the issue may not be much.
Tips on writing a lead –
1. Cut out the boring elements – Reporters often make the mistake of lazy writing – just bringing out what they heard or saw, without really putting in an effort to think what is most important about this story. Focus on a point that will really engage the reader, in the lead.
2. Good reporting – This brings us to the second point. You can focus on an important aspect of the story in the lead, only if you can recognize what is important – learn to gauge if the subject is something a reader would want to know about and if it concerns the public. Then bring it out in the best way possible in the beginning.
3. Be concise – No one likes long-winding sentences in a news story that goes nowhere. Short sentences that are punchy and effective and convey more with less make for the best leads. A lead should not exceed 35 words and should be written in about one or two sentences.
4. Don’t put all the details in the lead – We often make the mistake of putting too much information in the lead just to fulfill the five Ws and one H rule. Pull out the most moving/compelling/engaging information. The idea should be to highlight one or two of these aspects and put the other less important ones in subsequent paragraphs.
5. Action in the story – Use active verbs and avoid adjectives. Some non-journalists are tempted to use flowery language which makes the story seem fickle. Instead, strong simple sentences that show action in the lead, help the story flow.
To conclude, there is one story that made a great impact on me, specifically the lead. It is a detailed descriptive feature so the lead is important because it determines whether the reader would continue to go further. It is a hauntingly written Pulitzer Prize-winning feature story on the court testimony of a woman about her rape and her friend’s rape and murder in a peaceful Seattle locality (dubbed the South Park attacks. What struck me most is that the lead, unlike most tabloid crime stories is devoid of melodrama and sensationalism. It is simple but generates curiosity. And the first two paragraphs begin to illustrate the horror that befell the women. It also shows how important it is to listen and observe because tiny details add to the power of the lead.
Before leaving we’d like to remind you that while writing a powerful lead is important will amount to nothing if you lose the articles. Misfortunes can happen to anyone which is why it’s advisable that you take WordPress backups. So that, on occasion of a misfortune, you can always restore your site back to normal.