How to Write a Lead
These resources provide an overview of journalistic writing with explanations of the most important and most often used elements of journalism and the Associated Press style. This resource, revised according to The Associated Press Stylebook 2012, offers examples for the general format of AP style. For more information, please consult The Associated Press Stylebook 2012, 47th edition.
Contributors:Christopher Arnold, Tony Cook, Dennis Koyama, Elizabeth Angeli, Joshua M. Paiz
Last Edited: 2013-04-06 07:04:07
The lead, or opening paragraph, is the most important part of a news story. With so many sources of information – newspapers, magazines, TV, radio and the Internet – audiences simply are not willing to read beyond the first paragraph (and even sentence) of a story unless it grabs their interest. A good lead does just that. It gives readers the most important information in a clear, concise and interesting manner. It also establishes the voice and direction of an article.
Tips for Writing a Lead
- The Five W’s and H: Before writing a lead, decide which aspect of the story – who, what, when, where, why, how – is most important. You should emphasize those aspects in your lead. Wait to explain less important aspects until the second or third sentence.
- Conflict: Good stories have conflict. So do many good leads.
- Specificity: Though you are essentially summarizing information in most leads, try to be specific as possible. If your lead is too broad, it won’t be informative or interesting.
- Brevity: Readers want to know why the story matters to them and they won’t wait long for the answer. Leads are often one sentence, sometimes two. Generally, they are 25 to 30 words and should rarely be more than 40. This is somewhat arbitrary, but it’s important – especially for young journalists – to learn how to deliver information concisely. See the OWL’s page on concise writing for specific tips. The Paramedic Method is also good for writing concisely.
- Active sentences: Strong verbs will make your lead lively and interesting. Passive constructions, on the other hand, can sound dull and leave out important information, such as the person or thing that caused the action. Incomplete reporting is often a source of passive leads.
- Audience and context: Take into account what your reader already knows. Remember that in today’s media culture, most readers become aware of breaking news as it happens. If you’re writing for a print publication the next day, your lead should do more than merely regurgitate yesterday’s news.
- Honesty: A lead is an implicit promise to your readers. You must be able to deliver what you promise in your lead.
What to Avoid
- Flowery language: Many beginning writers make the mistake of overusing adverbs and adjectives in their leads. Concentrate instead on using strong verbs and nouns.
- Unnecessary words or phrases: Watch out for unintentional redundancy. For example, 2 p.m. Wednesday afternoon, or very unique. You can’t afford to waste space in a news story, especially in the lead. Avoid clutter and cut right to the heart of the story.
- Formulaic leads: Because a lot of news writing is done on deadline, the temptation to write tired leads is strong. Resist it. Readers want information, but they also want to be entertained. Your lead must sound genuine, not merely mechanical.
- It: Most editors frown on leads that begin with the word it because it is not precise and disorients the reader.
Types of Leads
Summary lead: This is perhaps the most traditional lead in news writing. It is often used for breaking news. A story about a city council vote might use this “just the facts” approach. Straight news leads tend to provide answers to the most important three or four of the Five W’s and H. Historically this type of lead has been used to convey who, what, when and where. But in today’s fast-paced media atmosphere, a straightforward recitation of who, what, when and where can sound stale by the time a newspaper hits the stands. Some newspapers are adjusting to this reality by posting breaking news online as it happens and filling the print edition with more evaluative and analytical stories focused on why and how. Leads should reflect this.
Anecdotal lead: Sometimes, beginning a story with a quick anecdote can draw in readers. The anecdote must be interesting and must closely illustrate the article’s broader point. If you use this approach, specificity and concrete detail are essential and the broader significance of the anecdote should be explained within the first few sentences following the lead.
Other types of leads: A large number of other approaches exist, and writers should not feel boxed in by formulas. That said, beginning writers can abuse certain kinds of leads. These include leads that begin with a question or direct quotation and those that make a direct appeal using the word you. While such leads might be appropriate in some circumstances, use them sparsely and cautiously.
County administrator faces ouster
By Tony Cook for The Cincinnati Post, Jan. 14, 2005
Two Hamilton County Commissioners plan to force the county’s top administrator out of office today.
Commentary: This lead addresses the traditional who, what and when. If this information had been reported on TV or radio the day before, this lead might not be a good one for the print edition of the newspaper; however, if the reporter had an exclusive or posted this information online as soon as it became available, then this lead would make sense. Note that it is brief (15 words) and uses an active sentence construction.
Lobbyists flout disclosure rules in talks with commissioners
By Tony Cook and Michael Mishak for the Las Vegas Sun, July 13, 2008
On more than 170 occasions this year, lobbyists failed to file disclosure forms when they visited Clark County commissioners, leaving the public in the dark about what issues they were pushing and on whose behalf.
Commentary: This lead is more representative of the less timely, more analytical approach that some newspapers are taking in their print editions. It covers who, what and when, but also why it matters to readers. Again, it uses active verbs, it is specific (170 occasions) and it is brief (35 words).
Tri-staters tell stories of the devastating tsunami
By Tony Cook for The Cincinnati Post, Jan. 8, 2005
From Dan Ralescu’s sun-warmed beach chair in Thailand, the Indian Ocean began to look, oddly, not so much like waves but bread dough.
Commentary: This article is a local angle on the devastating tsunami that struck Southeast Asia in 2005. As a result of the massive death toll and worldwide impact, most readers would have been inundated with basic information about the tsunami. Given that context, this lead uses an unexpected image to capture the reader’s attention and prepare them for a new take on the tsunami. Again, it is brief (23 words).
Same lobbyist for courts, shorter term, more money
By Tony Cook for the Las Vegas Sun, June 29, 2008
What’s increasing faster than the price of gasoline? Apparently, the cost of court lobbyists.
District and Justice Court Judges want to hire lobbyist Rick Loop for $150,000 to represent the court system in Carson City through the 2009 legislative session. During the past session, Loop’s price tag was $80,000.
Commentary: Question leads can be useful in grabbing attention, but they are rarely as effective as other types of leads in terms of clearly and concisely providing the main point of a story. In this case, the second paragraph must carry a lot of the weight that would normally be handled in the lead.
The lead is one of the basic building blocks of writing, and now more than ever, freelancers need to know how to write a lead if they want to land work.
A lead is your first chance to hook someone into clicking through and reading your entire story. If you’re writing for websites, the lead might be the only part of your story that shows up on the front page, other than the headline, so it’s got to be good enough to entice readers to want more.
In fact, that’s the perfect definition of a lead – a snippet of information that turns readers into Oliver Twist, asking for more.
A well-crafted lead isn’t that different from the opening line of a story query, so master one and you’ll most certainly do well at the other.
A story’s lead can impart information, set a tone, answer questions and hint at what’s to come. But they’re not all alike.
There are different types of leads for different types of stories. Here are some of the most common:
1. The News Lead
Also known as the 5 Ws lead or the straight news lead, this is the classic opening to a news story, the one they teach you first in journalism school. In it, you summarize the main aspects of an event, whether you’re covering a robbery, basketball game, pope’s resignation or results of a presidential election. The news lead shares information by answering the following:
- How (sometimes)
In some cases, fitting all of that information into the lead would result in a sentence that’s so long or convuluted you’d lose your readers. In those cases, include the most important of the Ws in the lead sentence and add the rest to a follow up.
Here’s an example of a straight news lead for a tech story on OregonLive.com, the website of the Oregonian, my hometown paper. The lead covers who (Facebook), what (donates $182,000), where (Crook County, a county in central Oregon where the social network operates a big data center), and when (Feb. 20, 2013). It doesn’t include why – the reasons were complicated enough that the writer devoted the second and third paragraphs to explain them. The lead also doesn’t cover how, which given the subject is a donation and Facebook probably wrote a check and gave it to the county, is a mintor detail compared to the others:
2. The Second-Day Lead
Reporters who work a beat or freelancers who write about certain topics on a regular basis often find themselves writing multiple stories about a single event. Think about a fire, an election, a bill slowly working its way through the legislative process. You don’t need a straight news lead for every story on a subject that readers are somewhat familiar with. In those cases, what I call a second-day lead works better.
A second-day lead assumes that readers already know the basics of a story, and you’re filling in the newest details. If you’re doing any type of writing for websites that are updated multiple times a day, you’re already familiar with second-day leads — or in this case, second-hour leads — since you’re probably writing them all the time.
Here’s an example of a second-day lead that NBCNews.com used for on a story about a Kansas City, Mo., restaurant fire. The fire was first reported the day before this ran, so the lead on this piece shares the most important updates since, namely that the body of one of the missing workers was found in the wreckage:
3. The Hook Lead
Unlike a straight news lead with its 5 Ws neatly accounted for, a hook lead tosses out one or two key details to “hook” readers so they want to know more. Often times, hook leads are purposely vague or mysterious, leaving out essential facts that can only be obtained upon further investigation.
Here’s an example of a hook lead on a Feb. 19, 2013, New York Times story about medical records technology legislation that’s helped some companies get rich. The lead alludes to a $19 billion government “giveaway” but doesn’t say exactly what that giveaway is until much deeper, where it’s revealed that the medical records industry got $19 billion in federal and state investments for shifting to electronic record keeping:
4. The Feature Lead
When it comes to leads for feature stories, the only rule is that there are no rules. Feature stories are typically more free form than news stories, so it follows that feature leads are more free form too. One freelance editor I know suggests that writers include in their stories the most strange, bizarre, quirky thing they discovered in their reporting. You could use the same trick for a feature lead.
Here’s a feature lead from “Frank Sinatra Has a Cold,” Gay Talese’s 1966 Esquire Magazine profile of the actor and singer. The article is often held out as one of the best examples of new journalism, and Esquire considers it one of the best stories the magazine has ever run. In this case, the lead builds slowly over details of where the singer is, who he’s with and what he’s doing, with the tension culminating in that critical last sentence of the second paragraph:
5. The Explanatory Lead
The explanatory lead is is like the preface or introduction in a book. It sets the scene without immediately jumping into the heart of the matter. I also call this The New Yorker lead because the magazine regularly publishes feature stories and profiles that run 10,000 words or longer, and when you’re writing stories of that length, you can afford to take 1,000 words to meander toward the purpose or subject of the story.
Explanatory leads are the opposite of straight news leads: they don’t get to the point. In fact, that’s part of the draw of an explanatory lead – you may not know where you’re doing, but you’re enjoying the ride.
True to form, New Yorker editor David Remnick’s July 2012 profile of Bruce Springsteen, “We Are Alive,” opens close to 5o years ago when the singer was just starting out:
6. The Anecdotal Lead
Everybody loves a good yarn. Sometimes the best way to explain a complicated or esoteric topic is with an anecdote or example. The anecdotal lead can also give readers a visual to hang onto so they’re not lost once you start explaining what the story is about. And if you save a few details for later, you’ll have them reading on to find out more. The Wall Street Journal is a huge proponent of the anecdotal lead; there’s no better way to teach yourself how they’re done than to study some Journal back issues.
An anecdotal lead is a good way to open a feature story, but you don’t need to reserve it for longer pieces. Here’s an example of an anecdotal lead on a 750-word story I wrote for MSN Money on new social networks teenagers are flocking to instead of Facebook. In the lead, I shared the story of my teenaged niece, who’s a perfect fit for the Instagram- and Snapchat-using teenagers I wrote about in the piece:
7. The Set Up Lead
When you write a Q&A, infographic, chart, listicle or blog post listing a bunch of different things, the lead has to introduce or set up what follows. The key is to pack as much information in as possible, while providing for a smooth transition to the information that comes next.
Here’s an example of a set up lead for a 500-word Q&A I did for Workforce Management, the HR trade magazine, with a Yale University Press editor and author of a book on what beekeeping had taught him about management. Because the piece was short, the lead had to introduce him, the book, topics covered in the Q&A, and me. In this case, the lead and introductory paragraph are one and the same:
Did I leave any types of leads out? If so, let me know and I’ll add them to the list.
[Flickr image by El Bibliomata]
Posted in Writing| Tagged 5 Ws, freelance writing basics, how to write a lead, how to write a lead for an article, writing basics | 14 Responses