A guide for ENGL 2501 and ENGL 3801
“The best day is the one when I can write a lead that will cause a reader at his breakfast table next morning to spit up his coffee, clutch at his heart, and shout ‘My God! Martha, did you read this?’ That’s my kind of day.”
— Edna Buchanan, “The Corpse Had a Familiar Face”
The first paragraph of a news story is called a lead — or lede, if you’re old-school. It is usually one sentence, briefly introduces the story in a clear and concise manner, and is designed to make the skimming reader stop short and read further.
Basic tips for writing a lead:
Basic breaking news story lead: Sun police reporter Robert Mills tells readers why the Market Basket was evacuated:
BILLERICA — A plastic bag containing what appeared to be a pressure cooker was left next to the entrance of Market Basket at the Shops at Billerica and sparked a bomb scare Wednesday evening.
This bank robber does have a catchy nickname:
The Brim Beanie Bandit has struck again, according to the FBI.
This is one of the last feature stories I wrote before the Daily Voice shut down the Massachusetts sites, about a local illustrator’s memoir:
UPTON, Mass. — Lauren Scheuer expected to get a few eggs when she decided to start her own backyard chicken flock. But she did not expect her hens would lay a book.
(i still debate the “but” starting off the second sentence. The copy editor added it; I think it works better without.)
Sports writers take a few more liberties with structure in their stories. This is Sun sports writer David Pevear on Patriots coach Bill Belichick’s first press conference after Aaron Hernandez’s arrest on murder charges:
FOXBORO — The normally cold coach bared his humanity. He acknowledged a real-world tragedy that made his comments Wednesday afternoon (“really a sad day on so many levels”) so sadly necessary.
“A young man lost his life and his family has suffered a tragic loss,” said Bill Belichick, “and there’s no way to understate that.”
The football coach who usually pulls up his hoodie and makes the real world go away also said that “this goes way beyond being a football issue. This is real life.”
(I’m including the first three paragraphs here because I really love his description of Belichick. Note that Dave hasn’t even mentioned the words “Aaron Hernandez” yet. This is a tone-setting lead, which is suitable when you’re taking more of a feature-y approach on a story.)
You can also take an anecdotal approach to your subject, introducing a person who illustrates the issue. This is an ancient story of mine from the MetroWest Daily News:
FRANKLIN — Lisa Ostrow’s “pencil” is a bulky typewriter-like object, steel gray with a carry handle. She’s lugged it around for 35 years, bumping shins in middle school hallways, creating a clatter in the dorms at Harvard.
In the above leads, you’ll notice the name of a town in all caps. That’s called a dateline, and it’s used to tell the reader where the story is taking place. Use of the dateline varies from publication to publication — the weekly that covers Grafton, for example, does not use a Grafton dateline because it’s generally assumed the stories all take place in that town.
The dateline, as a rule, indicates the reporter was actually there in that location to report the story. I was once taken to task by an editor for datelining a story about a local astronaut’s Space Shuttle launch “CAPE CANAVERAL,” since I had reported from Hudson. I retorted it was a protest for not actually sending me to a shuttle launch, which I maintain was perfectly valid.
Further reading about leads: Edna Buchanan, the former, Pulitzer Prize-winning crime reporter for the Miami Herald, is the undisputed queen of news leads (My battered copy of her autobiography, “The Corpse Had a Familiar Face,” is signed “To Jennifer, a fellow journalist,” an inscription that made 24-year-old me nearly faint). Calvin Trillin discusses some of her legendary leads in this New Yorker profile, which I’ll admit it so old, I first read it as a handout in one of my journalism classes in 1986.