Creating Journalists at Emmanuel College

A guide for ENGL 2501 and ENGL 3801

Leading things off for Intro to Journalism

“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”

A Grafton soldier home for Memorial Day smiles up at the young relative he lifted up for a better view. Photo by Jennifer Lord Paluzzi

A Grafton soldier home for Memorial Day smiles up at the young relative he lifted up for a better view. Photo by Jennifer Lord Paluzzi

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:

  • The 5Ws — Who, what, when, why and where — and throw in a how. What aspect of the story is the most important? Is there anything unusual? Why is this important to the reader?
  • Be specific — Don’t say “Police are seeking a man who robbed a bank Monday.” What are the details? Did he pass a note to the teller? Did he show a gun? Is he possibly a serial robber assigned a catchy nickname by the FBI?
  • Conflict — Good stories have conflict. The town is suing the railroad over plans to build four giant propane storage tanks on its property; the railroad says it is allowed to do so under federal law. Parents are fighting to have the school recognize Jewish holidays. Can you set up the conflict in your lead?
  • Keep it short — A suggestion in the age of Twitter: if your lead is more than 140 characters, it might be too long. Read it out loud. Are you gasping for breath by the end of a paragraph? It’s too long.
  • Active sentences — Use strong verbs. Don’t use passive voice.
  • Audience — What does your reader already know? If you are writing about a long-running issue, you don’t necessarily have to stuff all that information right into the first sentence — but you are going to have to parcel out background in the story.
  • If you say it in the lead, back it up in the story — Don’t leave details hanging. Remember Chekhov’s gun in storytelling: “If you say in the first chapter that there is a rifle hanging on the wall, in the second or third chapter it absolutely must go off. If it’s not going to be fired, it shouldn’t be hanging there.”

Lead examples:

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.

Don’t forget

  • Keep your writing simple. Concentrate on strong verbs and nouns and don’t overuse adverbs and adjectives. If you find yourself using a semicolon, back up and figure out how you’re going to simplify your sentence.
  • It is very easy to fall into a formulatic rut, especially when you’re writing police stories. News writing is still entertainment. What is going to sell your story?
  • Use question leads sparingly. The intent of your story should be to answer questions, not create them.

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.


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This entry was posted on January 16, 2014 by in Journalism and tagged , .

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