Editor’s Note: This handout by former South Eugene H.S. journalism adviser Sue Barr is one of many that were shared with Oregon journalism teachers and at JEA conventions.
The key to writing good copy lies in the first paragraph — the lead. It needs to capture your readers’ interest so they’ll read on. Objectives of the lead are:
- To get the reader’s attention.
- To introduce the subject of the copy.
- To lead the reader into the body of the copy.
Therefore, begin the copy in the most attention-getting, striking way possible. As one adviser wrote, “Begin the copy with a lead that will tease, tickle or tempt the reader.” To do just that, consider using different types of featurized leads throughout a section, remembering as well to vary the opening words as you would with captions, and to avoid beginning with names or the name of the group or event.
- Summarizes the event by reporting the who, what when, where, why, and how — or at least the most important of the 5W’s and H
- Gives the gist of the story
“With a change from previous years, spectators came alive with spirit, making athletic events rock with noise and enthusiasm of the ’50s and ’60s.”
“Money wasn’t everything, even to perpetually broke students, as they gave their time and energy to volunteer in the community.”
“Using their own ideas to promote healthy thinking, Students Against Drunk Driving found creative and fun ways to show the importance of not using drugs and intoxicants.”
“At a time when technology and computers were bywords, students still flocked to learn sewing, cooking, child psychology and financing through home economics classes.”
- tells a story
- creates a situation and draws the reader in
- the reader can often identify with the characters or situation
- usually includes description
“It was hot. It was Friday. It was unexpected. The kids were unprepared. The teachers only had two hours to get ready to be normal again. Everyone was shocked…the strike was over.”
“The Axemen inbounded the ball and passed to senior Karen Freeman in the corner. Freeman lobbed the ball inside to senior Sonia Wagoner less than five feet from the basket. Wagoner’s shot, virtually uncontested, gave South its first women’s state basketball title and also a first for District 5AAA, which had not advanced a team as far as the semifinals before.”
“On a cold, dry Saturday evening, the team sized up its opponent. Excitement mounted as the first and last game of the season was about to be played. The opposing team started the game with the kickoff. As the ball sailed through the air, everyone paused for a split second, waiting to see what would happen. Both spirit and hopes ran high. The only difference was that the girls were wearing the purple football jerseys.”
“Nervous and tense, trying hard to concentrate on the directions being given, you maneuver the monstrous bright yellow machine into the school parking lot. There, you see people you know walking by and your beet red face shows the extra stress of trying to melt into the floor — an all too familiar scenario for some students learning to drive.” (Note use of “you.” On occasion, if used appropriately and sparingly, it works.)
conjures up a mental picture of a subject or event
helps portray the mood and setting
allows the reader to hear, see, smell, feel the situation
one of the most effective leads for yearbook copy
“Meeting in an unused Industrial Arts room and an abandoned nursery school area with large fairly tale figures painted on the walls, International High School students learned about cultures the world over in its initial year.”
“The fragrance of chicken filled the air. Yellow broth trickled down from a stained white table onto a candy wrapper covered floor. The custodian scoffed at the mess, then wiped it away into an already full garbage can. Just another day in the cafeteria.”
“They golfed through the rain, they golfed through the sun, they even golfed through the strike, coming back to pick up first place at district and fourth place at state.”
“Invading classrooms with the zeal of six year olds on the first day of school, parents came to school in place of their students on Swap Day.”
“Cars, scooters and motorcycles, the preferred wheels for those with licenses, jockeyed for positions in the east and west end asphalt jungles.”
- a direct quotation that stands out as an important element of the story
- the quote must set the stage for the copy or give the focus or theme of the copy
- one of the most overused leads because it’s an easy solution; use sparingly
“I wish I could get more money for less work,” confessed senior Amanda Weller about her position at Safeway. It was a feeling expressed by many, with students expenses rising and limited working time available.”
“’Sorry for the interruption. We have just one small announcement,’ blares the public address system. The teacher glares at the noisy box and class is disrupted one more time.”
“When I was in high school, everyone attended the baccalaureate,” remarked counselor Barbara Craig. “It was a serious, somber occasion. Now there’s so little information and understanding, you find only 20 kids attending.”
- effective if it challenges the reader’s knowledge or curiosity
- should be used only when the question is central to the story
- it is too often used when the reporter can’t think of another
- it’s easy to write, but use it rarely; it’s the lazy man’s lead
“Rating albums ‘R’ or ‘PG’? A practice unheard of, yet it almost became a reality when 25 recording companies agreed to comply — to a limited extent — with the wishes of the Parent Music Resource Center.”
“Homework? Why spend time learning about the Korean war when M*A*S*H is on in the next room? Why waste precious hours studying the functions of a city police force when Hill Street Blues is right at your fingertips?”
- consists of a short, exclamatory sentence
- usually it is a striking or startling statement that demands attention
“Life just kept getting more and more expensive.”
“State. A popular word among many South athletes, no matter what sport.”
- used when there is a comparison to be made
- points out opposites and extremes
“There were no chemicals, but there certainly was chemistry. There were no test tubes, but for sure there was experimenting. And a lot of mixing — and learning — took place in these labs. Jazz labs, that is.”
“The district cellar in 1987. State champs in 1988.”
Suspended Interest Lead
- arouses the reader’s curiosity because it doesn’t tell all
- tempts the reader to read on to find out; sometimes teases
- usually presents the point near the end of the lead
- direct opposite of the summary lead
“Tradition proved a powerful mainstay, to the dismay of wrestling coach Henry Hosfield.”
“Working during school. Working after school. Spending free periods working. Doesn’t sound like a very fun club, does it? It’s called publishing a newspaper, a job that is challenging, ongoing and not always fun, but rewarding when the final product is distributed.”
“Business was more than just business, and just as in the real world, it meant competition.”
“A purple principal, a hallway close to a quarter of a mile long, new workloads and new peers.” (Copy on new freshman class.)
“The Hult Center got a facelift, one that people didn’t see unless their eyes were on their feet.”
- referring to someone or something well known
- can be reference to a motto, a quote, a familiar line in a song or book, the name of a movie, a poem, etc.
- make sure the reference is suitable to the subject of the copy
“The old saying, ‘It’s not whether you win or lose but how you play the game,’ was a lesson quickly learned by the JV volleyball team.”
“The eyes had it in 1987. The focus ranged from dazzling makeup to colored contacts.”
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.