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ServiceScape Incorporated
ServiceScape Incorporated

Tips for Good Journalistic Leads


"Here's the story in a nutshell…"

You may have heard somebody use this phrase when aiming to save time in telling a story. It's a good phrase to use as a rule of thumb when writing the first sentence of a news article. It can also be pretty useful, in different ways, for essays, stories and other forms of writing.

Most people are not going to read your news article all the way through unless you capture their attention from the first sentence. There are other stories on the website or in the publication competing for their reading time. You want your writing to pull them right away. If readers really don't have time to do more than skim your story, they will appreciate it if your lead (or "lede" as it's spelled at many news organizations) gives them that nutshell of basic information with which they can feel informed just enough.

So maximize your first sentence, your first paragraph, in terms of essential information while minimizing it in terms of words. Here are a few tips for doing so:

  1. Use active tense. "Man Bites Dog" is more succinct and compelling than "Dog Is Bitten By Man." Avoid the passive tense, which describes something happening to someone as opposed to someone doing something.
  2. Try writing your lede in 35 words or less. Think about reading it out loud and see if you can do it in one breath. Reading the lede aloud can also help you gauge your word usage.
  3. Imagine that somebody is asking you what your article is about, but their bus is approaching. You have about 1 minute to get the theme of your article across. "What are you writing about," the friend asks. "I'm writing about the 3rd Avenue Bridge replacement," you may respond. "What's it about?" says the friend, as the bus approaches. You really want to let the friend know what's so interesting about this bridge. "The bridge is 100 years old. They're taking it apart in two big halves that weigh 500,000 pounds each. The new bridge came up from Alabama on a boat and they have to put it in fast because 70,000 people use that crossing each day." You're conveying to your friend the size and importance of this structure and why it matters, at least to the locals, that it is being replaced.
  4. Use visuals. With just a few well-placed adjectives and adverbs, you can paint a picture. Capture a specific moment in the story and freeze-frame it for your readers. Saying that the bank robbers made their getaway with $10,000 in cash is good, but saying that two youths wearing pantyhose on their heads got away with $10,000 in cash by fleeing in an aqua-colored station wagon definitely spices up the image for the reader.
  5. Put attributions in the second paragraph. While journalists must always use attributions in reporting, the "according to" is secondary to the idea. For example, I wrote a story about airport officials predicting that airport congestion will increase while security screening staffers will decrease. The lede began, "U.S. airport travelers will face longer lines at terminals as security screeners lose their jobs." In the second sentence, I add the attribution, "Airport officials said the 10 percent decrease in security staffing could cause hours of delays."
  6. Don't overload the lede with information. Every good news story tries to answer "Who, what, where, when, why and why care," but it doesn't all have to be in the first paragraph. Decide which of the W's is the most important and lead with that. If you're writing about a fire that killed three people, perhaps the fact that it was caused deliberately should be in the lede. On the other hand, if it happened at a famous landmark, the "who"—the landmark—would be more important.
  7. Use short, simple words. While it may be tempting to show off your vocabulary of four-syllable words, they don't have as much of a place in journalism as they do in academia. Sure, you can say, "The agency placed a moratorium on using foreign labor," but "The agency will stop using immigrant workers" is a lot easier to grasp and works much better for the purpose of conveying information.
  8. Avoid beginning with clauses. "Fearing that his election campaign is in jeopardy, Senator X declared his innocence at a press briefing yesterday," is okay, but somewhat cumbersome. Say, "Senator X made a bid to save his election campaign by declaring his innocence at a press briefing yesterday."

It can be challenging to stuff a lede with colorful description and important information while keeping it lean and mean. Think short, to-the-point sentences, even for anecdotal ledes.

Also, anecdotal ledes should be used with caution. When good, they're really good. When bad, they're akin to that long-winded story at a party that ends in a pun nobody laughs at. A good anecdotal lede takes a specific example of the issue at hand and makes you care about, or feel familiar with, that person or subject. Then you find out what the larger issue is.

For example, if your theme is about cutbacks in Medicare, you might create a lede that talks about the 90-year-old grandmother who sits down to knit sweaters for her family. You describe how her hands tremble with arthritis. She reaches for her arthritis medicine and says, "I won't be able to afford a refill next month." Why? Because of Medicare cuts.

Even in an anecdote like this, avoid dramatic flourishes. Describe what you've seen but don't infuse it with personal opinion. The beauty of journalism is that it's about describing and recording real-life events. They usually speak for themselves. As they say, "Truth is stranger than fiction." Describe what the issue is as truthfully as you can, and it will be powerful.

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