The Lead

The lead, or opening paragraphs of a story, is the most important part of the story. It must, at some level, both summarize and grab the reader’s attention.

When writing a lead, assume that the average reader does not have the time or patience to read the entire story and therefore, the writer must give them all the pertinent information in as little space as possible. On the flip side, writers should also engage the reader so that they want to read more.

Leads should be kept short and to the point, leaving all background information and detailed explanation for the body of the story. Unlike telling a story where the storyteller uses suspense to lead up to the climax or point of the story, a news writer must tell the most important facts first in the lead and fill in the details later.

In a news story, the main objective of the lead is to answer the questions who, what, when and where, as least, maybe going into why. In a feature story, the main objective of the lead is to grab the reader’s attention.

Lead tips

  • The lead should stand on its own. It should be clear, appealing and well-told. Even though they are longer than news leads, they should be concise, use short sentences and employ action verbs.
  • The lead should match the story. No matter how compelling and how exciting the lead is — it must pertain to the actual point of the story. Make sure it doesn’t discuss issues or topics that the story will ignore.
  • The lead should not be too long. The nut graf is important because it spells out exactly what the story will be about. For that reason — don’t delay it for too long. In other words, get to the point.
  • The lead should not be trite, full of clichés or overused. Just as there are a number of leads that will work in features stories, there are a number to avoid. Stay away from “question” leads, that pose a rhetorical question. Don’t use second person, it puts the emphasis on the writer, not the subject and should be reserved for columns. Finally, stay away from “imagine this” leads, that create a hypothetical situation or world. They’re just too easy and overused.

The Lead checklist

❏The lead is specific rather than vague and abstract.

❏The lead avoids stating the obvious or the negative.

❏The lead emphasizes the story’s most unusual or unexpected developments.

❏The lead emphasizes the most interesting and important aspects of the story.

❏You have read the lead aloud to make certain that it is clear, concise and easy to understand.

❏The lead emphasizes the story’s magnitude and its impact on its participants and readers?

❏The lead is a complete sentence with a subject and verb.

❏The lead is concise? It should not exceed three sentences.

❏A news lead begins with the answers to the most important questions: who, what, when, where and why.

❏A feature lead grabs the reader’s attention.

❏The lead uses strong, active verbs rather than passive verbs, avoiding “is,” “are,” “were” or “was.”

❏Every name that appears in the lead is essential. Names tend to distract the reader.

❏All quotations and options in the lead are properly attributed.

❏The lead emphasizes a local angle of important to NC State students.

❏The lead emphasizes a timely angle, focusing on what happened yesterday or what will happen today.

❏All facts have been double checked.

❏The lead avoids asking a question, instead answering the questions for the readers.

❏The lead is written in third person, avoiding first person (I or we) or second person (you) to maintain objectivity.

Types of leads

Hard news leads should hit the ground running with no extra or wasted wording. A news lead should rarely surpass 35-40 words in length (with 25 words as the standard). It is permissible for a lead to be more than one sentence. The news lead should answer the questions who, what, when and where and the story should then quickly move in to why and how.

Pick one of the five W’s to highlight the lead. For example, a reporter might highlight the lead using the “where” element of the incident. “In front of a record crowd of 57,329 people, the football team won its fourth game of the season in a 21-17 win over Virginia on Saturday.”

Rarely, however, should the story lead with “when.” While, by definition, news stories have to be timely, rarely is when something happened most important.

The hard news lead

Stories about crime, breaking news, facts or figures, announcements and events often follow the standard, hard news lead. This type of writing addresses the who, what, when, where and how – delivering the main facts and giving a clear picture of what happened. The first sentence often addresses the who and what, leaving the second to provide additional information about the when, where and how. Further explanation and detail is left to the body of the story.

Campus Police apprehended two burglary suspects on Tuesday in connection to what they call “the heist of the century.”

John Roberts, 21, and Glen Thomas, 45, were later charged with 28 counts of felony burglary for the theft of diamond jewelry and laptop computers from Harrelson Hall.

Following the lead, it is usually easiest to add a quote or statistic to supplement the information.

“It was a lucky catch but we are sure to have these fellas off the streets,” said Campus Police Lt. Jon Barnwell, who arrested the men at their home at 43 Broad Street.

The several-element news lead

A reporter may be faced with an event that has many different elements involved. Take this example: A car crashes into a restaurant on Hillsborough Street. The driver and a waiter both die. The accident stops all traffic on Hillsborough Street for five hours. The police say they found an open bottle of whisky in the car. When faced with a story that has so many different elements, follow these steps:

1. Separate the various newsworthy elements.

2. Decide what the most important element is. What element of the total event caused everything else to happen? Which element, if taken away, would make all the other elements impossible?

3. Write a lead that features the most important element.

4. Follow the lead with a story – using quotes and transitions - that connects all the other elements of the event to the most important element.

Soft leads

While inappropriate for hard news stories, a soft or features lead can be a compelling and engaging way to begin stories about people or events, stories that have little newsworthiness or that may be outdated. A soft lead gives the writer more freedom and creativity since the point is not to deliver all the straightforward news, but to engage and captivate the reader.

For example, a hard news lead about a shooting might begin like this:

Two local boys were found dead in their front yard this morning, victims of what police suspect was a gang-related initiation.

Samuel Jackson, 5, and Thomas Jackson, 7, were playing in a sandbox when, according to police reports, a shooter emerged from a passing van and fired four shots at the boys.

A soft lead, however, would focus less on the facts and more on the victims:

Sharon Jackson had just kissed her two youngest boys on the forehead when she walked inside to answer a ringing telephone. In the few seconds it took to enter the home and retrieve the cordless phone, Samuel, 5, and Thomas, 7, were murdered – shot in their own front yard.

Like a hard news lead, a soft lead is always followed by a nut graf, which gives a brief explanation of the story, answering the who, what, when, where and how. After a soft lead, however, the nut graf is usually delayed but not for more than four or five paragraphs.

There are a number of creative and compelling ways to use a soft or features lead. Always remember, however, to make sure that the lead matches the general purpose and point of the story and that it is still concise and clear. While there is more creative license with a soft lead, it should not be awkward, condescending, long or too clever. As always, avoid clichés or overly sentimental beginnings.

Anecdotal leads

Such leads are common in feature stories and use a short story to demonstrate an aspect of a story.

Standing behind the counter at the local Dairy Queen, Justin Forsythe balances an ice cream scoop in one hand and his Calculus textbook in the other. Between churning shakes and changing twenty dollar bills, he pours over the text, desperately cramming for his 8 a.m. exam.

He knows he should be at home or in the library. But since legislators tacked on an additional five percent increase for his in-state tuition, he’s had to take all the hours he can get, digging out scoop after scoop to make sure he can afford to stay in school for his last semester.

Descriptive leads

Descriptive leads, also common in feature stories, use vivid detail and color to describe a person, place or process.

Dan Strother doesn’t do handshakes.

Enter his second story office in Pullen Hall and the burly, former college football star will immediately envelope you in a bear hug, waving aside any attempts at formality and insisting that while you’ve just met, you’re already friends.

With kind eyes, a booming laugh and a bald spot that he jokes “distracts low flying planes,” he looks like the last person that anyone would expect to be running one of the nation’s top universities. But as N.C. State chancellor, he does just that. In between giving hugs, of course.

Narrative leads

Using drama and suspense to put readers in the middle of the action, with little attention given to detail or explanation, narrative leads are like the beginning of a good novel, enticing the reader to read more.

Panting, sweating and gasping for air, Natalie Lewis digs her fingers into the chainlink fence, using every ounce of her energy to pull herself up and over, landing squarely – and hard – on the burnt clay below.

After a seconds rest, she hurtles across an empty field, frantically trying to outrun an invisible enemy.

She’s 22, a chemistry major and just encountering her first day of basic training in the ROTC.

Quote leads

Begin with a quote, often telling a story, giving background or expressing strong emotion. Avoid “famous quotes” if possible, using testimony from real people or experts. This type of lead rarely works since it is hard to find the “perfect” quote that really grabs the reader’s attention for the feature story. However, when such a quote exists, it can be very effective.

“Scared doesn’t even begin to describe it,” recalls Anna Thomas, as she reclines in her comfy chair in her Student Health office, miles away from the harrowing mountain climb that nearly claimed her life two weeks ago and catapulted the generally reserved nurse to national notoriety.

Here’s another.

“Oh, I never believed in love at first sight,” Sally Thomas said, flipping her honey colored mane over her back. “That is, until I logged on and saw his handsome face.”

Thomas, who claims she’s never considered herself romantic, found true love on an Internet message board. Six months and several clicks later, she’s getting married in June.

Statistical leads

Numbers can be boring. But, when used right, the right numbers, such as startling statistics can draw people into the story.

Take a look at five of your closes females friends. By the time they graduate, statistics say one of them will be sexually assaulted according to the National Health Office, which just released “The Female Plight,” detailing the major problems facing American women today.

Audience-identification leads

Put readers in the story to make it more realistic.

It’s two hours until John’s big date and all he wants to hear is some Barry White.

He rummages through his CDs and then, unsatisfied, starts clicking away at his laptop. Within minutes, he has downloaded “Love’s theme” broadcasting it as he sways to Barry’s rhythmic baritone.

But downloading that one, seemingly harmless song could add up to thousands of dollars in fines and serious jail time if the National Recording Artists Industry has its way.

Starting July 6, the music industry will be hunting down and suing everyone from downloading DJs to the occasional college CD burner for illegally sharing music files.