20/20 #4 — Best Phrase Forward: Digging out the buried lead

 What is the lead?

The lead either grabs the readers’ attention and gets them to click and continue reading — or loses them entirely as they surf away to watch one more cat video. The first paragraph should draw readers into the story, with conflict or color or a great quote. The lead is short, active, and specific, while telling readers what to expect in the story. 

Lead or Lede?

Back in the day, newspapers were printed with ink containing lead. When people wrote about the “lead” in a story, some got confused about the difference between “lead” in the ink and the beginning or “lead” in the story. So they changed the spelling to “lede.” Only snobs will correct you if you spell it “lead” today.

Hard and soft leads

Hard lead: Just the facts, ma’am.

Tells who, what , when, where, why.

The Minneapolis school board, in a special meeting held at school district headquarters, voted on April 1 to approve new principal contracts providing a starting salary of $100,000 per year.

Soft lead: anecdotal or descriptive

Begins the article with a story or quote — better for holding the attention of readers.

Suppose one in four of a law school’s graduates could not pass the bar exam after multiple attempts? Applications would plummet, the school would tumble in the all-important U.S. News & World Report rankings and its American Bar Association accreditation potentially would be threatened.

In short, it would be catastrophic.

Yet at 18 of Minnesota’s 33 teacher preparation programs fewer than three-fourths of graduates passed all three of the basic skills tests required to secure a license to teach. (MinnPost article, 4/3/2014)

Burying the lead — and finding it

Many of us “bury the lead.” That is, we write the story from start to finish, and the really interesting, juicy anecdote may happen in the third paragraph. Or in the next-to-last section. 

Don’t worry.

If you can’t figure out a great lead for the first paragraph of your story, go ahead and write the story. Then, after it is written, look for the lead and move it to the top. Even if you think you have a good lead, reread your story and see whether you can find something better.

After you get the lead at the top, do whatever rewriting is needed to make the story flow.

If you can’t find anything interesting for a lead, you may need to rethink the whole story. Remember these key questions from In Focus?

  • Who will be interested in reading this?
  • What is important, interesting, surprising, exciting?
  • Why will readers care? (This may be the most important question!) 

Hands on

Go to AlJazeera.com and analyze the leads to three stories.

  • Does something in this lead make you want to read more?
  • What could be added or changed to make each lead stronger?
  • Which is the best lead, and why? 

Want more?

Here are a few good resources:

Purdue Online Writing Lab (OWL) How to write a good lead

Melvin Mencher. Chapter 6 “The Lead.” News Reporting and Writing


 ©2014 Mary Turck