How to write better leads

Heath Meriwether / The Write Stuff

What makes a good lead?  Hint:  It’s usually not a question.

But it’s an answer we think a lot about here, particularly with a fresh cast of students. There’s no one right answer.  Jack Hart  talks about as many as 15 ways to start a story in his book, “A Writer’s Coach.”  Everyone agrees there’s no quicker way to lose your reader than a flat, uninteresting lead.

With that as both warning and encouragement, here are some quick thoughts about how to think about leads:

  • Get to the point.  What happened? What do you want the reader to take away from your story? After you’ve covered an event, or done an interview, write a short note to yourself about what’s most important.  Write a three to six-word headline.  Expand the thought and you’ve got your lead.
  • Imagine how you’d tell the story to a friend or family member.  You wouldn’t bury them in the details.  Jere Hester gives this example: Your mind is reeling after a day of reading campaign contribution records, arcane tax codes and dealing with political spin.  Mom calls:  “What are you working on today, honey?” You:  “Oh, a story about a congressman who pushed for a tax loophole that saved his top campaign contributor $10 million.” There’s your lead.
  • Talk it through before you write.  That’s why God made editors, or craft professors. Classmates, too.  That  quick chat often forces you, or your listener, to summarize what’s important. Professor Hester was struggling with a feature about the discovery of a spotless leopard. He told one of the news clerks, who said, “Geez, you can’t even tell a leopard by its spots anymore.” Bingo!
  • It’s the news, stupid! Give the reader the news, not circumstances and generalities. Steve Strasser provides this example: Don’t write that a senior city official attacked the mayor for corruption at a press conference Wednesday.  Say instead: The comptroller accused the mayor of padding his expense account.
  • Assertive  sentences, Action verbs, Active Voice. Don’t back into the story.  Try to avoid the passive voice where the subject of the sentence is acted upon, rather than doing the acting.  Use strong verbs. Try to avoid forms of the “to be” verb (am, are, is, was, were, been). Caution: This can be overdone.  Active verbs, when forced, can distort or hype your story and make it read like a romance novel, warns writing coach Roy Peter Clark in his book, “Writing Tools.”
  • Avoid modifiers.  They show insecurity. Professor Strasser again: Most sophisticated, discerning readers will fully and readily understand the consuming and undeniable importance of the dramatic news of a sudden stock market crash without all those dang useless sludge-like ridiculously unnecessary modifiers.

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