The Power of Leads

Chip Scanlan/The Poynter Institute

When journalists talk about beginnings of stories the word they use is lead. Sometimes it’s spelled “lede,” a throwback to the precomputer age when the word for first paragraphs had to be distinguished from the word for the molten lead used to print newspapers. Leads are the foundation of every news story, no matter what the medium.

An effective lead makes a promise to the reader or viewer: I have something important, something interesting, to tell you. A good lead beckons and invites. It informs, attracts, and entices. If there’s any poetry in journalism, it’s most often found in the lead, as in the classic opening of what could have been a mundane weather forecast:

Snow, followed by small boys on sleds.

When the subject is leads, there’s no shortage of opinions about their role, their preferred length, the rules they should follow or break. But no one disagrees about this enduring fact about lead writing: It’s hard work.

Jack Cappon of The Associated Press called it, rightly, “the agony of square one.”

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