(download 3-page PDF of How to write leads)
One of my favorite leads read like this:
When the woman patient jumped off the examining table and, half-naked, ran down the sidewalk in Coral Springs, the state of Florida figured it had better do something about the doctor from Connecticut.
The lead appeared at the top of one of my stories when I worked at the Miami Herald. I wish I had written it. The author was the late Gene Miller, an investigative reporter and editor who had two Pulitzer Prizes under his belt.
Miller was a legendary figure, especially for young reporters working in outlying bureaus. What I knew about Miller was that 1) he liked to go swimming on his lunch break and 2) he had a plum job. He had freedom and independence. He evidently scanned the story budget and picked out pieces that he wanted to edit. We bureau rats knew the drill. When Miller took control of a story, he transformed it, sometimes even rewrote it. He “Miller-ized” stories. That’s what we called it.
I remember sitting next to him while he took apart one story, and then watching him put it back together again.
I weakly protested some of his edits. But this was all done in a rush, on deadline, and Miller didn’t give lengthy explanations for his handiwork. But I do remember him saying at one point, simply:
My way is better.
It didn’t take me long to realize that his way was better. Well, I guess I’d quibble over his excess use of “according to” when “said” worked just fine. But Miller knew how to grab the reader’s attention, which is what the story’s lead must do. And I was happy to have my stories “Miller-ized.”
Miller, a native of Indiana, died in 2005. Read his obituary, which, fittingly, is a great read, written by Miller himself.
With Miller in mind, I compiled a few notes on writing leads, below. Feel free to send in your comments or ideas.
Two kinds of leads
- Direct – What’s most important. Usually used on breaking news.
- Delayed – Entices readers by hinting at story’s contents. Often used with features.
Where to get your lead
- Almost always, it’s got to be in the reporting
- Writer’s block often happens if you haven’t done enough reporting or you haven’t nailed down what you’re writing about
- Try to figure out the lead while you’re still reporting. Ask yourself, “What’s this story really about?”
Questions to ask
- What is unique, unusual or important about the story?
- Who is involved?
- Is a direct or delayed lead best?
- How can I make the lead more colorful?
- What will best hook the reader?
- Some writing coaches say: Don’t try to make the lead perfect at first. Just get something on paper. Then rewrite it, craft it.
- Others say that’s a bad idea. There’s no time for unfocused writing if you’re on deadline.
- Relax. Think about your story’s most important elements. What stands out?
- Talk to your editor or a colleague. Tell them the gist of the story. That could be the beginnings of your lead.
- If the story is complex, you may want to do a quick outline. Or you may want to review your notes.
- Usually, the nut graf sums up what’s most important about the story
- It grabs the reader by the throat and says, ‘Here’s why you should read this story!’
By Edna Buchanan
Story on murder victim killed at restaurant:
Gary Robinson died hungry.
Story on drug smuggler who died after some of the cocaine-filled condoms he had swallowed began to leak:
His last meal was worth $30,000 and it killed him.
- Three-quarters of reporters use this sentence structure in their leads.
- Lead length
- Long and complete versus short and snappy
Leads for online publications
- Leads may change many times during the day
- Print versions often differ from online versions
- Tell readers what your story means and why they should care
- Spin the story forward to keep it fresh
The old-fashioned inverted pyramid often works online because you get to the point quickly
- Most important material goes at the top
- Least important material can be cut from the bottom
- What’s a kicker and when to use it
P.S. As for story about the half-naked woman and the doctor, well, I don’t know where that newspaper clipping is. But if I ever find it, I’ll post it here.