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Saturday
Jul092005

Tutorial II: The Lead

When journalists talk about the beginning of a story the word they use is “the lead”. Sometimes it’s spelled “lede”, a throwback to the pre-computer age when the word for the intro to the story had to be distinguished from the word for the molten lead used in printing newspapers.

An effective lead makes a promise to the reader, that you have something important and interesting to tell them. A good lead beckons, invites, informs, attracts and entices.

The best kinds of leads are anecdotal in nature. The short story is meant to be a microcosm of a bigger issue. Here’s an example of a three paragraph lead followed immediately by a Nut Graph.

(Three para intro)
For five days,
Alice's husband, high on drugs, threatened to kill her. He hit her and abused her.

Terrified, Alice fled the house when she finally got the chance and ran to a local business to call the police.

“He would kill me. He's very scary,” Alice said. “He would walk through walls if he had to.”

(Nut Graph)
The police advised her to contact the
Domestic Violence Resource Center in Hillsboro, and Alice found her way there.

The anecdotal lead above uses one specific example to illustrate a larger topic. In this case, Alice's story is a gateway to a larger story on the Domestic Violence Resource Center.

Anecdotal leads are a mainstay of feature writing. When used well they can be very effective in drawing the reader towards the Nut Graph.

Here are some comments by some journalists on leads:

“I look at leads as my one frail opportunity to grab the reader. If I don’t grab them at the start, I can’t count on grabbing them in the middle, because they’ll never get to the middle… My leads are there to get you in and to keep you hooked to the story so that you can’t go away.”
– N. Don Wycliff, Chicago Tribune

“I might write the first sentence 10 different times. Take a look at it, and it’s not quite right. It’s the right thought, but it’s not the right wording. Or it’s the right wording, but it’s not the right thought.”
– Steve Lopez, Los Angeles Times

“I have to have a lead or I can’t write anything. I have to have my first sentence, because that’s my whole piece. That’s the tone that says what is this piece about, it’s the theme, the thing by which everything hangs. If I don’t have that first sentence, I just can’t keep going forward.”
– Susan Trausch, The Boston Globe

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