We’ve seen more good leads lately, perhaps a testament to the additional time for live-in assignments. That’s encouraging because there’s no quicker way to lose a reader than with an uninspiring, uninteresting opening. A lead is a “flashlight shining down into the story,” says John McPhee, the extraordinary non-fiction writer and Princeton writing professor. As writing coach Jack Hart explains, some writers don’t realize that their lead should provide the organizing principle for everything that follows. Here’s a compelling lead from Matt Townsend that illuminates what is to come:
The first year and a half of Nat Dixon’s new life as a Methodist pastor unfolded just as he envisioned. Until a man with a badge knocked on his door.
Notice the whiff of mystery Matt introduces here, which makes the reader want to learn more. Too many leads lose their drama by giving away too much of the story. Not here. Matt hooks you and then weaves a tale of Dixon and his struggling church raising money to pay back taxes to the IRS. It becomes a story of this new pastor and his strength of character.
Notice, too, how Georgia Kral doesn’t try to pack everything in to her first paragraph in her New York Times’ lead on a Connecticut school with a mold problem. Instead, she creates an anticipation, and a story arc, that flows from her lead:
Built in 1933, King’s Highway School in Westport, a large brick building with white-trimmed windows and tall white pillars by the entrance, looks like the quintessential New England academy. In a section of the elementary school called the pod, however, parents and teachers have complained for years about musty smells and the poor quality of the air, which they suspect has contributed to the chronic respiratory problems of several teachers and students. After years of suspicion, mold was found in the pod in the fall of 2006, and it was sealed off.
There’s no one formula for good leads. Jessica Firger showed how you can make a quote lead work, even though most editors would discourage that approach. Notice how much you learn from the quote and the setting in her lead:
“I’m Ruth Levell, the director of NAMI Harlem. I have a schizophrenic son. He’s 53 and lives in a residence in the Bronx. He seems to be doing pretty well,” the gray-haired woman in oversized school-marmish glasses tells the 18 people seated around her in the lounge of a Harlem housing project.
What follows is a touching story of this 87-year-old whose life is a testament to how a personal tragedy can be transformed into something that brings comfort and meaning to others.
Picking up on the idea that there’s no one formula, here are Jere Hester’s suggestions for thinking about leads (or ledes, in journalese):
- The Field of Dreams Approach: Build the story and the lede will come. When you’re struggling with crafting the perfect words, just write a pedestrian lede and plow through the rest of the story. Then read what you’ve got: You will find an image in there, a turn of phrase, a telling detail that will become the core of the great lede that was inside you the whole time.
- It’s All in Your Hed: If you’re having a hard time figuring out what your story is, sum it up in a three- to six word headline. Then you’ll know the essence of your story and from those three to six words, craft your 20-to-30 word lede.
- Talk it out: One of the great things about newsrooms is there are lots of wise folks (and wise alecks) around. Talk out the story with your editor, your colleagues. I once struggled with the lede on a brite about the discovery of spotless leopard. I mentioned the story to one of the clerks. He said, “Geez, you can’t even tell a leopard by its spots anymore.” I had my lede.
- The James Carville Approach: KISS (Keep it Simple, Stupid). When you’re 50 words into a lede and you feel like you’re not even halfway there, it’s time to step back and simplify. Sometimes the most complex stories call for the simplest of ledes (see “It’s all in your hed” for hints). By breaking something down to its essence, you can draw in the reader. I remember an editor telling me about being a copy boy with the Times the night Babe Ruth died and seeing the writer struggle with how sum up all that living in one graf. In the end, he said it all in five words: Babe Ruth died last night.