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. Prof. 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. Prof. 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.
- Don’t get stuck. Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good, Wayne Svoboda says. If you’re struggling, just write a placeholder lead and build the rest of your 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 lead that was inside you the whole time.
- The Gene Simmons Approach: KISS (Keep it Simple, Stupid). When you’re 50 words into a lead 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 leads. Prof. Hester remembers an editor telling him about being a copy boy with the Times the night Babe Ruth died and seeing the writer struggle with how to sum up all that living in one graf. In the end, he said it all in five words: Babe Ruth died last night.
Jessica Firger, for the Brooklyn Paper this summer, went with a quick teaser lead for what could have been a routine cop blotter item:
What a drag!
The Sovereign Bank on Fifth Avenue was robbed (again) on July 28 — and this time, the culprit was a transvestite!
Cops say that the branch at 75th Street suffered its fourth robbery of the year, but what was different this time was the crook’s choice of attire: he not only donned women’s clothing and a wig, but also wore fake breasts.
Those prosthetics were, apparently, his only weapons.
Jessica explains: “This story was so wacky it was begging to be a standalone. You need to tell the reader right away why you’re giving this incident extra space. A light tone for this item is appropriate: There was no weapon involved (unless you count his feminine wiles), barely any cash stolen from the bank, and no one was hurt. It’s a funny community item. Also, everyone loves a drag queen.”