Lead Writing 101

by Mary Jackson

As the print media takes a back seat to web-based publications, lead writing is an increasingly essential skill. When online, a reader often only sees the first sentence of an article and must click for more. Whether on paper or the computer screen, a lead serves as readers “first impression,” and must be concise and compelling enough to draw them in.

“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,” writes Chip Scanlan in his popular journalism blog for the Poynter Institute, "Chip on Your Shoulder."

To write a good lead, first determine what editors call the “5Ws and the H”: the who, what, when, where, why and how of your article. From this information, evaluate which aspect is most important to emphasize in your first sentence. Following the lead should be the “nut graph,” which is newsroom lingo for a sentence (or two) telling the reader where you are going and giving a promise of the story's content and message. Professional journalists spend a good portion of time constructing the first five paragraphs of their pieces, putting the less interesting or less essential information toward the end.

Rarely will a lead just come to a writer. Even in this case, expert journalists advise writers to hold this loosely. The first sentence is most often perfected with time and effort, cutting, pasting, moving things around and getting feedback from others.

“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,” said Los Angeles Times reporter Steve Lopez in Scanlan’s online article, “The Power of Leads.”

Other types of Leads: There is no particular formula to lead writing,. However, opening an article with a question, a quotation, a punch line, or a direct appeal to the reader using the word “you” must be done carefully. These can be effective, but are hard to pull off.

Lead Writing: What to Avoid

Avoid flowery language: Use strong verbs and nouns instead of overusing adverbs and adjectives in the first sentence.

Avoid clutter: Avoid wasting space with needless words or redundancy. Review the lead: are you packing in too much?

Beginning with “it:” Editors dislike leads that start with the word “it.” This tends to disorient the reader.

Tired leads: Readers are turned off by mechanical leads. They want to be entertained while informed. Although the lead acts as a summary, it must be interesting and specific.

Stretching the truth: While the goal is to entice readers, consider the lead a promise that you are going to deliver on in the article. Don’t stretch the truth just to get attention.

Mary Jackson is a freelance writer in northern California and is editor of Pen & Sword, an online publication for writers published by The Amy Foundation. You can contact her at maryjackson531@hotmail.com. This article appeared in the Fall 2010 edition of Pen & Sword: http://www.amyfound.org/newsletter/newsletters.