In addition to answering the most important of the journalist’s six questions (who, what, when, where, why and how), a good lead performs six additional functions and displays four attributes. Use this checklist to write, evaluate, and improve your story leads.
- ENTICE Does your lead entice the reader to read on?
- FOCUS Is your lead going to take the story in the direction you want it to go?
- FORESHADOW Does the lead foreshadow something which will come later in the story? Are the details you chose meaningful to the story? If you have used an anecdotal lead, does it illustrate an important point in the story? In other words, do you have backup for the lead?
- GRAB Is the lead a grabber? Does it cause readers at the breakfast table to spit up their coffee, clutch at their heart and shout, “Good grief! Honey, did you read this?” Maybe the readers won’t spit up their coffee, but your lead should definitely arouse their interest.
- PROMISE Does your lead follow the “tell it to a friend” theory? Does it promise a good story?
- SO WHAT? Can your lead pass the “who cares” test? Can you answer the question, “Why should someone read this?
- VIEW Have you selected a point of view in the lead appropriate for the story (first, second, or third person point of view) and is your text consistent with that point of view throughout your lead?
- VOICE Does the lead convey a voice for the story- mysterious, dramatic, sympathetic, sarcastic, poignant, angry, sad, amused, humorous, caring, or any other emotion? Make sure the voice merely sets the tone and does not project your opinion—only your observations of the subject you are writing about.
- MEMORY What is the most memorable detail, fact, or impression you discovered during your interviews for the story? Is that in your lead? If not, should it be?
- RHYTHM When you read your lead aloud, does it have rhythm? Does it flow well and sound interesting to you?
Leads should be brief, usually 20-30 words max. Leads should sparkle with brightness, reader interst. Start with the news, not the news source: "Coach Dicus said..."
Types of Leads
The types of leads are many and varied, and can be confusing to the student journalist. Listed below are the two major classifications according to story category, plus the three most-used types of lead for each.
(Summary Lead, Quote Lead, Multiple-Element Lead)
Summary Lead: Answers the most important of the following questions: who?, what?, when?, where?, why?, and how?. It should emphasize only answers to those questions that are key to the focus of your story. To determine which questions are most important, consider the following points:
- What is the most important information- what is the story’s main point or topic?
- What was said or done about the topic- what happened or what action was taken?
- What are the most recent developments- what happened today or yesterday?
- Which facts are most likely to affect or interest your readers?
Which facts are most unusual?
Example: An 18-year old student was killed Tuesday when his car overturned while he was driving away from school.
Quote Lead:Should be used sparingly. Use them only when a source has said something so dramatic and effective that the statement cannot be improved through paraphrasing. The quote should summarize the entire story, be brief and totally self explanatory.
Example: “Congress should immediately ban the sale of all tobacco products, especially cigarettes,” the president of the American Cancer Society declared in a speech here last night.
Multiple-element Lead:When you have several separate elements on which to report, choosing a theme for the lead is sometimes difficult. In such cases, a multi-element lead is used.
Example: The City Council Tuesday ordered three department heads fired, established an administrative review board and said it would begin to monitor the work habits of administrators.
Soft News Leads
(Descriptive Lead, Anecdotal Lead, Narrative Lead)
Delayed Lead: Begins with an interesting example or anecdote that sets a story’s theme. Then- perhaps in the third or fourth paragraph- the “nut graph” summarizes the story and provides a transition to the body. Thus, the nut graph moves the story from a single example or anecdote to the general issue or problem.
Steve Good aid he knew his father would rather be dead than spend the rest of his life behind bars. So when James Good needed one more bullet to use on himself after killing his girlfriend and firing at an Orange County deputy sheriff early Thursday, his 20-year-old son was there to lend a hand.
“I helped him look for the bullet,” Steve said later. “And I gave it to him. I knew what he wanted it for, and I didn’t want him to do it. But he didn’t want to do any time. He didn’t want to get captured. He wanted the bullet.”