When journalists talk about beginnings of stories the word they use is lead. Sometimes it’s spelled “lede,” a throwback to the precomputer age when the word for first paragraphs had to be distinguished from the word for the molten lead used to print newspapers. Leads are the foundation of every news story, no matter what the medium.
An effective lead makes a promise to the reader or viewer: I have something important, something interesting, to tell you. 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, as in the classic opening of what could have been a mundane weather forecast:
Snow, followed by small boys on sleds.When the subject is leads, there’s no shortage of opinions about their role, their preferred length, the rules they should follow or break. But no one disagrees about this enduring fact about lead writing: It’s hard work.
Jack Cappon of The Associated Press called it, rightly, “the agony of square one.”
“There is no getting around it, although every writer sometimes wishes there were,” Cappon says. “Every story must have a beginning. A lead. Incubating a lead is a cause of great agony. Why is no mystery. Based on the lead, a reader makes a critical decision: Shall I go on?”
Whether you’re a new reporter or a veteran writing for a newspaper, an online news site, radio, or television news, the ability to sum up a story in a single paragraph or draw the reader in with an anecdote or scene has become a daily job requirement.
Given their importance, it’s not surprising that good leads, and a range of passionate beliefs about their importance and composition, abound in the 25-year history of “Best Newspaper Writing,” the annual collection of award-winning writing selected by the American Society of Newspaper Editors.
How do I use this BNW Brown Bag?
I. The Power of Leads
II. Award-winning leads
A Gallery of Beginnings from Best Newspaper Writing
III. Talking Points & Assignment Desk
How to learn from BNW winners’ work, with a group or on your own.
What’s your favorite lead of all time?
>> Download the PDF:
>> BNW Index
More profiles and brown bags.
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BNW books at the Poynter Bookstore.
ASNE Writing Awards
To celebrate the silver anniversary of “Best Newspaper Writing,” each month Poynter profiles past winners and provides a brownbag loaded with ways to put the books’ lessons to work.
In this BNW Brown Bag, you’ll hear ASNE winners discuss the role of leads in their stories. You can also read a gallery of prizewinning leads from the series, tackle some provocative questions designed to boost your own skills at crafting leads that compel the reader to start reading, and find resources to boost your lead-writing skills.
Some leads, a few miraculous ones, will fly off your fingers and appear, as if by magic, on the computer screen before you. But, as BNW winners attest, most are the product of time and effort, of cutting and moving and pasting, asking tough questions, searching for the right word. Don’t assume that once you’ve written a lead, you have a lead, whether it works or not — it’s there, stuck on top of the story like a great hunk of cement. Think instead of leads as a piece of clay that you can play with and refine.
BNW Winners 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. Maybe 30 years ago, I would give it a slow boil. Now, it’s got to be microwaved.
I don’t look at my leads as a chance to show off my flowery writing. My leads are there to get you in and to keep you hooked to the story so that you can’t go away.”
Mitch Albom, Detroit Free Press
“Best Newspaper Writing 1996,” Sports Writing
“There’s that little thing called a lead. I know that I don’t spend as much time on leads as I used to. We make a mistake when we’re younger. We feel compelled to hit a home run in the very first sentence. So we spend a lot of time staring at the typewriter. I’ll settle for a quiet single, or even a long foul, anything that gets me started. When I talk to young writers, that’s the most sensible advice I can give them. Perfect anecdotal leads are so rare.”
Saul Pett, Associated Press
“Best Newspaper Writing 1981,” Non-Deadline Writing
“I often want to start in the moment, and start with the tension up front … My concern all the time is to bring readers in, to bring them in really fast.”
DeNeen L. Brown, The Washington Post
“Best Newspaper Writing 1999,” Non-Deadline Writing
“Usually I write a lead and say to myself, ‘Well that’s a better ending than a lead.’ So I’ll put that one away and try to come up with a different lead.”
David Finkel, St. Petersburg Times
“Best Newspaper Writing 1986,” Non-Deadline Writing
“The lead is more important because you will never get to the end if you don’t have a good lead.”
Daniel Henninger, The Wall Street Journal
“Best Newspaper Writing 1996,” Editorial Writing
“My advice to young people is to know your ending before you start writing.”
Ken Fuson, The Baltimore Sun
“Best Newspaper Writing 1998,” Non-Deadline Writing
“I search for a lead. I guess I’ve always been a believer that if I’ve got two hours in which to do something, the best investment I can make is to spend the first hour and 45 minutes of it getting a good lead, because after that everything will come easily.”
N. Don Wycliff, Chicago Tribune
“Best Newspaper Writing 1997,” Editorial Writing
“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
“Best Newspaper Writing 2002,” Commentary
“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
“Best Newspaper Writing 1995,” Editorial Writing
“The way I start writing is always the same. I sit down at my typewriter and start typing. I start to babble, sometimes starting in the middle of the story and usually fairly quickly I see how it’s going to start. It just starts shaping itself on the typewriter.”
Cynthia Gorney, The Washington Post
“Best Newspaper Writing 1980,” Features
“Don’t bury your lead…The hook, the thing that makes the reader interested in reading the story. Hit them with the news, the peg? Why are you writing this story? What’s it all about?”
Mark Fritz, The Associated Press
“Best Newspaper Writing 1995,” Deadline Writing
[ What’s your favorite lead of all time? ]
>>Next: Gallery of ASNE award-winning leads