How to Write a Lead
These resources provide an overview of journalistic writing with explanations of the most important and most often used elements of journalism and the Associated Press style. This resource, revised according to The Associated Press Stylebook 2012, offers examples for the general format of AP style. For more information, please consult The Associated Press Stylebook 2012, 47th edition.
Contributors:Christopher Arnold, Tony Cook, Dennis Koyama, Elizabeth Angeli, Joshua M. Paiz
Last Edited: 2013-04-06 07:04:07
The lead, or opening paragraph, is the most important part of a news story. With so many sources of information – newspapers, magazines, TV, radio and the Internet – audiences simply are not willing to read beyond the first paragraph (and even sentence) of a story unless it grabs their interest. A good lead does just that. It gives readers the most important information in a clear, concise and interesting manner. It also establishes the voice and direction of an article.
Tips for Writing a Lead
- The Five W’s and H: Before writing a lead, decide which aspect of the story – who, what, when, where, why, how – is most important. You should emphasize those aspects in your lead. Wait to explain less important aspects until the second or third sentence.
- Conflict: Good stories have conflict. So do many good leads.
- Specificity: Though you are essentially summarizing information in most leads, try to be specific as possible. If your lead is too broad, it won’t be informative or interesting.
- Brevity: Readers want to know why the story matters to them and they won’t wait long for the answer. Leads are often one sentence, sometimes two. Generally, they are 25 to 30 words and should rarely be more than 40. This is somewhat arbitrary, but it’s important – especially for young journalists – to learn how to deliver information concisely. See the OWL’s page on concise writing for specific tips. The Paramedic Method is also good for writing concisely.
- Active sentences: Strong verbs will make your lead lively and interesting. Passive constructions, on the other hand, can sound dull and leave out important information, such as the person or thing that caused the action. Incomplete reporting is often a source of passive leads.
- Audience and context: Take into account what your reader already knows. Remember that in today’s media culture, most readers become aware of breaking news as it happens. If you’re writing for a print publication the next day, your lead should do more than merely regurgitate yesterday’s news.
- Honesty: A lead is an implicit promise to your readers. You must be able to deliver what you promise in your lead.
What to Avoid
- Flowery language: Many beginning writers make the mistake of overusing adverbs and adjectives in their leads. Concentrate instead on using strong verbs and nouns.
- Unnecessary words or phrases: Watch out for unintentional redundancy. For example, 2 p.m. Wednesday afternoon, or very unique. You can’t afford to waste space in a news story, especially in the lead. Avoid clutter and cut right to the heart of the story.
- Formulaic leads: Because a lot of news writing is done on deadline, the temptation to write tired leads is strong. Resist it. Readers want information, but they also want to be entertained. Your lead must sound genuine, not merely mechanical.
- It: Most editors frown on leads that begin with the word it because it is not precise and disorients the reader.
Types of Leads
Summary lead: This is perhaps the most traditional lead in news writing. It is often used for breaking news. A story about a city council vote might use this “just the facts” approach. Straight news leads tend to provide answers to the most important three or four of the Five W’s and H. Historically this type of lead has been used to convey who, what, when and where. But in today’s fast-paced media atmosphere, a straightforward recitation of who, what, when and where can sound stale by the time a newspaper hits the stands. Some newspapers are adjusting to this reality by posting breaking news online as it happens and filling the print edition with more evaluative and analytical stories focused on why and how. Leads should reflect this.
Anecdotal lead: Sometimes, beginning a story with a quick anecdote can draw in readers. The anecdote must be interesting and must closely illustrate the article’s broader point. If you use this approach, specificity and concrete detail are essential and the broader significance of the anecdote should be explained within the first few sentences following the lead.
Other types of leads: A large number of other approaches exist, and writers should not feel boxed in by formulas. That said, beginning writers can abuse certain kinds of leads. These include leads that begin with a question or direct quotation and those that make a direct appeal using the word you. While such leads might be appropriate in some circumstances, use them sparsely and cautiously.
County administrator faces ouster
By Tony Cook for The Cincinnati Post, Jan. 14, 2005
Two Hamilton County Commissioners plan to force the county’s top administrator out of office today.
Commentary: This lead addresses the traditional who, what and when. If this information had been reported on TV or radio the day before, this lead might not be a good one for the print edition of the newspaper; however, if the reporter had an exclusive or posted this information online as soon as it became available, then this lead would make sense. Note that it is brief (15 words) and uses an active sentence construction.
Lobbyists flout disclosure rules in talks with commissioners
By Tony Cook and Michael Mishak for the Las Vegas Sun, July 13, 2008
On more than 170 occasions this year, lobbyists failed to file disclosure forms when they visited Clark County commissioners, leaving the public in the dark about what issues they were pushing and on whose behalf.
Commentary: This lead is more representative of the less timely, more analytical approach that some newspapers are taking in their print editions. It covers who, what and when, but also why it matters to readers. Again, it uses active verbs, it is specific (170 occasions) and it is brief (35 words).
Tri-staters tell stories of the devastating tsunami
By Tony Cook for The Cincinnati Post, Jan. 8, 2005
From Dan Ralescu’s sun-warmed beach chair in Thailand, the Indian Ocean began to look, oddly, not so much like waves but bread dough.
Commentary: This article is a local angle on the devastating tsunami that struck Southeast Asia in 2005. As a result of the massive death toll and worldwide impact, most readers would have been inundated with basic information about the tsunami. Given that context, this lead uses an unexpected image to capture the reader’s attention and prepare them for a new take on the tsunami. Again, it is brief (23 words).
Same lobbyist for courts, shorter term, more money
By Tony Cook for the Las Vegas Sun, June 29, 2008
What’s increasing faster than the price of gasoline? Apparently, the cost of court lobbyists.
District and Justice Court Judges want to hire lobbyist Rick Loop for $150,000 to represent the court system in Carson City through the 2009 legislative session. During the past session, Loop’s price tag was $80,000.
Commentary: Question leads can be useful in grabbing attention, but they are rarely as effective as other types of leads in terms of clearly and concisely providing the main point of a story. In this case, the second paragraph must carry a lot of the weight that would normally be handled in the lead.
News style, journalistic style, or news-writing style is the prose style used for news reporting in media such as newspapers, radio and television.
News style encompasses not only vocabulary and sentence structure, but also the way in which stories present the information in terms of relative importance, tone, and intended audience. The tense used for news style articles is past tense.
News writing attempts to answer all the basic questions about any particular event—who, what, when, where and why (the Five Ws) and also often how—at the opening of the article. This form of structure is sometimes called the "inverted pyramid", to refer to the decreasing importance of information in subsequent paragraphs.
News stories also contain at least one of the following important characteristics relative to the intended audience: proximity, prominence, timeliness, human interest, oddity, or consequence.
The related term journalese is sometimes used, usually pejoratively, to refer to news-style writing. Another is headlinese.
Newspapers generally adhere to an expository writing style. Over time and place, journalism ethics and standards have varied in the degree of objectivity or sensationalism they incorporate. Definitions of professionalism differ among news agencies; their reputations, according to both professional standards and reader expectations, are often tied to the appearance of objectivity. In its most ideal form, news writing strives to be intelligible to the majority of readers, engaging, and succinct. Within these limits, news stories also aim to be comprehensive. However, other factors are involved, some stylistic and some derived from the media form.
Among the larger and more respected newspapers, fairness and balance is a major factor in presenting information. Commentary is usually confined to a separate section, though each paper may have a different overall slant. Editorial policies dictate the use of adjectives, euphemisms, and idioms. Newspapers with an international audience, for example, tend to use a more formal style of writing.
The specific choices made by a news outlet's editor or editorial board are often collected in a style guide; common style guides include the AP Stylebook and the US News Style Book. The main goals of news writing can be summarized by the ABCs of journalism: accuracy, brevity, and clarity.
Terms and structure
Journalistic prose is explicit and precise and tries not to rely on jargon. As a rule, journalists will not use a long word when a short one will do. They use subject-verb-object construction and vivid, active prose (see Grammar). They offer anecdotes, examples and metaphors, and they rarely depend on generalizations or abstract ideas. News writers try to avoid using the same word more than once in a paragraph (sometimes called an "echo" or "word mirror").
The last story in the news broadcast; a "happy" story to end the show. A short, catchy word or phrase over a major headline.
Main article: Headline
The headline (also heading, head or title, or hed in journalism jargon) of a story is typically a complete sentence (e.g., "Pilot Flies Below Bridges to Save Divers"), often with auxiliary verbs and articles removed (e.g., "Remains at Colorado camp linked to missing Chicago man"). However, headlines sometimes omit the subject (e.g., "Jumps From Boat, Catches in Wheel") or verb (e.g., "Cat woman lucky").
A subhead (also sub-headline, subheading, subtitle or deck; subhed or dek in journalism jargon) can be either a subordinate title under the main headline, or the heading of a subsection of the article.[full citation needed] It is a heading that precedes the main text, or a group of paragraphs of the main text. It helps encapsulate the entire piece, or informs the reader of the topic of part of it. Long or complex articles often have more than one subhead. Subheads are thus one type of entry point that help readers make choices, such as where to begin (or continue) reading.
An article billboard is capsule summary text, often just one sentence or fragment, which is put into a sidebar or text box (reminiscent of an outdoor billboard) on the same page to grab the reader's attention as they are flipping through the pages to encourage them to stop and read that article. When it consists of a (sometimes compressed) sample of the text of the article, it is known as a call-out or callout, and when it consists of a quotation (e.g. of an article subject, informant, or interviewee), it is referred to as a pulled quotation or pull quote. Additional billboards of any of these types may appear later in the article (especially on subsequent pages) to entice further reading. Journalistic websites sometimes use animation techniques to swap one billboard for another (e.g. a slide of a call-out may be replaced by a photo with pull quote after some short time has elapsed). Such billboards are also used as pointers to the article in other sections of the publication or site, or as advertisements for the piece in other publication or sites.
Main article: Lead paragraph
The most important structural element of a story is the lead (also intro or lede in journalism jargon), including the story's first, or leading, sentence or two, which may or may not form its own paragraph. The spelling lede (, from Early Modern English) is used in American English, originally to avoid confusion with the printing press type formerly made from the metal lead or the related typographical term "leading".
Charney states that "an effective lead is a 'brief, sharp statement of the story's essential facts.'"[full citation needed][clarification needed] The lead is usually the first sentence, or in some cases the first two sentences, and is ideally 20–25 words in length. A lead must balance the ideal of maximum information conveyed with the constraint of the unreadability of a long sentence. This makes writing a lead an optimization problem, in which the goal is to articulate the most encompassing and interesting statement that a writer can make in one sentence, given the material with which he or she has to work. While a rule of thumb says the lead should answer most or all of the five Ws, few leads can fit all of these.
To "bury the lead" is to begin the article with background information or details of secondary importance to the readers, forcing them to read more deeply into an article than they should have to in order to discover the essential point(s). Burying the lead is a characteristic of an academic writing style. It is also a common mistake in press releases.
Article leads are sometimes categorized into hard leads and soft leads. A hard lead aims to provide a comprehensive thesis which tells the reader what the article will cover. A soft lead introduces the topic in a more creative, attention-seeking fashion, and is usually followed by a nutshell paragraph (or nut graf), a brief summary of facts.
- Example hard-lead paragraph
- NASA is proposing another space project. The agency's budget request, announced today, included a plan to send another mission to the moon. This time the agency hopes to establish a long-term facility as a jumping-off point for other space adventures. The budget requests approximately $10 billion for the project.
- Example soft-lead sentence
- Humans will be going to the moon again. The NASA announcement came as the agency requested $10 billion of appropriations for the project.
Main article: Nut graph
A nutshell paragraph (also simply nutshell, or nut 'graph, nut graf, nutgraf, etc., in journalism jargon) is a brief paragraph (occasionally there can be more than one) that summarizes the news value of the story, sometimes bullet-pointed and/or set off in a box. Nut-shell paragraphs are used particularly in feature stories (see "Feature style" below).
Main article: Paragraph
Paragraphs (shortened as 'graphs, graphs, grafs or pars in journalistic jargon) form the bulk of an article.
Inverted pyramid structure
Main article: Inverted pyramid (journalism)
Journalists usually describe the organization or structure of a news story as an inverted pyramid. The essential and most interesting elements of a story are put at the beginning, with supporting information following in order of diminishing importance.
This structure enables readers to stop reading at any point and still come away with the essence of a story. It allows people to explore a topic to only the depth that their curiosity takes them, and without the imposition of details or nuances that they could consider irrelevant, but still making that information available to more interested readers.
The inverted pyramid structure also enables articles to be trimmed to any arbitrary length during layout, to fit in the space available.
Writers are often admonished "Don't bury the lead!" to ensure that they present the most important facts first, rather than requiring the reader to go through several paragraphs to find them.
Some writers start their stories with the "1-2-3 lead", yet there are many kinds of lead available. This format invariably starts with a "Five Ws" opening paragraph (as described above), followed by an indirect quote that serves to support a major element of the first paragraph, and then a direct quote to support the indirect quote.
News stories are not the only type of material that appear in newspapers and magazines. Longer articles, such as magazine cover articles and the pieces that lead the inside sections of a newspaper, are known as features. Feature stories differ from straight news in several ways. Foremost is the absence of a straight-news lead, most of the time. Instead of offering the essence of a story up front, feature writers may attempt to lure readers in.
While straight news stories always stay in third person point of view, it is common for a feature article to slip into first person. The journalist often details interactions with interview subjects, making the piece more personal.
A feature's first paragraphs often relate an intriguing moment or event, as in an "anecdotal lead". From the particulars of a person or episode, its view quickly broadens to generalities about the story's subject.
The section that signals what a feature is about is called the nut graph or billboard. Billboards appear as the third or fourth paragraph from the top, and may be up to two paragraphs long. Unlike a lead, a billboard rarely gives everything away. It reflects the fact that feature writers aim to hold their readers' attention to the end, which requires engendering curiosity and offering a "payoff." Feature paragraphs tend to be longer than those of news stories, with smoother transitions between them. Feature writers use the active-verb construction and concrete explanations of straight news but often put more personality in their prose.
Feature stories often close with a "kicker" rather than simply petering out.
There are broadly similar formats in other cultures, with some characteristics particular to individual countries.
Written Japanese in general, and news writing in particular, places a strong emphasis on brevity, and features heavy use of Sino-Japanese vocabulary and omission of grammar that would be used in speech. Most frequently, two-character kanji compounds are used to concisely express concepts that would otherwise require a lengthy clause if using spoken language. Nominalization is also common, often compacting a phrase into a string of kanji. Abbreviations are also frequent, reducing a term or kanji compound to just initial characters (as in acronyms in alphabetic writing systems); these abbreviated terms might not be used in spoken language, but are understandable from looking at the characters in context. Furthermore, headlines are written in telegram style, yielding clipped phrases that are not grammatical sentences. Larger articles, especially front-page articles, also often have a one-paragraph summary at the beginning.
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