Thursday, April 21, 2011

The lead

So you want to learn how to start a story well? Well, do ya? That's OK; we can help.

"I know what it (the story lead) is," a reader once wrote, "but I don't know how you decide what it is. Is it the most interesting part for your readers? The point of the story?

"Is the lead dictated by your writing style or approach? For example, a sport story. One would assume the lead is the result of the game. But that's not always used as the lead is it. Why not?"

While the headline interests the reader in the story, the lead draws him into it. The Associated Press lead is the simplest newspaper lead. "President Barack Obama asked the Congress to pass environmental legislation Wednesday..."

A more interesting AP lead might be, "President Barack Obama was worried about global warming Wednesday, and an argument heated up in Congress." The first lead would draw you into the story, but the second one might really grab you.

A lead doesn't have to be the first sentence or the first paragraph. I've seen leads that were two or three paragraphs, and I've probably written one or two like that. Over the years, I've come to prefer a quick lead, then on with the story.

I once worked with a guy who wrote long, convoluted leads, and everyone at the newspaper ragged him. So his leads got shorter and shorter. They became eight words, then five, then four. We quickly started counting the words in his leads. It got to the point that he was more concerned with the number of words rather than simply writing a good lead.

An editor and I once argued about a sports lead in which the writer wrote "Joe Schmoe scored two touchdowns and Big Muddy High beat Little Big Horn High, 24-20, on Friday night." The editor said that was the important part, and I countered that Big Muddy improved its record to 10-0 on the season. He looked at me disgustedly and told the writer to change the lead.

The new lead? I don't remember, but it could have been "Big Muddy High didn't play one of its best games on Friday night, but the Mud Whumpers are still perfect." Then you can talk about the 10-0 record, Joe Schmoe and all of the Whumpers' turnovers and screwups.

I've seen long, complicated leads that won press awards. And writing a short one might win as well.

The person who first taught me to edit also wrote long, metaphysical leads that would keep you out of her stories. But she was a heck of an editor. I often wondered why she didn't edit her leads and improve them.

So how do you find your lead? That's up to you and the story. There's no set way to write a lead, and 100 people could write 100 great leads for the same story.

Is a lead the most important part of your story? No, it's just one part. But if you do the lead well, the rest of the story will fall right into line.

Contact: I can be reached at or Also, my Twitter handle is EDITORatWORK.

(a book of great stories about the Intimidator)
(the book of great NASCAR stories)

More blog entries by Tom Gillispie

Anecdotes by Tom Gillispie

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