How to write a lead like an experienced journalist

It seems that there is an article or blog post about attracting readership in every corner of the internet. Well-meaning posts make hooking your reader into something mysterious and complicated. Well, it’s not.

Although this post is written with student journalists (and even beginning or long-time professional journalists) in mind, professional, technical, business, and any nonfiction writer will find this post useful if they want their intended audience to read their writing.

Whether Or Not Your Reader Will Read Your Work Depends On The Lead

Several months ago, I was working as a news editor for The Leader, a student-run newspaper at Elmhurst College. I was working on a feature piece about the debate on trigger warnings and safe spaces on college campuses. The original story began like this:

“They’ve been around since before you were born. Today, every college in America is talking about them.

Over the past two weeks, there have been heated debates on the use of safe spaces and trigger warnings on college campuses across the U.S., an issue that EC president Troy VanAken said he is “conflicted” about.”

This is how the final, published version (after the copy editor and editor-in-chief put their edits in) begins:

“Over the past two weeks, there have been heated debates on the use of safe spaces and trigger warnings on college campuses across the U.S., an issue that EC president Troy VanAken said he is “conflicted” about.”

Now both leads–the first paragraphs of news stories–are not the best pieces of writing the world has ever seen. However, the original version begins in a way that makes the reader (in this case the reader is a college student) think, “What on Earth is she talking about?” To seek the answer to their own question, they continue reading.


Don’t Answer The Five Ws In The Lead

If you want your reader to read past the first sentence, you need to give them something besides facts. This is difficult for traditional, seasoned journalists to do because they have been taught that hard news should only consist of pure, dry fact.

But no one is suggesting you lie or exaggerate the truth. As Sol Stein says, you don’t need to answer all of the Ws (who, what, when, where, why) and one H (how) in the first paragraph.

Although you should answer basic questions such as the who, what, when, and where in the beginning of a hard news story, it does not need to be all crammed into the first paragraph or first few sentences. And the “why” and “how” questions can be answered in the body of the story.

Of course, how you begin your story really depends on the type of news story you’re writing and what the story is about.

It is important to keep in mind that when you cram all of the answers to the five W’s and how questions in the lead, there is no need for the reader to continue reading your article. So, the hook should not be reserved to feature stories. You can add a little color and details in the first few sentences of your story and then answer the remaining Ws right after the lead.

Take this example from a recent Chicago Tribune story about seven people who died as a result of gun violence in Chicago:

Wilteeah Jones had reason to celebrate Wednesday — it was her grandmother’s 75th birthday, and she and her boyfriend, Malik Bingham, were expecting their first child next month.

The couple joined in the party, eating pizza and the birthday cake Jones brought, before the two quietly disappeared from the family bungalow in the Auburn Gresham neighborhood on Chicago’s South Side.

The story does not begin with “seven people were killed today” or something to that effect. Instead, the writer concentrated on the pregnant woman who was killed as a result of gang violence. The writer started with details about the victim’s life and focused on the human aspect of the story.


What Is The Human Aspect?

The human aspect is what readers can relate to and it is what readers care about. All writers should implement “the human aspect” in their writing.

Because the article focuses on the victim’s life instead of just spewing reports and numbers, readers can feel a connection to the story. They may think of the victim: “She is like any other person. She loved and was loved.” This makes the readers care. 

It is only until the third paragraph of the story that the Ws are answered, which is still located toward the beginning of the story:

It wasn’t until early Thursday morning when two police detectives showed up at the front door that Jones’ mother, Valerie Weaver, learned that her daughter and Bingham, both 20, had been gunned down about 3 miles away in the Chatham neighborhood. Their unborn baby died as well.

Now, this works because the headline of the story tells us what the story is about: “Pregnant woman among 7 killed in Chicago’s deadliest day this year.” The title answers who, what, when, and where, but there are questions still to be answered, so the reader is prompted to continue reading.

This story is a hard, breaking news story and the narrative style in the beginning of the story works well. You can apply this to your own hard news stories.Although you can add color to the leads of both hard and soft news stories, soft news can begin with more embellishment than the leads in hard news.

If you found this post helpful, please follow this blog! If you have any questions, feel free to send me a message or post in the comments below.


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