The proof is in the lead

Newspaper reporting is pretty straightforward. Newspaper writing can be tricky.

That’s because the techniques to gathering news becomes muscle-memory over time: search for ideas, research, find sources, call sources, sit down for an interview, take good notes, lather, rinse, repeat.

But when you finally plop down in your chair, open up Google Docs, and rest your hands on your keyboard, all of a sudden that momentum you built up during the news gathering process comes to a screeching halt.

How the hell do I write this?

And that uncertainty can be seen in the very first paragraph. The proof is in the lead.

When we don’t know what type of story we want to write, or how to convey our information clearly to our reader, we fall back on writing crutches – cliched leads, what we think a news lead should look like. From there, it derails the rest of the story – making it an information dump or a jumbled mess, instead of a narrative. (There are times when cliches can be useful – I’ve found that simply writing and typing can help you find a rhythm, but the key is to go back and make revisions later and eliminate the crutches that helped you reach the second page.)

Here are some of the most common cliched leads I see in newspaper stories:

“It’s that time of year again…”

“You may have noticed…” or any lead with the word “you.”

Any question lead – “Did you know that Oxford Hall is 100 years old this week?”

“On (insert date here), the (insert group name here) held its (insert event name here)…”

Any one-word lead: “Extraordinary. That was the word by attendees to describe…”

Leads that use a quote – “‘Well how about that!’ said John Smith as he read the morning’s newspaper.”

r834304_7719621When you struggle to find a way to begin your story, it kills the enthusiasm for your readers. Think back to every boring book you were forced to read in high school or college – what did they all have in common? Probably, they failed to capture your attention right away. Don’t make the same mistake with your news writing.

Students have sometimes asked what type of lead they should put on their story? Does this need a straight summary lead? An anecdote? My response is that you shouldn’t worry about trying to fit your lead into a category. Your story will tell itself.

One of the beautiful things about great news writing is that it isn’t concerned about fitting into a particular mode. The best writers aren’t running through a list of lead structures and deciding “is this a metaphor lead? Or a prediction? Or a false premise?” They find what’s interesting about a story and they tell it.

I went through a few Pulitzer Prize nominees and winners in feature writing from the last few years to get some examples of how to begin a story. First, a 2014 finalist from the Journal Sentinal, “The Course of their Lives”

The noisy, first-day-of-school chatter subsides. A hush falls over 200 students in a lecture hall at the Medical College of Wisconsin.

Already, their thoughts are drifting up a flight of stairs to the sprawling dissection lab, where in two days they will meet and become intimate with something many have scarcely encountered: Death.

Khalid Sharif-Sidi, a 24-year-old from Galesburg, Ill., who has never seen a lifeless human body beyond a few seconds at a funeral, is nervous. He wonders if it will look real or fake, if the person will have tattoos or nail polish or piercings. He wants the body he dissects to look anything but real.

Next, the 2013 Pulitzer Prize winner, “Snow Fall: The Avalanche at Tunnel Creek” from the New York Times:

The snow burst through the trees with no warning but a last-second whoosh of sound, a two-story wall of white and Chris Rudolph’s piercing cry: “Avalanche! Elyse!”

The very thing the 16 skiers and snowboarders had sought — fresh, soft snow — instantly became the enemy. Somewhere above, a pristine meadow cracked in the shape of a lightning bolt, slicing a slab nearly 200 feet across and 3 feet deep. Gravity did the rest.

Next up, “Disposable: Surge in discharges includes wounded soliders” from The Gazette in Colorado Springs. This series of articles won the 2014 Pulitzer Prize in National Reporting:

Kash Alvaro stared at the ceiling of an emergency room in January listening to the beep of an EKG monitor for what he guessed was the 80th time in 12 months. The once-healthy Afghanistan War veteran had collapsed in a hallway that night, then awakened confused in an ambulance and lurched up in alarm, swinging and yelling until the paramedics held him down and injected sedatives. Now he lay alone in a room at Memorial Hospital, quietly weeping.

Strong leads can be used in serious international reporting, too. Here’s the 2014 Pulitzer Prize winner in International Reporting, titled “Authorities implicated in Rohingya smuggling networks” by Reuters reporters:

The beatings were accompanied by threats: If his family didn’t produce the money, Myanmar refugee Abdul Sabur would be sold into slavery on a fishing boat, his captors shouted, lashing him with bamboo sticks.

It had been more than two months since Sabur and his wife set sail from Myanmar with 118 other Rohingya Muslims to escape violence and persecution. Twelve died on the disastrous voyage. The
survivors were imprisoned in India and then handed over to people smugglers in southern Thailand.

And finally, the 2007 features writing award winner, “Tending to Muslim Hearts and Islam’s Future” from The New York Times:

The young Egyptian professional could pass for any New York bachelor.

Dressed in a crisp polo shirt and swathed in cologne, he races his Nissan Maxima through the rain-slicked streets of Manhattan, late for a date with a tall brunette. At red lights, he fusses with his hair.

What sets the bachelor apart from other young men on the make is the chaperon sitting next to him — a tall, bearded man in a white robe and stiff embroidered hat.

“I pray that Allah will bring this couple together,” the man, Sheik Reda Shata, says, clutching his seat belt and urging the bachelor to slow down.

In each of these leads, the writers explained something or showed something. They put us at the scene of an avalanche or into the minds of medical students. Each of these writers asked themselves, what would the story be like from the point of view of those involved? Then, they used those perspectives to allow the story to tell itself.

As a writer, you need to learn to take yourself out of the story, and almost out of the process itself. Don’t worry about writing a story, focus on telling one.

For more information on writing news leads, Poynter has a nice collection of good ones here. On the other side, a Scientific American blog has a fun look at the different lead cliches writers use. Check them both out!


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