Writing leads a troubling start for everyone

Writing leads, or ledes, is the most difficult part of learning to write news stories. I struggle to do it well, always have and always will.

When I worked as an editor and tracked the changes, most of the editing was done on the opening sentences and paragraphs. When a story got past the opening and got rolling, it was amazing how much cleaner the story became. That was true for me as well, and still is. When I revise what I have written I spend most of time on the opening section.

This is especially true with journalism students. As much God-given talent as they have and potential they show, leads are their blind spot.

Sometimes it helps to teach what not to do as much as it does to teach what to do. So today in editing class we looked at three leads that needed lots of help. They all suffered from being what I call heavy leads. They have so much in them that it’s like you are trying to carry something that is too heavy. One was so heavy it buried the most important thing well near the end of what was at least a 50-word sentence. All of them left us dazed and confused. We read them, then I asked them about the most important part. They struggled to remember what it was and why it was important.

We often hear that a good lead is one that grab’s the reader’s attention. That’s true, but I emphasizing only that leads to over-writing, trying to say too much and trying too hard to be clever.

The secret to a good lead is one that:

  • You can easily understand.
  • You can easily remember.
  • Makes you want to know more.
  • Is fresh, not a cliche.

Certainly we could add other descriptors to this list, but this is where it starts.

For your education, edification and perhaps amusement, check out this list of cliche leads to avoid like the plague.


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