Firefighters fight fire (or how to avoid the obvious when writing a lead)

I got this message from a former student:


(My hope is that thinking of me did not push her toward her pro-concussion stance.)

One of our earlier exercises in our media writing class requires the students to review a standard press release from a fire department and write a four-paragraph brief. The inclination the students have is to write it like the fire department did, placing the emphasis on what the department is doing and writing in a chronological format.

The problem with that is obvious in this headline: It doesn’t tell you what happened and the concept of “firefighters fight fire” isn’t a real revelation to the readers. Here are a couple tips to avoid writing a “no duh” lead:

  • What would you want to know first? Put yourself into your readers’ shoes and think about what would matter most to you if you were reading the thing you’re writing. If you went home after class and your roommate said, “Hey, your mom called. There was a fire at your house…” what would you want to know right away? (Is anyone hurt? How bad was the fire? What caused it?) Now, imagine your roommate started off with, “Well, the Merrill firefighters responded to a fire…”
    This is the same with any other straightforward story you write for a media outlet. People want to know the score of the game, the result of the meeting or the outcome of the vote, just like you would.


  • Look for the “noun-verb-object” elements: One of the key parts of our fire brief exercise is to put everyone’s brief up on the overhead and dissect each one. When we pick through the leads, the questions are simple: “What’s the verb? OK, what’s the noun? Now, what’s the object?” In a lot of cases, we get more than a few, “Firefighter fight fire” or “Firefighters respond to blaze” leads. When you’re trying to figure out if you have a good lead or not, look at the noun, the verb and any object you can find in that lead. If you have “fire destroys home” or “fire causes damage,” you’ll have a lot stronger lead than if you have “firefighters fight fire.” The same is true for things like “Board held a meeting” or “Woman gave a speech.” Tell me what the board did (Regents raise tuition) and the theme of the speech (Fight against sexism) and you’ll have some stronger leads


  • Focus on the FOCII: The five interest elements outlined in the book should be helpful in guiding you toward more engaging leads. Fame, Oddity, Conflict, Impact and Immediacy all speak to the basic things that make people want to read on. Impact and Immediacy can easily make a difference in a fire brief. If the fire is particularly noteworthy (oldest home, heaviest losses, weird way it started), Oddity can play in as well. Think about the things we care about and have an interest in and you’ll be in great shape.

When you write a lead, remember that you’re not trying to cure cancer or impress someone with your vocabulary. Your goal is simple: Just tell me what happened and let me know why I should care.

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