Lead writing: Finding the sweet spot between too much and not enough.

Some stories contain a lot of twists and turns, thus making a lead extremely difficult to write. An assignment I give to my introductory media writing class is to rewrite a lead on a story that has all sorts of problems. Here it is:

An Oshkosh man ac­cused of stealing women’s undergarments and sending them threatening letters told police he considered himself a sexual predator and ad­mitted he was close to committing more serious crimes — including rape and murder — but that his religious beliefs pre­vented him from following through.

The problems include:

  • The lead is 47 words long.
  • It includes a misplaced modifier that makes it sound like he’s threatening underpants.
  • We have no idea why we’re reading about this now (turns out, he was in court that day, which we don’t find out about until the second-to-last paragraph).
  • The thoughts he had or his self-confidence in his predatory-like nature isn’t as weird as what he actually did (which we find out more about later).
  • No real impact noted here, but if he was convicted, he would face more than 60 years in prison on five charges.

A more recent case of all sorts of potential elements clamoring for a spot in the lead occurred late last week when  Alec Cook, a former UW-Madison student, pleaded guilty to several charges related to sexual misconduct. Cook’s case was an odd and sprawling one, involving multiple victims and varying degrees of criminal activity.

According to one complaint, he choked and raped a woman after dinner and studying with her. Another complainant said he had drugged her before having non-consensual sex with her. Other complaints include allegations of stalking, inappropriate touching during class and strangulation attempts. In all, 11 women came forward and 23 charges were filed against Cook.

Trying to explain the magnitude of this while still avoiding the pitfalls of doing too much with the lead can be difficult. Below are the leads from several publications, with links to the stories.

Here is the lead from the Wisconsin State Journal, the daily newspaper located in Madison:

Former UW-Madison student Alec Cook pleaded guilty Wednesday to five felonies, including three counts of third-degree sexual assault, nearly bringing to a close a sprawling case that had been set for seven trials involving 11 alleged victims that were to have happened over the next several months.


Here is how The Capital Times, another daily news source located in Madison, wrote its opening:

Expelled student Alec Cook, who was scheduled to go on trial on Feb. 26 in the first of seven trials on 23 charges involving 11 female UW-Madison students, pled guilty Wednesday to five felony charges involving five accusers.


The Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, the state’s largest newspaper, wrote this version:

An expelled University of Wisconsin-Madison business student accused of sexually preying on 11 women pleaded guilty Wednesday to charges involving five of them, closing the book on a high-profile case that shook the state’s flagship campus and drew national attention in fall 2016.


Here is the Associated Press lead, as published on the Chicago Tribune’s website:

A former student at the University of Wisconsin-Madison has pleaded guilty to five felonies stemming from a string of alleged assaults around campus.

(UW-Madison also has two independent student newspapers, The Daily Cardinal and The Badger Herald. Both the Cardinal and the Herald covered the event and you can find their leads here. As I’ve said before, I don’t pick on student work in public whenever possible because a) students are learning and b) I don’t want to chill anyone’s desire to go to a student media organization to learn for fear of knocked around by an uppity Doctor of Paper. You can apply whatever lessons you learned here to them.)

You can see how various publications tried to encapsulate this case and the pros and cons of each. The State Journal and Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel both went big, which led to leads of 47 and 43 words, respectively. They significantly exceed what you normally shoot for with a standard news lead (25-35 words), but they do focus strongly on the “Oddity” interest element.

The Capital Times and the AP both go shorter, although the Cap Times still goes beyond the 35-word limit (38). However, they both skip out on the thing things that make this case well known and also extremely disturbing. The AP lead almost makes it sound like a) the assaults didn’t actually occur (“alleged” gives me hives) and b) this could have been a guy punching out bouncers or something instead of raping women.

You will also notice that the two Madison papers used a “name-recognition lead” (Alec Cook) while the other publications used an “interesting-action lead,” which focuses on the What more than the specific Who. The name, in this case, gets delayed to the second paragraph.

There is no such thing as a perfect lead, so you have to figure out what’s worth keeping and what’s worth cutting. This is why you have to think critically while writing your lead. Each lead has key benefits and drawbacks, based on the approach the writer saw fit to use and the audience each writer was attempting to reach.

EXERCISE SUGGESTION: Look through the four publications cited here and build a lead that fits the parameters outlined in both books for lead writing: 25-35 words, applies FOCII elements, contains key 5Ws/1H elements and will draw in your readers while remaining factually accurate and non-opinionated.

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