Firefighters fight fire: 3 tips for avoiding the obvious and getting value out of your lead

The lead of any story is the most difficult sentence to craft. It requires a lot from you as a writer: clarity, accuracy, strength, interest and focus. The standard format of the summary lead requires a 5W’s and 1H approach, and that approach can work if you view it through the prism of the interest elements outlined in the books: Fame, oddity, conflict, immediacy and impact. If you don’t, you tend to build sentences that fail to provide your readers with value.

Here’s an example of how this works:

In a class exercise, I have my students review a press release from the Boone County fire department and use the material in it to write a four-paragraph (four sentences) inverted-pyramid brief. The lead should focus on what matters most and then the next paragraph should have the second most-important stuff and the third should have the next most important stuff and so forth.

Consider these opening sentences:

Boone County Firefighters responded to a reported structure fire just before 6:00 p.m. yesterday evening.

A structure fire was reported to the Boone County Firefighters just before 6:00 pm yesterday evening in Sturgeon.

Boone County Firefighters extinguished an electrical fire at a Sturgeon home Monday evening.

In each case, the focus is on the firefighters doing something, which is great if you’re promoting the fire department, but otherwise, their work doesn’t matter. Firefighters fight fire. That’s their job. What makes this story unique or valuable is what the fire did to the home:

A fire outbreak causes a $50,000 damage to a house in Sturgeon 6 p.m. on Monday.

An electrical fire caused $50,000 worth of damage to a Sturgeon family’s home Sunday night, at 520 S. Ogden.

A fire in northern Boone County severely damaged a home and required fire units to remain on the scene for over four hours on Sunday.

In these leads, you can see the fire’s impact more clearly. The focal point of the lead sentence shifts, which means the rest of the piece will cover the bigger issue of what happened to the house.

With that in mind, here are three tips to help you keep your eye on the prize while writing your lead:

Focus on the noun-verb-object “Holy Trinity” of the sentence: We use a simple sentence diagram to help the student “fill in the blanks” when it comes to the core of the sentence. If you look at the NVO basics in the first three examples, this is what you get:

  • Firefighters respond to fire
  • (Someone) reports fire
  • Firefighters extinguish fire

That’s not what you are shooting for in a lead. In the second batch, you can see more of what should be at the core of the lead:

  • Fire causes damage
  • Fire caused damage
  • Fire damaged home

Obviously, these could be spruced up a bit, but for a first pass, they work fairly well. At the very least, the focus on what matters more than those first three did.

Determine what your audience values: I like fire briefs for beginning students because fires lack nuance. The fire causes damage and that’s about it, unlike crime coverage that could require legal nuance or governmental stories that can become muddled in process. As a writing topic, fire gives the writer a clear path to the answer of, “What would my audience want to know first?”

The “Boone County firefighters responded…” lead isn’t all that rare in my beginning writing classes because a) it’s the first thing on the press release, so students gravitate toward it and b) it’s the opening of the chronological sequence of events. Almost every story we read or write, prior to becoming journalists, fits a chronological pattern.

To help break students of the chronology habit, I ask this question: “If you went home after class today and your roommate said, ‘Hey, your mom called. There was a fire at your house,’ what would be the first thing you would want to know?”

The answers are simple:

  • Is everyone OK?
  • How bad was the fire?
  • What happened/How did it start?

I then ask the student, “OK, so now imagine your roommate starts with, ‘Well, the Boone County firefighters responded…” That’s when the light goes on: You don’t want to hear about the firefighters fighting fire. You want to know if mom (and probably your stuff) survived the blaze.

Other stories lack this straightforward approach, but the principle remains. Don’t tell your student newspaper’s audience that the Board of Trustees held a meeting to discuss tuition increases. Tell the readers if tuition went up or not and if so, by how much. Don’t tell the local sports fans that their team played a game against a division rival last night. Tell them who won and what the score was.

If you place value on giving your readers value, the lead will dramatically improve.


Build outward from the core and shed things that don’t matter: If you build a core that has value and gives your readers some of the W’s and/or the H, you should be able to add layers to that core to augment and improve it. With a “fire causes damage” start, you could add answers to a few simple questions:

  • How bad was the fire? (It destroyed half the house)
  • How much damage was there? ($50,000)
  • Was anyone hurt or killed? (One guy suffered minor injuries)
  • What started it? (An electrical malfunction)
  • Where did it start? (A storage room near a freezer)

Not everything in here will make the cut, but that’s OK. You can write a lead by adding the key layers you think matter, answering the above questions in a way that gives the readers value.

You might use the $50,000 figure or the half the house answer, but probably not both in the lead. They essentially say the same thing for the moment: This was a big honkin’ fire. You might focus on the injuries, but you might decide against that since the injuries weren’t severe. Then again, you might think people in a small town would like to know if their neighbors are OK.

It’s easy to weave in the “electrical” part without too much trouble, so that’s probably going to make the cut. You might also include a “where” and a “when,” but maybe not the exact time and the exact location. In other words, “Sunday night in Sturgeon” would be better than “at 6 p.m. at a three-bedroom home at 520 S. Ogden in the town of Sturgeon.”

Once you build the lead, go back through and start trimming out things that might not need to be there. (Spoiler alert: references to firefighters doing anything probably shouldn’t remain in the lead.) This is where you might debate the issue of injuries versus damage or a broader “where” as opposed to the specific address. Most of what you’re trying to do here is play “king of the mountain” with your content. If it’s not good enough to be in the lead, knock it down the hill into the second or third paragraph.



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