The “king of the mountain” lead and brief writing exercise

Lead writing is one of the more difficult tasks for beginning journalists to master. I would guess that it’s because it involves two things we’ve not really trained students to do in recent years: Think critically and make choices.

In most of their education, they are told to look for right answers, understand X because it’s going to be on the test and read content that is cast in chronological format. Now, we’re telling them there are no right answers, just better and worse ones. We’re saying, “There is no test. Just write the content well.” We tell them, “Put things together in descending order of importance, not the order in which things happened.”

With that in mind, I built an exercise that forces them to look for things that matter most, make smart choices and then justify those choices. The idea is to reinforce that something being important at one point might cease to be as important later. It’s to give them content that has them weighing its overall value in relation to other pieces of content.

I called this the “King of the Mountain” exercise, based on a game we played during the winter back when I was in grade school. The school would plow the parking lot of all the snow, creating a giant mountain of icy, slippery goodness. One kid would climb to the top of the pile and declare himself (usually it was guys, as the girls were smart enough to avoid this stupid ritual) “King of the Mountain.”

Who wouldn’t want to scramble up this thing to get knocked butt over tea kettle down the other side? These are the kinds of games you play in a state that has winter eight months out of the year.

Immediately, a half dozen or more other kids would start scrambling up the sides of the snow pile, trying to knock that kid off the top and claim the “throne.” Wrestling moves were common, punches were often thrown and more than a few drops of blood were shed, as each challenger tried to hold the top as long as possible.

The remainder of the day was spent arguing over who held the peak the longest or why they were the best.

This exercise essentially follows that pattern: There are four sets of factual statements that you can release to the students regarding a car accident near campus. You release the first set of facts to the students and have them write either a lead or a four-paragraph brief. They can then discuss what they selected for the top of the piece and why it was the best or most important thing for that lead or for the top couple paragraphs of the brief.

After that, you release the second set off facts and tell them, to rework anything they want in their lead/brief based on this new information. They can use both sets of facts in their rewrite.

And thus the process continues through upwards of four sets of facts, each getting more detailed and more enlightening.

If this works the way it should, the students should see how certain things become more important than other things and how looking for value in content can improve their approach to writing and reporting. Additionally, it can provide them with the understanding of why we keep bothering people for more information after we have gotten our initial set of basic facts.

I’ve linked it here, so feel free to grab it and use it as you see fit. I also dumped a link on the Corona Hotline page. I left a few spots open for you to fill in days or campus names etc. I also encourage you to change names, times, addresses and more to fit the “vibe” or “feel” of your audience. It’s in Word, so go for it.

Hope this helps!


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