In talking to my writing class on Wednesday, it dawned on me why they have such trouble with leads: They have been trained to write for length, not quality.
If you think back to every paper you ever wrote in college, or ask students about any paper they have to write now, everything is predicated on length: 5 pages on the outcome of the Civil War, 10 pages on the stages of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, 20 pages on the history of war deployments in modern America.
Students under these requirements know that getting to the point quickly is detrimental to their grades. They need to fill space. Therefore, they start off with epic, sweeping introductions that start at the dawn of modern time and end with a thesis about the invention of the donut. They toss every possible adjective and adverb into every sentence, in hopes of squeezing out one more line to make a page look more full. They restate every point in detail as part of an overly detailed conclusion.
To help them make the transition to journalism, here is a throwback post that looks at what good leads do and how to fix bad leads. Hope it helps:
Just tell me what happened: Lead writing 101
The lead is the most important thing you will ever write in a story. It’s supposed to grab your readers by the eyeballs and drag them into the guts of your story. It’s supposed to explain who did what to whom in a clear and concise fashion. It’s also supposed to be between 25 and 35 words, lest it get wild and unruly. This is one of those skills you need to work on constantly, even if you are a pro.
Consider a few of the following leads and what went horribly wrong with them:
Lead 1: It’s the most sensational, inspirational, celebrational, muppetational…
Hyperbole is the art of creating overblown excitement for no real reason. A straw man approach is the ability to set up a weak argument or premise that no one has stated so you can refute it and establish your point of view. If you put both of them in a lead, you have something like this story’s opening:
Delivering wheelchairs to disabled kids across the country from Bozeman may sound like a pipe dream, but it’s exactly what ROC Wheels does.
I don’t know much about Bozeman, Montana, but I’m guessing its entire populous doesn’t stay awake at night aspiring to deliver wheelchairs to people. Also, who says this aspiration would likely go unmet if my supposition in the previous sentence were incorrect? What is this “On Bozeman, Montana’s Waterfront?”
The author has overstated her point, and that’s just one problem with this lead. Here are two others:
- The story isn’t about ROC’s past. It’s about the launch of a new program involving veterans building and delivering chairs as part of a therapeutic activity. Thus, the lead is buried in the second sentence.
- The origin of the term “pipe dream” relates to the smoking of an opium pipe and the wild visions this activity evoked in people. Eeesh.
This is a clear case of what happens when a writer tries to do too much with a lead. Just tell me what’s going on and why I care: Veterans will build and deliver wheelchairs, an activity that helps the recipients as well as the veterans.
Lead 2: How can we bore people with a story about sex?
Question: How can a lead about sex toys be bad?
Answer: Like this.
Zach Smith had sex toys delivered to him at Ohio State‘s football headquarters in 2015, according to an online report Friday, raising more questions about the former assistant coach’s conduct while employed there just as the university prepares to conclude its investigation of the program and head coach Urban Meyer.
This 50-word monstrosity manages to pour a ton of random facts into the mind of the reader, like that scene in “A Clockwork Orange.” Even more, the lead skipped several other elements of the report that were far more likely to grab the readers’ attention:
- He spent more than $2,200 on this stuff, including on items named “WildmanT ball lifter red, candyman men’s jock suspenders (and) PetitQ open slit bikini brief,” none of which are the most offensive items he purchased. Plus, that’s almost twice what I spent on my first car…
- His lawyer threatened the reporter over the publication of these documents and refused to engage in the premise that this was a legitimate story.
- Smith apparently had a “photography hobby” of sorts, namely that he took shots of his genitalia while at work, including multiple photos believed to have been taken at the White House during a celebration of the team’s national championship.
I’m not saying you should always go with salacious details in a lead. The point is that if you pick a key element of a situation like this for the lead, don’t lose the thread as you try to weave in six other plot lines. This is a sports story, not a “Grey’s Anatomy” episode.
LEAD 3: Something happened! Oh… you wanted more?
Here’s the lead on a story about a county conducting alcohol-compliance checks where you learn nothing more than what I just told you:
ENID, Okla. — Garfield County Sheriff’s Office and PreventionWorkz partnered earlier this month to conduct alcohol-compliance checks throughout the county.
This is a version of the standard “held a meeting” or “gave a speech” lead. It often shows up in sports reporting as well where someone will explain that Team X played Team Y on Friday or something. The problem with every version of this lead is that it fails to tell the readers the outcome of something. Instead, it simple explains that something happened. In this case, the writer could have focused on a number of things:
- In the 25 random checks, four places sold alcohol to the underage person, down from eight sales in March.
- In all of the cases, the clerks checked the person’s ID, but the four sales came from reading the ID wrong.
- Of the four sales, one person had sold to a minor and been cited at least once before.
There’s also some information about upcoming legal changes that will require sellers to take a course in IDing people and such. Finally, the story noted that the authorities look to hit 100 percent compliance, but it never mentions if that ever happens. In any case, telling me an alcohol check happened isn’t telling me much of anything as a reader.
Lead 4: Here’s your lead. Guess the story:
Quote leads are always difficult for readers, because they lack context. Try this one:
“There is not a man under the canopy of heaven, that does not know that slavery is wrong for him.”
It’s a great line from a great man: Frederick Douglass uttered it in his 1852 speech, “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?” However, dropping it up at the front of a story doesn’t make it a lead.
Whether the quote comes from a source in the story, a movie, a poem, a song lyric or a famous person, as is the case here, the reader will likely be unable to determine the point of the piece. Quote leads are always dicey for exactly this reason: It feels like you were dropped into the middle of someone else’s conversation at a party.
By the way, you can find the whole story here and see how close you were to guessing the point of it, based on that lead.