Lead Writing 101: Start with the “holy trinity” and move outward

Today’s coverage of the earthquake that decimated Turkey provides an opportunity to discuss some lead-writing basics

Here is a lead from CNN (and a second paragraph) that demonstrates how passive voice and weak structure can undermine a lead:

More than 1,500 people have died and rescuers are racing to pull survivors from beneath the rubble after a devastating earthquake ripped through Turkey and Syria, leaving destruction and debris on each side of the border.

One of the strongest earthquakes to hit the region in a century shook residents from their beds at around 4 a.m. on Monday, sending tremors as far away as Lebanon and Israel.

The lead has potential, but it’s buried (no pun intended) in the middle of the sentence (earthquake ripped through Turkey and Syria). The other problems come in here:

    • Two sets of passive voice/helping verbs kick off the lead (have died; are racing)
    • Redundancies (rubble, destruction, debris)
    • Lack of context (a lot of earthquakes do damage. What makes this one special?)
    • Missing the “when” aspect

With that in mind, let’s go back to the basics of lead writing:

    • Tell me what happened
    • Tell me why I, as a reader, should care (usually done by focusing on the FOCII interest elements)

Then, let’s apply the “core-out” approach, starting with the “holy trinity” of noun-verb-object

    • Earthquake kills people

Add in the next layer, which is probably going to add impact details and focus on the “where” and “when”

    • An earthquake killed at least 1,500 people between Turkey and Syria on Monday morning

Look for things that add value in terms of impact and oddity. We have impact (1,500 people), but the oddity factor could be helpful in providing context:

    • One of the strongest earthquakes to hit the Turkey-Syria region in more than a century killed at least 1,500 people Monday morning.
      (NOTE: I have no idea how the folks at CNN are defining “one of” or “the region,” so I’m a little hamstrung with this lead. If I had the core info about this, the descriptors would be tighter and clearer than “Turkey-Syria region.”)

Then polish out some additional elements regarding the continuing efforts on the ground:

    • One of the strongest earthquakes to hit the Turkey-Syria region in more than a century killed at least 1,500 people Monday morning, as rescue workers continued digging through rubble to free survivors.

Perhaps not the greatest lead of all time, but it gives you a few key interest elements (Oddity, Immediacy, Impact), it works in active voice (earthquake kills people) and it has a goodly amount of the 5W’s and 1H.

EXERCISE OPPORTUNITY: Have your students pull a story on the earthquake (or if something else is happening in your area that has a lot of coverage and interest) and see how well the author did at nailing an active-voice, N-V-O lead. Then, have the students rewrite it, working from that core NVO and moving outward. It would also help to share the leads among the class, with the students explaining what they did and why they did it. It could also be helpful to have them explain why they think their work is better than the original piece.


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