Kelly Sans Culotte

Journalism 101

Writing Leads
How to open with style.

Related Section
Journalism 101

Related Articles
What Is News?
How to Write News
Using Quotes
Writing Leads

The first few sentences in any article are critical. Each one must be provocative and compel the reader to continue reading. Without such a hook, or "lead," you risk losing your reader.

How long is a lead? There's no hard and fast answer. In short articles, it might be the first one or two paragraphs. In longer articles, it might be the first four or five. The most important thing is that it works.

In news articles, the lead is a summary of what the whole thing is about answering the questions Who? What? Where? When? Why?

The lead in a feature or opinion piece often introduces rather than summarizes the rest.

It's often easiest to write the lead last. Reread the body of your article and ask yourself what the most important points are. Is there a juicy quote in the article that sums it all up? Or a specific image?

Here are some tips:
— Grab the reader's attention right away with an interesting fact, humor, or surprise.

— After you've aroused their curiosity, provide readers with some hard facts to let them know why they should continue reading. Readers want to know right away what's in it for them, or they won't stick around.

— Each paragraph should build on the previous one, providing more solid detail. While the focus now is more to inform than to entertain, occasionally add more provocative facts or surprise to keep the reader interested.

— Don't write two leads. Writers often make the mistake of repeating the same information again in the second and even the third paragraph--in effect, writing multiple leads. Choose the lead that works best for your audience.

— Drop the warm-up paragraph and cut to the chase. Many writers begin by providing background information that may be relevant, but not essential. Delete opening paragraphs that don't include key news, facts, or items of interest — or risk losing your reader.

— Too much secondary detail
— Abstract and general language
— Vagueness

— Be specific and concrete, give a picture, a clever phrase
— Convey energy and action

Here are some leads to feature articles. Notice how they draw you in with provocative statements, then immediately reinforce your interest with compelling facts.


The New York Review of Books
Bush's Tax Plan — The Dangers

"Seldom have so few gotten so much from so many." That might be the motto of President Bush's proposed tax cuts.

As the nation entered the new millennium, it faced three problems. First, the economy was slowly going into a recession, with a stock market bubble about to burst. Second, inequality was growing. While the Nineties had at last arrested the decline in income of those at the bottom of the income distribution, the fruits of that decade's growth went disproportionately to the rich. Third, there were long-range problems, including Medicare and Social Security systems that were underfunded and an economy that had become addicted to living beyond its means, borrowing more than a billion dollars a day from abroad.

While Bush inherited these challenges, he started with one advantage that Clinton had not had. Bush senior had bequeathed to Clinton a serious deficit — 8 percent of GDP, if one excludes the money that was supposed to be going into Social Security. But Clinton bequeathed to Bush junior large surpluses. These surpluses might have been used to shore up our Social Security and Medicare system. They might have provided badly needed new benefits, like long-term care and prescription drugs. They might have been used to repair America's infrastructure, our aging highways, bridges, and airports. The burst of growth in the Nineties was based on new technologies and progress in science; and yet, even here, we underinvested, because of pressure to meet deficit targets.

As President Bush took office, he took advantage of the economic downturn to push for a tax cut, but it was a tax cut that was not designed to stimulate the economy — and it did not do so to any appreciable degree. Two years later, the economy is still languishing. The cost of Bush's mistake has been enormous. In 2001 alone, we had a gap of some 3 percent between the economy's potential and what it actually produced, which translates into a loss of $300 billion. And there is strong evidence that as success breeds success, failure breeds failure: if the economy's output is lower today because of this mismanagement of national economic policy, it will be lower five, ten, twenty years from now, since some of the lost output would have been spent on investments that would have enhanced productivity.

The first order of business — then and now — should be a tax cut that stimulates the economy. All the better if we can have a stimulus that not only enhances growth but also addresses our long-term problems, including our growing inequality. In fact, it must have been hard for Bush to design a tax program that cost so much in revenue while at the same time doing so little to stimulate the economy.

Complete article


The Economist
Trouble at home
Britain's prime minister is facing a large parliamentary rebellion from members of his own party because of his support for America's tough line on Iraq. Other American allies are also struggling with a domestic backlash. If war goes ahead without the backing of the United Nations, they could pay a high political price.

WHY are they doing it? Contemporary politics is supposed to be all about focus groups and responding to the voters. The caricature of a modern politician is someone who dares not utter a word, let alone formulate a policy, without first clearing it with his pollsters. Yet the small group of leaders providing the strongest support for President George Bush in his tough stand on Iraq seem to have thrown caution to the winds. Britain's Tony Blair, Australia's John Howard, Spain's Jose Maria Aznar and Italy's Silvio Berlusconi are all backing Mr Bush in the face of considerable opposition at home.

Millions of people around the world have taken to the streets in protest at the prospect of war with Iraq — and some of the biggest marches were in London, Rome and Madrid. Even Australia, with its much smaller population, saw 250,000 on the streets of Sydney on February 15th. Although the threat of military intervention is not exactly popular in America, Mr Bush's hardline rhetoric seems to have won many voters round. His staunchest allies have, by contrast, watched their critics multiply.

Complete article.

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