How to Write a Lead
These resources provide an overview of journalistic writing with explanations of the most important and most often used elements of journalism and the Associated Press style. This resource, revised according to The Associated Press Stylebook 2012, offers examples for the general format of AP style. For more information, please consult The Associated Press Stylebook 2012, 47th edition.
Contributors:Christopher Arnold, Tony Cook, Dennis Koyama, Elizabeth Angeli, Joshua M. Paiz
Last Edited: 2013-04-06 07:04:07
The lead, or opening paragraph, is the most important part of a news story. With so many sources of information – newspapers, magazines, TV, radio and the Internet – audiences simply are not willing to read beyond the first paragraph (and even sentence) of a story unless it grabs their interest. A good lead does just that. It gives readers the most important information in a clear, concise and interesting manner. It also establishes the voice and direction of an article.
Tips for Writing a Lead
- The Five W’s and H: Before writing a lead, decide which aspect of the story – who, what, when, where, why, how – is most important. You should emphasize those aspects in your lead. Wait to explain less important aspects until the second or third sentence.
- Conflict: Good stories have conflict. So do many good leads.
- Specificity: Though you are essentially summarizing information in most leads, try to be specific as possible. If your lead is too broad, it won’t be informative or interesting.
- Brevity: Readers want to know why the story matters to them and they won’t wait long for the answer. Leads are often one sentence, sometimes two. Generally, they are 25 to 30 words and should rarely be more than 40. This is somewhat arbitrary, but it’s important – especially for young journalists – to learn how to deliver information concisely. See the OWL’s page on concise writing for specific tips. The Paramedic Method is also good for writing concisely.
- Active sentences: Strong verbs will make your lead lively and interesting. Passive constructions, on the other hand, can sound dull and leave out important information, such as the person or thing that caused the action. Incomplete reporting is often a source of passive leads.
- Audience and context: Take into account what your reader already knows. Remember that in today’s media culture, most readers become aware of breaking news as it happens. If you’re writing for a print publication the next day, your lead should do more than merely regurgitate yesterday’s news.
- Honesty: A lead is an implicit promise to your readers. You must be able to deliver what you promise in your lead.
What to Avoid
- Flowery language: Many beginning writers make the mistake of overusing adverbs and adjectives in their leads. Concentrate instead on using strong verbs and nouns.
- Unnecessary words or phrases: Watch out for unintentional redundancy. For example, 2 p.m. Wednesday afternoon, or very unique. You can’t afford to waste space in a news story, especially in the lead. Avoid clutter and cut right to the heart of the story.
- Formulaic leads: Because a lot of news writing is done on deadline, the temptation to write tired leads is strong. Resist it. Readers want information, but they also want to be entertained. Your lead must sound genuine, not merely mechanical.
- It: Most editors frown on leads that begin with the word it because it is not precise and disorients the reader.
Types of Leads
Summary lead: This is perhaps the most traditional lead in news writing. It is often used for breaking news. A story about a city council vote might use this “just the facts” approach. Straight news leads tend to provide answers to the most important three or four of the Five W’s and H. Historically this type of lead has been used to convey who, what, when and where. But in today’s fast-paced media atmosphere, a straightforward recitation of who, what, when and where can sound stale by the time a newspaper hits the stands. Some newspapers are adjusting to this reality by posting breaking news online as it happens and filling the print edition with more evaluative and analytical stories focused on why and how. Leads should reflect this.
Anecdotal lead: Sometimes, beginning a story with a quick anecdote can draw in readers. The anecdote must be interesting and must closely illustrate the article’s broader point. If you use this approach, specificity and concrete detail are essential and the broader significance of the anecdote should be explained within the first few sentences following the lead.
Other types of leads: A large number of other approaches exist, and writers should not feel boxed in by formulas. That said, beginning writers can abuse certain kinds of leads. These include leads that begin with a question or direct quotation and those that make a direct appeal using the word you. While such leads might be appropriate in some circumstances, use them sparsely and cautiously.
County administrator faces ouster
By Tony Cook for The Cincinnati Post, Jan. 14, 2005
Two Hamilton County Commissioners plan to force the county’s top administrator out of office today.
Commentary: This lead addresses the traditional who, what and when. If this information had been reported on TV or radio the day before, this lead might not be a good one for the print edition of the newspaper; however, if the reporter had an exclusive or posted this information online as soon as it became available, then this lead would make sense. Note that it is brief (15 words) and uses an active sentence construction.
Lobbyists flout disclosure rules in talks with commissioners
By Tony Cook and Michael Mishak for the Las Vegas Sun, July 13, 2008
On more than 170 occasions this year, lobbyists failed to file disclosure forms when they visited Clark County commissioners, leaving the public in the dark about what issues they were pushing and on whose behalf.
Commentary: This lead is more representative of the less timely, more analytical approach that some newspapers are taking in their print editions. It covers who, what and when, but also why it matters to readers. Again, it uses active verbs, it is specific (170 occasions) and it is brief (35 words).
Tri-staters tell stories of the devastating tsunami
By Tony Cook for The Cincinnati Post, Jan. 8, 2005
From Dan Ralescu’s sun-warmed beach chair in Thailand, the Indian Ocean began to look, oddly, not so much like waves but bread dough.
Commentary: This article is a local angle on the devastating tsunami that struck Southeast Asia in 2005. As a result of the massive death toll and worldwide impact, most readers would have been inundated with basic information about the tsunami. Given that context, this lead uses an unexpected image to capture the reader’s attention and prepare them for a new take on the tsunami. Again, it is brief (23 words).
Same lobbyist for courts, shorter term, more money
By Tony Cook for the Las Vegas Sun, June 29, 2008
What’s increasing faster than the price of gasoline? Apparently, the cost of court lobbyists.
District and Justice Court Judges want to hire lobbyist Rick Loop for $150,000 to represent the court system in Carson City through the 2009 legislative session. During the past session, Loop’s price tag was $80,000.
Commentary: Question leads can be useful in grabbing attention, but they are rarely as effective as other types of leads in terms of clearly and concisely providing the main point of a story. In this case, the second paragraph must carry a lot of the weight that would normally be handled in the lead.
And you have to find perfect hooks for an essay even when you don’t know what to write about.
When you are asked to write an essay, it doesn’t mean that you don’t get to express your own thoughts and creativity. An essay shouldn’t be boring or too formal. As a writer, your first priority is to make sure that you are keeping your audience in mind and writing for them and to them. That means grabbing and keeping their attention so that they want to read every word.
This is exactly why the essay hook exists and is such an important tool.
The use of hooks in writing goes far beyond just essays and college papers. Every writer, copywriter, screenwriter, and storyteller uses this device to draw in readers and keep them hooked. For example, world-famous ad executive, David Ogilvy, relied on a list of 29 “magic words” that he used in titles in order to hook a client’s attention.
College essay hooks can be difficult to generate, especially when you are still working on clarifying what your essay is going to say. So, the very first step in writing a strong essay hook is to do some planning.
This type of hook is appropriate when you are writing about a particular author, story, literary phenomenon, book, etc. Using a quote will make your essay sound fresh and establish your authority as an author.
“So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.” These words of Nick Carraway perfectly describe…”
“Not all those who wander are lost.” And yes, indeed, every person is so…”
“When we love, we always strive to become better than we are. When we strive to become better than we are, everything around us becomes better too.” Agree or not, but these words from The Alchemist determine…”
Including a quote from an authoritative and influential person can help support your argument and create an intriguing hook. The key is to make sure that you clearly show how the quote is relevant to your essay.
“John Wooden once said, ‘Never mistake activity for achievement.'”
“Learn to laugh” were the first words from my kindergarten teacher after Ralph Thorsen spilled paint on my daffodil picture.
Don’t be afraid to employ this type of hook. Remember, even if you start with a humorous anecdote, it doesn’t mean that your entire essay has to be funny. A bit of humor can help you grab readers’ attention and spark their interest in the topic.
“As my cousin and I pedaled our new bikes to the beach, 6 years old, suntanned and young, we met an old, shaggy-haired man weaving unsteadily on a battered old bike.”
“When I was a young boy, my father worked at a coal mine. For 27 years, he made it his occupation to scrape and claw and grunt his way into the bowels of the earth, searching for fuel. On April 19, 2004, the bowels of the earth clawed back.”
Keep in mind that most essay assignments will ask you to avoid using the first person. Be sure to check any requirements before using “I” in your writing.
Almost nothing can attract interest better than a well-constructed question. Readers will want to continue reading your essay in order to discover the answer. Be sure to avoid simple “Yes” or “No” questions and try to pose questions that ask reader to consider the other side or engage in some critical thinking.
“What would you do if you could play God for a day? That’s exactly what the leaders of the tiny island nation of Guam tried to answer.”
“Have you ever wondered, whether Anna Karenina still loved Alexei if she hadn’t decided to commit a suicide?”
People respond well to visual cues. Taking the time to set a detailed scene will help your reader have a clear picture in their minds and create an effective hook. You can describe an incident or detail the particular features of a person or a character to help the readers become immersed in your writing.
“The day of his birth began with Hurricane Charlie pounding at our door in Charleston, South Carolina.”
“Deciding to attend Hampton Roads Academy, a private school, was one of my most difficult decisions.”
These types of hooks start by surprising the reader with something that may not have known. Provide an interesting fact about something you are going to discuss in your essay’s body and your audience will want to keep reading to learn more.
“Spain, though hardly a literary juggernaut, translates more books in one year than the entire Arab world has in the past one thousand years.”
“Amiable is the best way to describe Elizabeth’s personality: she was friendly and caring.”
There is no harm in getting right to the point. Start with your main argument and use the rest of your essay to support your point of view. If you have an interesting take on a subject, readers will want to see where you came up with your idea.
“It is time, at last, to speak the truth about Thanksgiving, and the truth is this. Thanksgiving is really not such a terrific holiday. . .”
“Humans need to invest more time and money into space exploration because Earth is on a certain path to destruction.”
The most interesting essays will teach the readers something new. If you start your introduction by showing that a commonly accepted truth is actually false, your readers will be instantly hooked.
“Any parent will tell you that goldfish are a great first pet for a child. They hardly need any attention, and they won’t be around for too long. Flushing a goldfish in its first week is pretty common—it even happened to my first goldfish. But it turns out that goldfish aren’t as helpless as we all think.”
“While most coffee enthusiasts would tell you that their favorite drink comes from a bean, they would be wrong. Coffee is actually made from a seed that is simply called a bean.”
By listing proven facts at the very beginning of your paper, you will create interest that can be carried throughout the rest of the essay.
“The average iceberg weighs over 100,000 metric tons.”
“70% of all jobs found today were got through different networking strategies”
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Depending on the style of essay you are writing (narrative, persuasive, personal, critical, argumentative, deductive, etc.), the type of hook you will want to use will vary. Remember, your essay hook is just a tip of an iceberg and it will not guarantee that the rest of your essay will work. Be sure to organize your research and start with an outline before deciding on the best hook to start your essay. The right choice can make your paper truly interesting and worth reading.
Written by Lesley J. Vos, our blog writer and essay proofreader. Lesley is a big fan of reading, and she is always ready to help students come up with good ideas for their papers and reach their academic goals. You can always find her on Facebook and Google+.