To Write a Great Lead, Focus on What Makes a Story Interesting

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I’ve already talked about the basics of writing a lead, and the idea that it should summarize the main points of the story using the 5W’s and the H.

But experienced reporters know there’s another important element to writing a lead – grabbing the reader’s attention.

After all, journalists are writing to be read, and with the lead they have one chance to convince the news consumer to dive into their story.

To do this you must figure out which element of a story is most newsworthy and interesting, and make that that the focus of your lead. Start by looking at the 5W’s and the H and deciding which of those components is most important.

A “who” story – a story in which the most interesting element is the person involved – typically involves someone who’s well-known.

For instance, people die of drug overdoses every day. But when famous actor Philip Seymour Hoffman died of an overdose in 2014, it was international news, and of course all the stories highlighted the fact that it was Hoffman in the very first sentence. Here’s the lead of the Reuters story about his death:

Philip Seymour Hoffman, one of the leading actors of his generation and winner of an Academy Award for his title role in the film “Capote,” was found dead in his Manhattan apartment on Sunday in what a New York police source described as an apparent drug overdose.

Most news stories are “what” stories – the focus is on what happened. But here again, it’s important to highlight the most interesting and newsworthy aspect of the story.

Let’s say you’re writing about an apartment fire that killed three people. In interviewing the fire marshal you learn that those killed were a mother and her two young children. Obviously this makes the story all the more heartbreaking and tragic, but it also means that those details must go into your lead:

A mother and her 5-year-old son and 3-year-old daughter were killed when a fire swept through their apartment complex on Main Street last night.

In other words, it’s not enough to simply say “three people were killed in an apartment fire last night.” The lead has to include the details of who died.

The “why” and “how” of a news story isn’t always something you learn right away, but when you do, that should be the focus of your lead. Let’s say it’s a couple of days after the tragic house fire and investigators have discovered that the blaze was purposely set, apparently by the estranged boyfriend of the mother of the two young children. That becomes the focus of the lead of your follow-up story on the fire:

Police are hunting for the estranged boyfriend of a mother who perished with her two young children in an apartment fire two days ago, saying that he may have started the blaze following an argument with the woman.

Again, it’s not enough to simply say the police are searching for a man; the lead has to make it clear that the man being sought was the woman’s estranged boyfriend. That’s what makes the story interesting and newsworthy.

In short, whenever you’re writing a news story you always want to think about what makes that story interesting. Whether you’re writing about a house fire, the death of a celebrity or a city council meeting, you always want to figure out what makes that story stand out from all the others. Once you’ve figured out what that is, always, always put that into your lead.


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