Monday, March 2, 2015

The Art of the Story Lead

Occasionally I am honored to receive questions from people who are starting out in freelancing and ask me for mentoring advice. A lot of experienced freelancers charge money to impart their "wisdom," but I'm of the mind that writers need all of the help they can get in such a competitive job market. So when someone reaches out with a few questions, I'm more than happy to share what I know, to the best that I know it.

Recently I heard from Tanya Kinney, a new freelancer in Texas. She had some questions about story leads, and I thought this would make a great primer and blog entry. I'd like to start doing blog entries like these regularly, so if you also are trying to make a go of freelancing and don't want to spend oodles of money asking someone for guidance, just email me! This give-and-take is good for my soul, and writing these blog entries also fuels me for the bill-paying writing that I do daily. I can be reached at

Here are Tanya's questions about the story lead.

 What is a lead? 

Your lead is the most important part of your story, because it will determine whether people keep reading. Simply put, it's your first sentence or first paragraph -- your introduction. But it's much more complex than just that, because it's the manner in which you lead the reader into the reason for the article. 

Think of it this way: Something amazing happens to you, and you're about to meet your best friend for coffee. You sit down with your steaming brew, and look at him or her across the table. And what are the first words you say about this personal news? 

That's your lead.

That's the spirit you want to carry into every single article that you write.

Q: How does a story suffer without a proper lead? 

People won't read it. My only description is what happens to me in a book store. I wander in and browse for a new book, but I'm not sure what type of book I'm in the mood to buy. I pick up one book after another, and you know what I do? I read the first sentence in each book. Maybe I'll glance at the title and the jacket to decide whether to open the book in the first place. But my decision on whether to buy? It all comes down to that first sentence. If the writer doesn't hook me immediately, then I know I won't find the rest of the book interesting. It's like meeting someone for a blind date. You know almost immediately if you want to keep pursuing things, don't you? Your story lead is your chance to lull the reader into your story, so seduce the reader. Give the reader a reason to stay with you.

A great lead is great foreplay.

Which leads us into our next question ...

Q: What constitutes a good lead and what are the benefits of a good lead?

I worked for The Associated Press for five years of my life, so my philosophy about good leads is really grounded in what I learned during my time there. So keep that in mind.

A good lead, in my view, is a sentence or paragraph that will entice the reader to keep reading, told in as few words as possible. The tighter the sentences, the better the lead. The more punch you can pack into a sentence, the better the lead. What do I mean by, "punch?" Just simply that you want to give the reader an overview of the information that will be covered in the story, but you weave it into prose that will hook them. 


Q: How many different types of leads are there? 

In basic college journalism school classes, you'll learn that each story should include answers to the questions: Who? When? What? Why? Where? How? 

When I worked in daily newspapers and for the AP wire service, we had what we called "first-day leads" and "second-day leads." Two of the newspapers for whom I worked were afternoon newspapers. Our competitors were morning papers. What that meant was that every lead we wrote was a second-day lead. We knew the competitors would be telling the news first, and we were getting a second crack at it, because our newspapers were delivered later in the day. Our role, therefore, was to advance the story. We still had the basic news in the lead, but we took it an extra step, by giving the "how" and the "why" behind the story, rather than just the "who," "when," "what" and "how." I firmly believe that this approach helped me as a journalist to crystallize my thoughts on every story I wrote going forward. 

In the AP, I learned to write both first-day leads and second-day leads, as well as broadcast snippets for radio and television. But because I'd honed my skill at the afternoon papers for second-day leads, the first-day leads came very quickly to me.They were so easy to write that they were like breathing. 

Now we have a new era of the Internet, where news is immediate. So if you want to learn to write a great lead, take those stories you see on the Internet and practice making them second-day leads. Think about the "how" and the "why" behind each of those stories. Read the articles in their entirety. And then practice writing new leads that introduce each of those stories, with the "how" and the "why" driving the thoughts. 

The other type of lead, of course, is the magazine lead, which is my focus nowadays. You can have so much more fun with these. Often I use anecdotal leads to get into my stories, because people love hearing about the first-hand accounts of other people. But you can also get into telling a story by describing an event or a scenario that led to the issue about which you are writing. 

Q: What type of lead do you find yourself using regularly?

As I said earlier, now that I'm in magazines, anecdotal leads -- those that delve into people's lives and people's thoughts -- are my go-to leads. I just find that they speak to the heart more effectively than anything else and will guarantee that a reader will stay with me. 

Q: Can you share examples of a good lead and provide why they make for a good lead?

Rather than giving you examples of good leads, what I would like to suggest is that you find a writer who you admire. Then study that writer's leads and emulate that writer. 

In my case, when I was 23 years old, an editor advised me to start reading the work of David Simon, who wrote for The Baltimore Sun. I had just landed a job covering the courthouse in Cecil County, Maryland, for a 150-year-old newspaper called, "The Cecil Whig." We only had 15,000 readers per day at the time.

Simon was the police reporter at The Sun. So every day before work, I'd hit a convenience store and pick up The Sun and look for his stories. I studied his story leads and ingested them like fine French cuisine. I was starving for an example of a great writer, and Simon was it. I'd clip his leads and put them on my refrigerator and study them at home every time I opened the fridge door.

Personally, I don't think I will ever attain the writing greatness of David Simon. I see him as the Michelangelo of journalism -- a rarity for his gift in storytelling and prose. 

If you want some good examples, visit his Web site and check out his story leads at this link:

If he's not your style, that's fine. Everybody is different, and writers are like wine -- everyone has a unique taste palette. The point is to pick up publications that you admire (two magazines I admire greatly are The New Yorker and Vanity Fair). Then study their leads. You'll be able to pick up the rhythm and pace, the staccato of the words, the beat that matches your own heart's beat.

I hope these little tips help! 

Happy writing, and if more questions are out there, be sure to email me with them.


Heidi Lynn Russell

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