Our top tips for writing the best leads

Whether you’re reporting news or telling a story, you know you have to entice your audience instantly. That’s the job of the lead. The lead of a story makes a promise to the reader of good things to come.

Writing great leads takes practice but there are some simple tips and tools you can use to make sure every story you write will engage the reader from the first and most important sentence – the lead.

Great lead writing takes practice.  Just try to synthesise what the story is about.

Start with the five w’s and h:

  • What happened?
  • Who did it happen to?
  • Where did it happen?
  • When did it happen?
  • How did it happen?
  • Why is it news?

Once you have that knowledge you zero in on the two basic focusing questions:

  • What is the news?
  • What is this story about?

Here are some suggestions that will help you develop a good lead:

Try to put yourself in the role of the reader or viewer.  What is the most important information the reader needs to know?  Why does this news matter?

Interview your best source – yourself – and develop the crux of the story

Don’t waste too much time on the lead at the beginning – it can be refined later.

Finding the tension in the lead is important – many stories are best told by depicting tension between forces. The news media are widely reviewed for their preoccupation with conflict but it is an important news value. To find the tension, ask yourself whether there is anything you’ve witnessed or heard about in your reporting that illustrates the core of the problem.

Choosing a lead or deciding which lead is right for your story depends on:

  • What publication/audience you are writing for
  • The news
  • The timing of publication

Final tips

Always read your lead aloud.  Give your lead the “breathe test” and ask yourself these questions:

  • Can you say it in a single breath?
  • Do you stumble over words?
  • Does it sound like something you’d tell a friend over the phone?
  • Does it put you to sleep or confuse you?

Remember the basics – good leads are accurate and clear.  They don’t confuse or bog down the readers so remember to ask:

  • Is it accurate?
  • Is it written as tightly as possible?
  • Is it written in as active a voice as possible?
  • Have I eliminated jargon and clichés?

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