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Thursday, June 6, 2013
Generation J Toolbox

Follow the leaders

By Jennifer Nicole Sullivan

OK. I'm stumped.

It’s true. I’m racking my brain to come up with a good lead to this article about writing good leads (or ledes, the official spelling in newspaper speak so it’s not confused with “lead” type). We’ve all been there — or here where I am presently — trying to craft, conjure and contrive a winning hook for a print or broadcast story that will engage the audience and make them hunger for more.

So don’t worry, young journalists; you’re not the only ones struggling to get your lead out. I reached out to some industry professionals (yes, leaders) to discuss their struggles and to pass down words of wisdom.

WHAT MAKES A GREAT LEAD?

“A great lead has a hook, that thing that makes me want to keep reading. I want to be surprised, learn something I didn’t already know. I want to be curious about what the rest of the story is going to reveal. I know that’s a lot of pressure.” - Janine Weisman, editor of Newport Mercury, Newport, R.I.

HOW DO YOU CRAFT A STRONG LEAD?

“Since I write longer features typically, I usually like to start with a smaller story that’s indicative of a much bigger one. This can usually include some quirk I notice while I’m talking to someone, whether it comes from them or their surroundings, or if I get a really great standalone quote I can build around.” - Stephen Sai to, founder of MoveableFest.com, Los Angeles

“I really don’t have any secret sauce. Occasionally I’ll luck out and inspiration will strike, but most of the time it’s a question of saying, ‘What’s the most interesting thing about this story? What’s the one thing that will get someone to stop and read this?’ And then once I get something down on paper, tweaking it and fixing it until it’s right (or as right as I can make it by deadline). ... Getting too fixated on the perfect lead is a recipe for busted deadlines or for cutesy, gimmicky leads.” - Ben Casselman, economics reporter at The Wall Street Journal, New York, N.Y.

“I try to think (in my head, not on paper) about ‘Once Upon a Time’ and what words would make me keep reading this particular story. It usually works. Making myself the consumer is a trick I use for a lot of my writing because if I don’t want to read it, what’s going to make a stranger want to?” - Victoria Reitano, digital producer at “Live With Kelly and Michael,” New York, N.Y.

BEST TIP FOR CRAFTING LEADS?

“Write your leads as active as possible. Action in that first sentence will keep the reader engaged.” - Rob McLean, digital managing editor at Hearst Television, Omaha, Neb.

“I do like a surprise angle. Jimmy Breslin (New York Daily News columnist) wrote about the JFK assassination by interviewing the gravedigger. I stole this when I interviewed the gravediggers at the funeral for a local soldier killed in Iraq. I didn’t make them the story, but included them.” - Jim Gillis, reporter/columnist at Newport Daily News, Newport R.I.

IF YOU’RE STUCK ON FINDING A GREAT LEAD, WHAT DO YOU DO?

“Remember what it was like while you were working on the story. What sounds were you hearing? What were you seeing? Pull the viewer (or reader) in the same way you were pulled in.” - Lynn Walsh, investigative producer at WPTV Newschannel 5, West Palm Beach, Fla.

“When you’re struggling with a lead, don’t hit ‘delete’ — hit ‘enter.’ Start writing, and when you get stuck, start over on a new line. ... I can’t tell you how many of my leads are made up of bits and pieces of various false starts and not-quite-right drafts.” - Ben Casselman, economics reporter at The Wall Street Journal, New York, N.Y.

“Step away from the computer. That might be hard to do if you’re on deadline, but coming back to the story after not thinking about it for 10 minutes or more can let you examine the piece with fresh eyes.” - Rob McLean, digital managing editor at Hearst Television, Omaha, Neb.

ANY LEAD “DON’TS”?

“Avoid clichés. Awful leads I’ve seen are typically along the lines of ‘Jane Doe wears many hats.’ Ugh. Seriously? Who doesn’t have a lot of different things that they have to do?” - Janine Weisman, editor of Newport Mercury, Newport, R.I.

“Don’t give everything away up front. Always leave a little bit of mystery.” - Stephen Saito, founder of MoveableFest. com, Los Angeles, Calif.

“Some reporters try funny leads on stories that aren’t funny. I remember a guy at a paper I interned at tried something like, ‘The Sullivan brothers will never see their 18th birthday’ on a story about twins killed in a car crash. A copy editor wisely changed it. ... Last I heard, this guy was driving a cab.” - Jim Gillis, reporter/columnist at Newport Daily News, Newport R.I.

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