WHY LEADS ARE VITAL: Don Frey, noted writing teacher, puts it well: The lead to a story "grabs the reader, informs the reader, and teaches the reader how to read the rest of the story." Author John McPhee says the lead is the "flashlight that shines into a story." One other key point: A newspaper reader is likely to spend only a few seconds deciding whether to read a story. If the lead does not grab the reader, the writer's work is in vain.
TYPES OF LEADS: There are two types of leads: direct (hard) and indirect (soft). Generally, use the direct lead for news stories, and the indirect lead for features. However, this is only a guideline. Whatever the form, the reader is looking for news; don't delay it long. There are other kinds of leads: the question, the quote, the one-word, the anecdote (made popular by the Wall Street Journal). They all have their places, but use sparingly.
START EARLY: While covering an event or interviewing a person, think about what is important. Strive to focus a story as your report it. Circle key elements in your notebook. As you return to the office, talk to yourself about the story and block out a lead in your mind.
SWEAT IT: Rewrite the lead until it's right, or at least the best that you can produce on deadline. Hang loose. Play with the words and the ideas. You can always rely on the 5 Ws, but can you be more imaginative?
BE HONEST: You want to hook the reader, but don't hype the lead, promising more than you deliver. "The lead is a contract with the reader," says Don Murray, an excellent writing coach. "The story must document the lead."
KEEP IT TIGHT: Short leads are more likely to snag a reader. If your lead is over 35 words, it probably is too long. Review the lead. Are you packing too much into it?
WHEN STUCK: Sometimes, the lead refuses to be born. Don't panic. Try some of these tricks:
• Review the basics. What, in simple, ABC terms, is the story about? What is the main news angle? If you were telling the story to a friend, how would you start it?
• Write an imperfect lead, give the piece a sense of direction, and repair the lead later. This ploy can work well.
• Skip the lead, and write it later. Most of us need a "top" on the story to give it direction, but sometimes the delaying tactic can work.
FINALLY: Don't be a slave to guidelines. They all can be violated for good reason.