Lead’s the Way

The lead.  It can grab your interest and suck you in, or it could merely exist.  It can surprise you, scare you, amuse you, or it could turn off your interest entirely.  But, no matter what it says, how well it works, or how many times the reporter rewrote it, what ends must begin, so it might as well be interesting.

Regardless of whether an article is written using the “inverted pyramid,” the “kabob,” or the “martini glass,” it is easily the most important aspect of any news piece.  Whether it covers the when, the where, the why, and the how or just the what, the lead is the first thing you’ll read and hopefully not the last.  This is precisely why it takes longer to start a story than it does to finish it, and why the lead is frequently rewritten potentially a dozen times or more before the rest of the story will fall into place.

Rewriting is a skill in itself and successful reporters need to know when to pull the plug on wordiness, redundancy, haughty vocabulary words, clichés, and passive voice.  If you’ve said it once in print, that’s just as good as saying it twice—no need to repeat facts, dates, places, or full names unless it is absolutely necessary to the integrity of the story.  Chances are, however, it won’t be.  A good reporter avoids confusing his or her readers by using terms and sentence structures that don’t belong.  There’s no need to squish everything into one sentence if it would read easier as two or three.   Newswriting is most effective when the reader understands the story the first time rather than having to go back and reread the article multiple times to get to the point.

Robert Gunning devised the “Fog Index” more than 50 years ago in order to calculate the “readability” of a story.  Even though many journalists—myself included—hope and expect to avoid all mathematical equations like the plague, the Fog Index is simple to understand.  The average number of words per sentence is added to the number of words containing three or more syllables.  The lower the number, the easier the article is to read.

Story structure, rewriting skills and leads, leads, leads are some of the most important aspects of successful newswriting, but the “kicker,” or conclusion, should never be forgotten.  Many journalists frown upon the inverted pyramid because it starts with the most important information and is notorious for trailing off with less and less important details.  The martini glass and kabob structures, on the other hand, both have definitive endings.  In any story, a solid ending has the potential to be the most memorable part of the article.

Logically speaking, the lead is important because it is the first thing that is read.  Thus, it is in the reporter’s best interest to have an enticing lead that encourages readers to continue with the rest of the story. The conclusion, then, as the last thing that is read, has a much more important job than it is often credited with. Not only should a conclusion wrap up and connect the entire article into one bite-sized piece of information, but it should also leave the reader with something to ponder.  A memorable kicker, combined with an engaging lead, could have people buzzing for days, even weeks, and that’s precisely the kind of reaction that any reporter could hope for.

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