Magazine article Policy & Practice

How to Write a Good Lead

Magazine article Policy & Practice

How to Write a Good Lead

Article excerpt

There is no doubt that a reader decides whether he or she wants to go on reading based on your first paragraph, and nothing in professional writing is as difficult as writing that lead paragraph.

Most people preparing an article, a report or a news release want to cramp everything they have in the lead. But too much information often is not enough to make the readers want to continue onto the second paragraph. The skill lies not in a ready gush of all the information that needs to be unleashed in the lead, but in how to tell the most important information in a simple, clear and crisp way.

Clarity, precision and simplicity are the best way to write a lead. A good lead makes a clear statement of the most important news point or points. The best lead should have the maximum effect with the minimum phrase without all the auxiliary information that clutters your prose. You should avoid

* A gaggle of secondary detail

* Abstract and general language

* Vagueness

* Emphasis on how something is announced rather than what is said

* Entanglement in the chronology of an event.

A common cause of cardiac arrest in leads is overloading--too many ideas, too much inconsequential detail. Below is a lead that committed just about every mortal sin in clear and concise writing.

  A new report finds that the nation's high schools are investing in 
  basic reading proficiency, not only exceeding the minimum state 
  requirements in many instances, but also launching initiatives with a 
  set of objectives that research indicates can contribute to 
  children's ability to read. There is substantial variation among 
  school districts in terms of focus on specific objectives and target 
  groups. However, this variation occurs within the framework of a 
  relatively small set of objectives with grounding in research. 
  Further, a consistent focus on certain goals emerges, such as 
  improving the classroom environment and strengthening the 
  professional development of the teaching workforce. 

This 102-word-long lead puts in just about every finding of the survey. The result is a breathless style that takes the reader all over the place without knowing what the most important point is. Abstract words such as "specific objectives," "substantial variation," and "target groups" did a good job in killing the sentence.

One way to resuscitate the marathon lead is by breaking the sentence into two and putting secondary information in subsequent paragraphs. This helps the reader find the news and encourages him or her to read on for more because the lead is now clearer and perhaps even fun to read.

  Washington, D.C.--Schools are exceeding minimum state requirements in 
  pupils' basic reading proficiency while launching initiatives aimed 
  at improving children's reading ability, according to a new report. … 
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