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Writing the lead

Susan Fergueson of Mount Si High School in Snoqualmie, Wash.

Susan Fergueson
journalism teacher
Mount Si High School
Snoqualmie, Wash.

Title: Writing the lead

Long-term objective

To teach students to write journalistically sound lead paragraphs (and recognize the most important elements of a story).

Short-term objective

To teach students to recognize the elements of a lede (and of a news story) — prominence, proximity, timeliness, uniqueness/oddity, consequence, human interest.

Step one/introduction:

Focusing on the lead — and its 5 Ws and an H — enables the rest of the news story to fall into place. Once a reporter has finished interviewing and gathering information, it’s time to think about how to begin the story. Seems easy, right? Sometimes, the proper lead for a story is obvious. But sometimes, there are several satisfactory ways to begin a story, and the reporter’s task is more difficult. Consider the following hypothetical situation.

The Facts

  • Flooding closed Mount Si High School for two days this winter
  • The Snoqualmie Valley School Board has issued a revised schedule for the rest of the year.
  • Instead of extending the school year, the board decided that students must make up the missed days on two days originally scheduled to be Spring Break.

Who is who?

In writing the lead, the reporter must decide which “who” is this story’s most important “who” — students or the board of education. One way to decide is by checking some out some of the qualities that make some stories more “newsworthy” than others (these are not necessarily in order of importance).

Step two/explanation

Newsworthy Qualities

  • Prominence: How well known are the people involved in the story? If the people involved are well known to local readers, or are well known on a national level, readers will be more interested in the news. Think about how things celebrities do are often big news, but if you or your neighbors did the same thing it probably wouldn’t be news at all . that’s prominence at work.
  • Proximity: Location, location, location. If the event is happening close by, it will impact local readers more than if it is happening across town, or across the world. Watch a local newscast when a tragedy or disaster strikes. Chances are they’ll mention if any local people were killed or injured . that’s proximity.
  • Timeliness: If something is happening NOW, it has more impact than something that happened yesterday or last week. No one wants to read old news, so start off with the newest development to keep readers interested.
  • Oddity/Uniqueness: Think Weekly World News and Ripley’s Believe it or Not. If something is unusual, the oddity alone can make it newsworthy, because people want to know why it has happened.
  • Consequence: An event or decision with consequence is one that will affect readers’ lives in some way. The bigger the impact, the more readers will want to know about it. That’s why big businesses laying off workers, construction projects that will cause detours and traffic slowdowns, distracted driving laws, and food recalls are news — they will make a difference in people’s lives, and they need to know how they will be affected.
  • Human interest: Human-interest stories appeal to reader’s emotions. They may make a reader happy, nostalgic, sad, angry or sympathetic.

In the above hypothetical example, “students” make the best “who” because of proximity and consequence (and because they are your primary reading audience.)

Step three/putting it together

Once the facts are squared away, break them down into the 5 W’s and an H.

  • Who: Students
  • What: Must make up two additional days of school
  • When: During time originally scheduled for Spring Break
  • Where: At Mount Si High School
  • Why: To make up two missed days of school due to flooding
  • How: by attending school

Once the facts are broken down, the lead practically writes itself!

A helpful hint: When writing a lead, start with the W or H that is the most important for the reader to know about, or that will matter the most. Then, the other elements follow in a logical order.

One more helpful hint: The best lead is the one that says the most in a few words (25-30), yet makes its points clearly and doesn’t confuse the reader.

OK, one more: Sometimes, one of the W’s/H is left out of a lead. This can be a good way to develop the rest of the story-especially if the why or how is long and complex-but those details MUST be in the story somewhere!

Materials needed

  • Two handouts accompany this lesson plan: "News stories: Putting first things first" and "Thinking through leads."
  • (Optional) Comparing two newspapers’ coverage of the same event might illustrate different ways to approach the lead using the same basic facts.


"Lead practice exercises" accompanies this lesson plan. It could be used as a group or individual exercise to test student mastery (and could be adapted to your school).

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