Writing an intro, or lead, to an article can be difficult, since a journalist needs to distill the essence and theme of a story in only a few choice sentences. Leads are your first impressions to readers, making them an essential tool to hone and perfect.
Digital Journalists should opt for writing hard leads instead of soft leads. What's the difference? A hard lead will cut to the core of the story right away, and it should sum up the central idea in a few sentences. Sometimes, even just one clear sentence will suffice.
A soft lead will be a bit less focused and may have some anecdotal language to set the mood for a news story. Soft leads are often used in magazine journalism where the author has more room to extrapolate, where the reader can ease into a story. Soft leads often work best for long-form journalism and thus might not be the best option for online articles.
Here's a soft lead:
Joseph Bryant has two children in Boston University, which now charges $25,000 a year for tuition. But he doesn't worry about the cost, because his employer picks up the tab.
Nothing structurally wrong with that lead, but the reader may be impatient to learn what the focus of the story is; and yes, the headline does clarify the article topic, but the intro should then get to the heart of the story as soon as possible.
A hard lead for the same story may read:
A new study found American employers continue to pay for tuition payments of their full-time staff, affecting more than 43 percent of working Americans.
With the hard lead, the reader know what will follow and can quickly decide to read on. It might be a bit drier than the soft lead, so the choice does indeed rest on the author and the best voice for the story, but often anecdotes can soon follow a hard lead.
After reading your lead, ask yourself: Does the paragraph contain important info for our readers? Does it have a clear focus? Does it say what happened, as opposed to simply setting the stage for the event/topic?
For instance, refrain from writing this kind of lead:
Several British ministers met today to discuss transit strategies to be implemented across the UK.
Sure, they met, but what happened? Let us know the result of the meeting, the main takeaways, instead of telling us a meeting took place.
A harder lead could be edited to read:
British ministers decided to fine-tune light rail transit across the UK in a meeting lasting four hours. They also proposed a new train route linking several northern parishes.
What should you avoid with leads? Needless info that should be cut like weeds, or stats that could be buried further down the story. Drop the bureaucratic verbose language and political posturing and instead write in clear accessible English. Don't over-exaggerate or use too much hyperbole, in order to sell the story. First and foremost, be honest.
If you have any questions on writing intros, feel free to post in the comment thread below. Also, feel free to pass along any great leads you've found on DJ or elsewhere.