Saturday, January 8, 2011

When the lead strikes you

A new article on tries to get at the cause of the so-called aha lead. The article, written by Tony Rogers, features quotes from Rick Bragg; rewrite man Corky Siemaszko of the New York Daily News, Lisa Eckelbecker of the Worcester (Mass.) Telegram & Gazette and other reporters. It's worth checking out.

Sometimes that perfect idea for the top of the story can come when you're not really hunting for it. At the wrong time, in other words. A sportswriter quoted in the article mentioned above, Mike Rushton of, realized what the lead should be hours after he'd filed the story and left the stadium. It happened after he'd put himself to bed. So he pulled out his iPhone and wrote a new top. Eckelbecker, of the Telegram & Gazette, is quoted as saying her best leads occur to her when she alters her mind—sans drugs, mind you.

"This is kind of embarrassing, but I feel my best (leads) come to me when I'm almost in a trance," she tells Rogers. "If I'm struggling to come up with something, I take a deep breath and try to clear my mind. Then I think about what I want to convey. That usually helps me focus and come up with an anecdote, a scene or even an attitude that can be turned into (leads)."

Leads have come to me in the bathroom. Leads have murmured themselves out loud in my head while my body was busy walking, and I have had to stop and pull out a notebook and pen before the words disappear. If I'm without a writing implement, I pray the the words repeat inside, and when I return to my desk, I dutifully transcribe. Either way, I don't cross-examine, because I'm not smart enough for that. If it's a lucky day, a lead will pop up in my head when I'm driving back to the paper after reporting. But usually I feel I don't get adequate time to come up with a lead that does all the things I want it to do, and it ends up being second rate, because I like to spend more of my time reporting and writing the hard, nuanced parts. Maybe I need to change my behavior, or maybe I need a few good-luck charms, to get the miracle leads flowing. Then again, to quote an editor I have known, an article has a 24-hour shelf life; in other words, it doesn't have to be a masterpiece to stand the test of time. Usually the bigger stories allow for a little extra time to think about what the lead should be. In those cases, I have felt compelled to write one idea or another at the top, as if nothing else could go up there. It's not much of a creative experience, I guess. But at least I can go home satisfied.

How, when and where do you come up with leads?


  1. Now that I'm editing, I sometimes think leads, like headlines, shouldn't be written by the reporter, on stories that aren't straight news pieces. It's really difficult to pick the right thing to convey, especially in a long piece. In that long piece, it's also hard to spit out your best stuff at the top. Then, what are the other 1500 words for? All that said, a lot of ledes come to me on the john, in the shower or when I'm trimming my beard. Driving is also helpful, as long as there isn't traffic.

    In celebration of frustration, let's offer up a St. Clair Mckelway classic:

    What price Glory? Two eyes, two legs, an arm and $12 a month."

  2. Thanks for the interesting link, Jordan. I've been fretting about leads a lot lately. Sometimes, an "aha" lead strikes me, and when a reread that story a few months later, I wonder how it came to me, how I put it all together. It's almost as if I didn't write the story myself. I find, though, that the longer lag time I have between reporting on a story and writing it, the harder it is to write an inspired lead. When I lived in Louisiana, I had a half-hour commute to and from work every day, and I cherished that time so much. I thought of so many ideas while driving on that bayouside road. Now, I find it helpful to pick up journalism compilations (such as collections of Susan Orleans, Rick Bragg, Gary Smith, etc.) and read the first paragraph only of several stories. A new method I've been trying is going through my notes and typing out all the quotes I know I want to use in the story. Usually, this gives me a feel for the theme of the article, and it also helps to de-stress me because I'm no longer staring at a blank Word doc. Hope to hear from others about their lead-writing techniques.

  3. I've wondered about this often. I tend to subscribe to the idea that your first idea is probably not your best. Other times, I look back over my notes to see what sort of general scene I'd like to open with, and then I try to zero in on the moment that provides the most suspense and seems to be the best hook. I wrote this one yesterday for an otherwise ho-hum story about weight loss:

    "Sgt. Bob Tornabene didn't tell his wife. He didn't tell his kids. He was scared. But that's natural for someone who finds out he might have cancer."

    I like it as a hook, but then again, I was just trying make things interesting in a less than earth-shattering piece. One suggestion I keep running into about how to start a narrative piece is to begin just before the end. Then, you rewind to see how you got there, all the while leaving that suspense of what's going to happen when you do finally get to the end.