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Creating the Perfect Lead, Part I

Posted on Monday, November 28, 2016 at 2:09 PM

A few tips to keep in mind when writing your story's beginning.

By Peter P. Jacobi

To remind you once again: My assigned duties for a lead are to 1) attract attention, 2) establish the subject, 3) set the tone, and 4) guide or bridge into the story. All leads, I have consistently argued, must accomplish these responsibilities.

But there's more to consider when we strive to construct beginnings. To help you in working to shape a lead and to help the reader become immediately tuned to what we've written, careful consideration should be given to what the purpose or goal of our article is to be.

Determining purpose or goal leads us to decisions about the actual content that fills the opening paragraphs. We need to consider the informational substance to use, so to provoke a reader to read.

1. A Sample News Story

If we're simply providing news about a meeting to come, then a bare-bones approach to information is probably sufficient:

"'How Journalists Can Sway Today's Readers into Reading What Needs to Be Read' is Indiana University Professor Emeritus of Journalism Peter Jacobi's topic when, on Wednesday evening at 7:30, he offers his contribution to the current Monroe County Library's 'Love of Language' lecture series."

It's a matter of supplying the five Ws and the H, or at least the start for that. The purpose of this straight news story is to alert readers about an event to come and, thereby, attract an audience to the event, nothing more. Purpose met.

2. A Sample Follow-Up Report

If the writer then becomes a reporter and attends the lecture for a follow-up piece, then -- should the story remain straight news in approach rather than something more of a feature -- the beginning might read this way:

"'Writers need courage. They need a willingness to dare, to tempt, to surprise the reader.' So suggested journalist and Indiana University Professor Emeritus Peter Jacobi during his Wednesday evening talk as part of the Monroe Public Library's 'Love of Language' lecture series.'"

3. A Sample Speech Story

What follows is a traditional speech story, a supportive series of direct and indirect quotes that expand upon and explain the statement above that we started with. Purpose met.

But there are all sorts of ways to employ opening paragraphs, each depending on what the writer's intentions are.

Entertainment Weekly's salute to actor Gene Wilder, on his recent death, began with this paragraph:

"Gene Wilder was not funny. His doleful eyes and trembling mouth almost seemed hurt that you would think he was. How could you laugh at him, this poor soul mired in the deepest, darkest trouble? But there was also a shrewd glint in those blue eyes, an intelligence that could douse the panic and extricate him from his misfortune. And there was a gentleness to him, a bigheartedness that built tension because you cared so much for him. You laughed because you knew he'd make it. You laughed because whenever he seemed in over his head, all he had to do was stand up."

The paragraph is laced with feeling and with a grasp of what this man and actor was about. The information used reveals how and why those of us who knew his work came to admire him: his style, his manner, the aura he generated, the impression he left. The paragraph prepares the reader for what's to come: not only a salute for the talent he shared but a devoted exposition of what he accomplished and how and why. The paragraph is a springboard for an obituary with a point of view. Purpose met.

In the next installment we'll move on to the New Yorker and the New York Times.

Peter P. Jacobi is a Professor Emeritus at Indiana University. He is a writing and editing consultant for numerous associations and magazines, speech coach, and workshop leader for various institutions and corporations. He can be reached at 812-334-0063.

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