A good news story, unlike the novel or play, is based on one main idea.
That is why it is so important to decide on a focus and stick to it.
A well-focused article tells your reader that you worked from a plan.
It gives the reader a sense of completeness, a sense that you know what you are doing.
1. In deciding on this focus, you also are working on your lead. By asking yourself about the main theme for your story, you are deciding how to begin, for often the two—a statement of theme and a lead—are one and the same.
2. To help you decide on this theme, sometimes it helps to try the "tell-a-friend" technique. Imagine your friend asking, "What's your story about?" Answer that question in one sentence that captures the essence of the entire story.
3. Now try to refine your answer so it can do two things. It should capture the essence of your story and do so in a way that encourages the reader to continue. It is your promise to the reader of what is to come. It is your lead.
4. After reading the lead, your reader makes a critical decision: Shall I read on? You have little time, according to Donald Murray, author of Writing for Readers. "Three seconds and the reader decides to read or move on to the next story," Murray said. "That's all the time you have to catch the reader's glance and hold it; all the time you have to entice and inform."
5. Think of the lead as a baited hook that lures the reader into the story. Think economy. Imagine you are writing the lead while seated on a hot stove, or carving it into a block of oak. Make each word count and include no extra words. One writer said she writes a lead as if each word cost her $10.
6. There are two main types of leads: direct or delayed. The direct lead reveals immediately what the story is about. It is the summary or statement of the most important events contained in the story. It is the climax, the result of the investigation, the theme. If you told a joke as you wrote a direct lead, you would place the punch line first.
7. The direct lead—also called the summary lead—is usually one sentence, but sometimes two. It answers immediately, in 25 words or less, the main questions of who, what, when and where. It is the workhorse of daily journalism, used at the top of most stories.
8. The best direct leads start with a compelling noun and a strong verb, not with a prepositional phrase. William Caldwell, a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter, recalled the best lead he ever heard. The year was 1922. "I was on my way home from school and my stint at the local weekly. My little brother came running to meet me at the foot of the street. He was white and crying. A telegram had come to my mother. 'Pa drowned this morning in Lake George,' my brother gasped. I was ashamed to admit my inner response. Before I could begin to sense sorrow, despair, horror, loneliness and anger, before all the desolation of an abandoned child could well up in me, I found myself observing that the sentence my brother had just uttered was the perfect lead. Who-wh at-when-where to boot."
9. There is a second type of lead that is used mostly on feature stories. It is the delayed or feature lead. It usually sets a scene or evokes a mood with an incident, anecdote or example. The writer may foreshadow events to come or create a sense of foreboding or anticipated surprise. Essential information is temporarily withheld. The writer teases before she pleases.
10. The delayed lead can be short, perhaps two sentences, or it can be longer, up to four paragraphs. The delayed lead still must fulfill the two roles of the lead: It must capture the essence of the story and do it in a way that encourages the reader to continue. Like the direct lead, it leads the reader straight to the heart of the story. Good leads are like good titles: they shine a flashlight down into the story.
11. When the lead is delayed and does not immediately explainthe main point of the story, it is important to include the theme statement somewhere high in the story, usually within the firstfour paragraphs. If you ask the reader to wait before he learns what the story is about, be sure to reward him with a clearstatement of purpose, also known as a nut graph.
12. Leads must be honest. They should never promise what does not follow in the story. Don't begin with a startling or sensational anecdote if it is not organically related to the theme. As writer John McPhee said, "A lead should not be cheap, flashy, meretricious, blaring a great fanfare of trumpets, and then a mouse comes out of its hole.“