Knowing how to write a lead (or, “lede,” depending on who you’re talking to) is the single most important part of writing a great piece of journalism.
And guess what? That’s exactly what a great yearbook story is. Journalism.
It doesn’t matter if your staff’s producing yearbook stories about an unbelievable playoff touchdown, a tear-jerking drama club performance, a prom night for the ages, or the particularly delicious tuna melts served in the cafeteria: every well-spun tale needs an exceptional introduction. This is where lead writing comes in.
Like every other component of a great story, there are certain traits every lead must possess. They must convey information to the reader. They must establish tone. There must be action. And, above all else, the lead must be honest.
While all leads must do these things in order to succeed, there’s still plenty of room for creativity and differentiation; in fact, there are a number of different types of leads your writers can open their yearbook stories with.
In this post, we’ll cover everything you need to know about how to write a lead:
- What is a lead?
- What does a lead need to be successful?
- What are the best types of leads to teach your team to use?
- What are the common pitfalls writers face with writing leads?
Let’s jump in.
So, What is a Lead (or Lede), Anyway?
The lead is the opening paragraph of any piece of journalistic writing. It often covers the 5 Ws, but it is also where a writer sets expectations for the story ahead.
Most importantly, though, the lead is the reader’s entry point into a story. It has to simultaneously inform and grab them, or the rest of the piece falls flat.
The lead is also the place where a writer can establish the tone and voice of a story. While writing in a unique voice should be encouraged (after all, a strong voice can breathe life into any piece), your staff must be sure to adhere to the yearbook style guide; flourishes of personality are great, but the subject of the story should always be front and center.
Conveying tone to the reader within the lead of each story is equally important to establishing voice. It’s particularly important to avoid using the wrong tone in the lead, as it can unintentionally give the impression that a piece is biased or insensitive. If a member of your staff is writing a story about a Veteran’s Day memorial ceremony, the tone (somber, respectful) must be completely different than that which a writer would use for a story about, say, a soccer victory (enthusiastic) or the rising popularity of frisbee golf (shocked).
Now that you’ve got a handle on how important tone and voice are in helping a lead, let’s take a look at the 5 things every yearbook lead must have.
The 5 Things Yearbook Leads Need to be Great
In the event you skimmed the intro I’ll reiterate: the lead is insanely important.
It sets the stage for a piece of writing by giving the reader enough information to know what they’re getting themselves into. And the best leads do that in a way that makes readers want to know what happens next more more than anything else.
This doesn’t happen by itself, folks.
In order for a lead to do its job effectively, a writer must consider the following during the writing process.
Decide which of the 5 W’s is most important
The 5 W’s (who, what, where, when, why, and, for good measure, how, too) are the building block of any piece of journalistic writing. And the lead is the first building block of your story.
That being the case, you’ll need to work to cover those 5 W’s (and one H) in your lead. Unfortunately, a lead is often too small a vehicle to convey all five.
You have to pick the most important.
As such, encourage your staff to consider which of the W’s are so important to the story they’re writing that leaving it out of the lead is impossible.
Perhaps location trumps time of day; maybe knowing the names of everyone involved is less important than the reason an event happened in the first place. Once your writers have decided which aspects of the story should be emphasized in the lead, make sure they jot down the leftover information to be woven throughout the subsequent sentences. Context is important, after all.
Honesty is the best policy
The facts matter, plain and simple. That much, you know.
But when we’re talking about how to write a lead, honesty also means being upfront with your reader about what he or she can expect from the remainder of the story.
While sensationalized writing is the backbone of many social media posts and every clickbait headline plastered across the internet, it often frustrates readers and disappoints them. Don’t do that.
Verbs, verbs, and more verbs
Verbs, the all-mighty action words, are the key to writing a lead.
They can really ratchet up the intensity of a lead, moving the reader through the introduction quickly and building intensity that can carry over into the rest of the story.
Passive writing, on the other hand, can feel flat and lifeless to the reader. While it can be much easier to lean on the passive voice during yearbook writing, getting the members of your staff to leave their comfort zones and write action-packed leads will make your yearbook exceptional. Oh, and be sure your writers balance strong verbs with vivid description and facts.
The story (and the lead) must have a central conflict
Now, conflict sense doesn’t necessarily imply that every story in your book has to be about food fights and faux pas (though that would make for an interesting read twenty years from now). It just needs to deliver some tension.
Tension is the “So what?” factor. It’s the reason a member of your staff is taking the time to write a story instead of sticking a caption beneath a picture and calling it a day. We’ll even award bonus points to writers who ensure that their language reflects and enhances the story’s central conflict within the lead.
Laser-like specificity means plenty of polishing
Perfect execution of a lead that combines action-first language, enough aspects of a story to give context, and conflict can be tricky. When space is at a premium, every word counts. As such, leads should be edited, edited again, and then edited some more, just for good measure.
This list should give your staff a great jumping off point, but knowing what kind of lead to work these traits into is a task all of its own. Does it makes sense to open an expose on increased lunch prices with a punny quip? Is a quote from the athletic director the perfect was to jump into the baseball team’s heartbreaking loss in the quarter finals?
Let’s take a look at some of the different types of leads you can help your writers begin their stories with.
What are the Different Types of Yearbook Lead?
While there are countless approaches, these five variations are the perfect starting point for teaching students how to write a lead.
The summary lead is ‘Ol Faithful. It’s the simplest type of lead to deploy because it. It’s a fact-heavy introduction. Remember when we said you’d need to decide which of the 5 W’s was most important? With a summary lead, the goal is to cram as many of those revelatory tidbits of information into the sort paragraph as possible. The summary lead isn’t flashy, but it gets the job done.
Example: A student, Beth Malkovich, received a standing ovation last month when the short film she produced went viral. The documentary, which tells the tale of Beth’s quest to write and publish a novel before graduation, became an online sensation thanks to her mastery of social media.
Best for: Fledgling writers, Complex stories
One really neat way to pull readers into a story is to build the lead around an important quote. Deciding who to quote, though, is arguably more important than what’s said. And it’s tough.
Your writers need to consider if a quote will impact the reading experience in an unintended way. If, for example, a quote in the lead depicts someone as being cantankerous, but the story itself is about how warm and generous that person is, it’s possible that the reader will be confused. Perhaps a quote with clear bias would be more effective later on in a piece of writing so as not to sway the reader; or maybe, that loaded quote is the perfect launch pad for a story.
Confused yet? Don’t be. Just tell your staff to remember that context and facts are far more important than dropping the mic in the first sentence, and quotation leads could quickly become your best friend.
Example: “I could not have been more upset” That’s how 16 year old Leo Franken described his feelings as he walked into the cafeteria on September 8th and realized that “cheese or pepperoni” had been replaced by “caesar or balsamic vinaigrette.”
Best for: Interviews, Exposes
Jeopardy! fans rejoice. Question leads are, just like the name suggests, leads that contain a question. There are two different versions: let’s call them “moral” and “rhetorical.”
The first involves asking a moral question that the reader carries with them through the piece. In some situations, the story will guide the reader to an answer; in others, they’ll be left to grapple with their own ideas long after putting the yearbook down. These can be big-picture, heavy questions that require some tact; advanced writers only!
The second sort of question lead asks a purely rhetorical question; the subsequent story contains the answer and therefore the reader isn’t’ on the hook to formulate a response of their own. These are much simpler to pull off.
Example: What’s the first thing a teacher does when she finds out her class trip to the Tesla factory has been approved?
Best for: Think Pieces, State-of-the-Union
What better way to begin a story than, well, telling a story?
A narrative lead can often read like fiction or highly-stylized creative nonfiction: not your average Wall Street Journal introductory paragraph. Narrative leads make for an excellent way suck readers into the story by teasing at a scene that they simply must learn more about. It also gives writers the chance to flex their creative-writing muscles.
Recommend any creative, fiction-writing folk on your staff take a crack at writing narrative leads; Use them to make yearbook stories leap off the page!
Example: I am strangely calm standing in the batter’s box as the second strike whirrs past, grazing the unshaven, patchy wisps protruding from my left cheek. My hands are so clammy that the bat rotates 60 degrees too far as I turn it nervously, awaiting the next pitch.
Best for: Profiles, first person editorials
Who doesn’t love a punny intro? Most people? That’s new to me!
Puns and other forms of wordplay can make for an excellent lead. While they may induce groans or go underappreciated by many, wordplay leads are a (potentially) unique, (potentially) funny way to insert a bit of linguistic silliness into your yearbook.
Just don’t overdo it…
Example: “The imperfect man pitched the perfect game yesterday.” (I can’t take credit for this one. Thanks, Dick Young, circa 1956)
Best for: Sports features (because who doesn’t love old-timey, pun-packed sportswriting?), something lighthearted
Things to Avoid When Teaching Students How to Write a Lead
We’ve talked through the traits every great lead needs to have. We’ve looked into some of the different styles of lead your staff can use to kickstart their stories. Now we’ll cover the things every lead should steer clear of.
Few traits can derail a lead entirely, but silly little issues that are magnified by the sheer brevity of the lead. They should be avoided like the plague.
50 cent words
Stumbling upon long, tongue-tying, or otherwise obscure words is perhaps my favorite accidental pastime. The more flowery, archaic, or obscure a word is, the more determined we are to shoehorn it into a sentence within minutes of learning a) what it means and b) how it’s said.
Most people feel differently, though. In fact, unfamiliar, difficult-to-pronounce, or otherwise inaccessible language can be irksome to some readers and a barrier to access to others. If information vital enough to make it into a lead is rendered indecipherable to half of your readers by a single word, that word probably shouldn’t be there.
When lead-writing, be sure your staff has their audience in mind. And make it clear there still may be a place in their work for “ultracrepidarian” or “chiasmus” (just no promises they make it past the editor)!
Snooze-inducing, overly-formulaic leads
We know, we know. We just gave you a laundry list of lead-types and now we’re telling you not to accept formulaic leads. The fact of the matter is that leads aren’t Madlibs. They aren’t a plug-n-play component of journalistic writing (and until they are, journalists will continue to stave off the machine learning algorithms biting at their heels); each one should be unique. Like snowflakes. Use the various lead-type examples above to inform your staff’s writing, but don’t try to force anyone’s writing into a box.
You can’t break the rules until you know them inside and out. And now you know them.
Not Stephen King’s sewer-dwelling clown monster. The word “it.”
Your young writers might think that using “it” within their leads creates a sense of intrigue. “What is ‘it’?” the reader will think. Not so fast. “It” is lazy. “It” is imprecise. Grab a dictionary.
Now that you’ve got a handle on what a lead is, what they can look like, and how to write ‘em, go forth and share with your staff; your yearbook will be bursting with great leads and even better stories!