Monthly Archives: October 2012

20/20 #2: Beginning, middle, end

Every story needs to BE ORGANIZED, whether that means the inverted pyramid, the Four-Box structure, or some other structure.

“The pyramid has to be big at the top because it must answer all the questions that readers have. Remaining information is arranged in diminishing order of importance.” Chip Scanlan, Poynter OnLine

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20/20 #4 — Best Phrase Forward

 What is the lead?

The lead either grabs the readers’ attention and gets them to click and continue reading — or loses them entirely as they surf away to watch one more cat video. The first paragraph should draw readers into the story, with conflict or color or a great quote. The lead is short, active, and specific, while telling readers what to expect in the story. 

Lead or Lede?

Back in the day, newspapers were printed with ink containing lead. When people wrote about the “lead” in a story, some got confused about the difference between “lead” in the ink and the beginning or “lead” in the story. So they changed the spelling to “lede.” Only snobs will correct you if you spell it “lead” today.

Hard and soft leads

Hard lead: Just the facts, ma’am.

Tells who, what , when, where, why.

The Minneapolis school board, in a special meeting held at school district headquarters, voted on April 1 to approve new principal contracts providing a starting salary of $100,000 per year.

Soft lead: anecdotal or descriptive

Begins the article with a story or quote — better for holding the attention of readers.

Suppose one in four of a law school’s graduates could not pass the bar exam after multiple attempts? Applications would plummet, the school would tumble in the all-important U.S. News & World Report rankings and its American Bar Association accreditation potentially would be threatened.

In short, it would be catastrophic.

Yet at 18 of Minnesota’s 33 teacher preparation programs fewer than three-fourths of graduates passed all three of the basic skills tests required to secure a license to teach. (MinnPost article, 4/3/2014)

Burying the lead — and finding it

Many of us “bury the lead.” That is, we write the story from start to finish, and the really interesting, juicy anecdote may happen in the third paragraph. Or in the next-to-last section. 

Don’t worry.

If you can’t figure out a great lead for the first paragraph of your story, go ahead and write the story. Then, after it is written, look for the lead and move it to the top. Even if you think you have a good lead, reread your story and see whether you can find something better.

After you get the lead at the top, do whatever rewriting is needed to make the story flow.

If you can’t find anything interesting for a lead, you may need to rethink the whole story. Remember these key questions from In Focus?

  • Who will be interested in reading this?
  • What is important, interesting, surprising, exciting?
  • Why will readers care? (This may be the most important question!) 

Hands on

Go to and analyze the leads to three stories.

  • Does something in this lead make you want to read more?
  • What could be added or changed to make each lead stronger?
  • Which is the best lead, and why? 

Want more?

Here are a few good resources:

Purdue Online Writing Lab (OWL) How to write a good lead

Melvin Mencher. Chapter 6 “The Lead.” News Reporting and Writing




20/20 #6 — Attention-grabbing Headlines

The headline is your first, and sometimes only, chance to grab the reader’s attention and get them to click on the story and read further.

Direct headlines:

  • Tell the story: headline should be consistent with what is in the story
  • Interesting and accurate
  • Consistent in tone with the story
  • Clear and concise
  • Be specific — use people names and place names

good: Democrats to spend $1 million against Bachmann

not so good: Minnesota House race goes national

not so good: Congresswoman criticizes candidate

For the web

  • Think search terms — names, places, keywords
  • SEO = Search Engine Optimization

good: Obama supporters’ tires slashed in North Carolina

not so good: Animosity over campaign growing

Headlines with a twist

  • Ask questions
  • Use quotes
  • Grab the reader
  • Colorful but clear

What do you think about these headlines? Are they direct? Do they signal what the story is about? Do they make you want to keep reading? Why or why not?

Michelle Bachmann: Obama may be “anti-American”

Blagojevich Viewed As Campaign ‘Kryptonite’

Third time’s the charm for Minnesota soldier’s dog

Stylists try to snip domestic violence before it happens

Powell’s Obama Endorsement Sparks Reaction: “Nail In The Coffin” For McCain


  • Even if you’ve heard it all your life, other people have not
  • Remember that not all readers grew up in Minnesota
  • Watch the thin line between clever and cute
  • Be careful with slang and colloquialisms
  • Stay away from clichés

Hands on:

Pick three stories from today’s news and write three alternative headlines for each of the stories.