Newspaper Writing - Writing The Lead
( Originally Published 1911 )
Newspaper English is the standard. There may be critics, who belong to a past generation and who have learned by rule, but for flexible, expressive use of the language the news-paper and the other publications for the masses cannot be surpassed. . . . When scientific or technical terms are employed there is sufficient context to make clear the application. There is no strained effort or laborious use of words to-day. Nor is there a deterioration, as some of the professors of English would have us believe. Newspaper style is simple, direct, concise, instructive and self-explanatory. This sets the standard for the great mass of the public.— From an editorial in the Washington Herald.
The method of telling the news story is usually the opposite of that employed by the writer of fiction. Instead of giving the setting of his story and then working gradually toward the climax, the news writer, as a rule, puts the climax in the very beginning— in what is technically called the lead of the story. If three persons were killed in a train wreck he tells that fact succinctly in the opening sentence. There is no halting, no preliminary catching of the breath, but a straightforward plunge into the main facts. Here again news writing is closely akin to everyday speech. If you were telling, in a hurried conversation, of a baseball game you had just seen, you would begin by giving the score — the result of the game. Then, as time permitted, you would elaborate with details. That is the method of the news story of immediate importance, whose primary purpose is to inform.
A distinction was made in the preceding chapter between a story of this kind and a feature story. What is said here of the lead does not apply to feature writing, which often follows the fictional method of holding the reader in suspense. Neither does it apply to the news story which is told so briefly that a summary of the facts in the beginning would result in immediate and useless repetition in the body of the story.
WHAT THE LEAD IS
The straight news lead of the story that is allotted enough space to warrant the giving of details contains the main facts boiled down in the opening sentences. The lead should be complete in itself, so that the reader may grasp the essentials without being compelled to read the entire story. Remember that your story is not an essay to be read at leisure. It is written for busy men and women, and its function is to inform, and inform quickly. The average American reader has no time for the rambling type of story that describes the " dark and stilly night " to the extent of a column and then tells in the last paragraph that a man was murdered. He demands to know about the murder at once. Then, if he is interested, he will read the details.
Seldom is the lead longer than a paragraph, unless it is broken up by making each sentence a paragraph. This first paragraph — the most important in the story, since it tells the facts in a nutshell — _should be made as concise and pithy as possible. Tell all the essential facts, but avoid cumbersome sentence structure in doing so. Short, simple sentences are the most forcible., Above all, make the lead easy for the reader to understand.
WHAT THE LEAD SHOULD CONTAIN
Who? What? When? Where? Why? It is a standard rule that the news lead should answer these questions about the story. Properly interpreted, the rule is a good one, but it may be applied too literally. , The beginner in news writing is inclined to go to the extreme in trying to answer each question in the first sentence. The result is often an involved sentence in which the reader becomes lost in a maze of participles and qualifying clauses. Here is a sample from a story turned in by a " cub " reporter:
While studying last night for an examination, Miss Sallie Smith, 18 years old, a student in the Blank Business College, fell asleep and overturned a lamp, severely burning her face and hands and slightly burning her father, John Smith, a plasterer, who came to her rescue when he heard her scream, and causing damage amounting to about $300 to their home, 2015 East Broadway.
Here is material for three or four sentences, crowded together haphazard. Aside from its other manifest faults, the sentence is too cumbersome for the newspaper. Don't write sentences that require the reader to catch his breath before he gets to the end.
Sometimes, however, the story is of such a nature that the leading facts can readily be told in a single graphic sentence. For example the following lead of a published telegraph dispatch:
More than 100 men are believed to have been killed by a terrific explosion in the Blank Mines of the Brown Fuel and Iron Company at 4:30 o'clock this afternoon.
This sentence answers all the essential questions. Note that the writer does not begin with the fact of the explosion and work toward the loss of life, but tells at once, in the simplest manner possible, that 100 men may have perished. This is the vital fact of the story. No words are wasted in preliminaries. Without attempt at ornamentation, the writer goes directly to the heart of the story. It is conceivable that he might have written, in the conventional fashion of those who have formed the habit of beginning every story with a participle:
Struggling vainly to escape from the poisonous gases that filled every innermost recess, 100 helpless miners, caught like rats in a trap, met death as the result of, etc.
Note the difference in effect between the short, clear statement of fact and the lead that attempts to gain the reader's attention by "fine writing." Get rid of the idea that because a sentence is simple it is weak. The Bible says " Jesus wept." If the average writer were called upon to put that fact into words, he would probably rack his brain for descriptive epithets. Yet the Bible tells it all in two words of one syllable each — a verb and its subject—of more compressed power than a page of thundering adjectives.
When the lead cannot be told in a single sentence without danger of clumsiness and confusion, don't hesitate to divide it into several sentences. In the first sentence tell the most important thing -= the climax — in order to grip the reader's attention. Then tell the other facts needed for a quick under-standing of the story and after that develop the story logically.
OBSERVANCE OF STYLE
Your style of writing the lead will depend some, what on the custom of the paper for which you are working. Some newspapers still insist rigidly on the who-what-when-where-why rule for beginning all except feature stories and short items. Others are departing more and more from the rule. The tendency nowadays on a few well-edited newspapers (notably the Kansas City Star and Times) is to tell the story chronologically from the start, leaving out the lead or introduction altogether, except perhaps in the case of especially important happenings such as the mine disaster referred to above. This is probably the result of the growing importance of the headline in the modern newspaper. Formerly newspapers were content to use general headings, such as " Very Important," " The Latest from Europe " and " Court News," but the present-day newspaper aims to tell the story specifically in the head. Thus the average news story really is put before the reader three times — once in the head, again in the lead and finally in the story proper. Doubt of the wisdom in all cases of this double repetition is responsible for the tendency to drop the lead and let the headline usurp its place. No in-variable rules as to when this is advisable can be laid down. The writer should study carefully the style of his paper and be guided by it.
LEADS TO BE AVOIDED
It is a good general rule, and one enforced by nearly all newspapers, to avoid beginning a story with the time. An exception may be made, of course, when the time of a happening is the factor that makes the story. Ordinarily the time is not important enough to be put first in the sentence, though it should be told well toward the beginning of the story. Similarly, avoid starting a story with the place. The weakness of the lead that violates these rules is shown in the following sentence:
At 4 o'clock yesterday afternoon, at Sixth and Market streets, William Jones was shot and killed, etc.
Avoid the trite lead, such as " caught like rats in a trap " and " never in the history of." The newspaper writer unconsciously accumulates a vast stock of convenient trite phrases, on which he is tempted to draw when working hurriedly. A moment's thought, however, will nearly always suggest a better way of expression.
" At a meeting of " is usually a weak beginning, and some newspapers never permit it. Better tell at the outset what was done at the meeting. It is more effective to say, " Three patrolmen were discharged yesterday by the Police Board " than " At a meeting of the Police Board yesterday three patrolmen were discharged." The meeting itself is an incident. The results of the meeting make the story.
Avoid the lead burdened with police data. For example :
Frank Smith, 23 years old, residing at roto A street, was arrested this morning at 10 o'clock by Patrolman Jones of the Fifth District on a charge of stabbing and severely wounding Arthur Brown, 27 years old, of 2510 B street.
Writing of this kind appears to have been copied from the police reports. It is forbidden by all well-edited newspapers. Reserve unessential details for the body or the conclusion of the story if they are used at all. Let the lead tell the main facts unhampered by statistics.
Much that might be said further about writing the lead is summed up in the simple injunction: Be natural. Some newspapers caution their writers against beginning a story with " a " or " the," but an examination of the leading newspapers of the country shows that this practice is not generally followed. Strict adherence to such a rule would often cause cumbersome or unnatural sentence structure. Unless your paper forbids it, don't be afraid to be-gin your first sentence with an article if that is the logical, natural way to state the main fact. On the other hand, avoid overworking " a " and " the." The same advice is applicable to the lead in general, and in fact to all news writing: don't adopt one kind of sentence structure and use it to the exclusion of all others. A series of sentences all built on the same plan becomes monotonous. In this respect as well as in others get variety into your story.
LEADS THAT BEGIN WITH NAMES
By no means taboo the sentence that begins with the name of a person, especially if that name is widely known. Often the best lead possible is one that tells the name of the chief character at the outset. A " big " name attracts immediate attention. Often it is the only justification for printing the story. The fact that the average citizen sprains his ankle is not news; but it is news if the President of the United States sprains his ankle. The name in the latter case, not the accident, makes the story worth while. In another type of story the name is of little importance; the main thing is the happening on which the story is based. Bear these facts in mind in writing your lead. The ideal story, from the news standpoint, is one which combines big names and big happenings.
When, however, your story tells of an accident in which several persons were killed or injured, put the names near the beginning, even though, considered separately, they are not important as news. In reading the account of a disaster of any kind in which human lives were lost the average reader looks first at the names; he is eager to learn if any-one in whom he is interested was injured or killed. After the Iroquois theater fire in Chicago, one great newspaper devoted its entire front page to a list of the killed and injured. It is a common practice of many newspapers to enclose tabulated lists of the killed and injured, with a concise statement of the nature of the injuries, in what newspaper men call a " box " to go at the head of the story. This not only aids the reader but simplifies the work of the news writer.
It is possible, in minor stories of unimportant persons, to carry the " featuring " of names to an extreme. Noting this tendency in its staff at one time, a widely read western newspaper issued a rule that thereafter no story should begin with a name. No exceptions were made. The result was strained and artificial writing in the first sentences of many of the leading news stories. At the end of a week the order was recalled.
THE GENERAL RULE
Reference has been made to the advice sometimes given news writers to tell who, what, when, where and why as soon as possible in the story. Investigation shows that if any such rule exists it is not generally adhered to. Facts that come under these heads are often subordinated to make the lead clear or to give the main fact added prominence. Every story must be considered by itself. If any strict rule can be laid down, it is this : Tell the main facts first, as clearly and forcibly as you can. Remember, however, on whatever plan you build your lead, to answer all the essential questions somewhere in the story. The story that tells who, what, when, where and why, and in addition explains how, is likely to be complete. As a reporter, run over these questions in your mind and see if you are prepared to give an answer to each.
STUDY OF 100 TYPICAL STORIES
To ascertain the favorite newspaper method of beginning the story, chiefly from the point of view of sentence structure, the writer examined 100 first-page stories in sixteen of the leading daily news-papers of the country. This is the result, tabulated :
Beginning with subject of main verb 71
In other words, 71 per cent. opened with a simple, direct statement of fact, with the qualifying parts subordinated. Twenty-three per cent. opened with a qualifying phrase or clause containing some feature of the story, as "thanks to the wireless telegraph," " dragged more than 100 feet " and " unless a court ruling interferes." Four per cent. began with a striking quotation, while only 2 per cent. used the " there is " structure in the first sentence.
Of the seventy-one stories that began with the main clause, twenty-two put names first. In nearly every such case the name was that of some widely known person, either nationally or in the community in which the paper is published, such as the President, a governor or a chief of police.
Only six of the 100 stories began with a sub-ordinate phrase in the participial form. One story opened by answering the question " why " in a " be-cause " clause and two opened with " although." Not one gave the time or the place first in the sentence. In no case was the introductory sentence long or involved.
The figures here compiled are instructive in showing that the modern news writer wastes no time in preliminaries, ,but goes straight to the heart of his story.
The first words of twenty typical leads of the too examined, indicating their sentence structure, are here given :
Eleven men were killed. . .
With two of the leading families of Monroe county arrayed against each other . . .
Two chivalrous firemen rescued . . .
Stirred by the disclosures . . .
With the arrival of the steamship . . .
Business reverses are said to have been the cause . . .
Evidence tending to prove that. . .
The United Wireless Station . . .
Three hundred insurgents . . .
Governor Hadley's statement . . .
Sure of a prompt response . . .
A general denial . . .
Declaring the farmer to be the last person considered . . .
President Taft . . .
A verdict of . . .
The results of the . . .
With a dead man at the steering wheel, an automobile . . .
The "wet " or " dry " issue . . .
Indictment of twelve men . . .
Complaints have reached . . .
SUGGESTIONS FOR HOME OR CLASS-ROOM STUDY
I. Straightforward, simple news lead of an Associated Press dispatch, broken up into three terse sentences:
WASHINGTON, D. C., Nov. 19.-Four men were killed today by the premature explosion of a five-inch gun at the Indian Head Proving Grounds of the navy. The breech block of the gun, which was being tested, blew backward into the gun crew. Lieutenant Arthur G. Caffee was one of the men killed.
The dead in addition to Lieutenant Caffee are :
(List of the dead follows, then a detailed story half a column in length.)
(Note that all the essential questions are answered in this lead : Who? " Four men," giving names. What? " Killed." When? " To-day." Where? " At the Indian Head Proving Grounds." The cause of the explosion was not determined, but the writer tells succinctly how the men were killed.)
II. Contrast the foregoing method with that of the following lead from the Kansas City Star, in which a dramatic situation is emphasized by holding the interest suspended. (The names are fictitious) : "Fore!"
The word rang distinctly in the clear air yesterday afternoon. A party of golf players watched a ball which went whizzing through the air from No. 4 to No. 5 hole on the golf links at Swope Park. Almost in their line of vision a puff of smoke went into the air. The faint sound of a shot reached them. They saw a man fall.
John Smith, formerly a clerk for the Blank Brothers Coal Company, had shot and mortally wounded himself. Scores of golfers and other persons walking about the park rushed to the spot where Smith had fallen. The first to reach him was Mrs. J. W. Jones of io A street, who had been strolling about the park with her four children. She heard the revolver shot and saw Smith fall. The bullet had entered his head near the right temple and passed through.
(The story continues to the extent of a column.)
(This story illustrates what has been said of the tendency, as regards news of secondary importance, to work toward, rather than from, the climax. A news lead of the type in I would have contained the fact of the suicide in the first sentence. Note the effect of the short sentences.)
III. The lead of another suicide story from the same newspaper in which the method is more conventional :
After suffering from acute rheumatism that had rendered him helpless three years, confining him to his home and necessitating his retirement from active business, John W. Williams, 5o years old, ended his life at 5 o'clock yesterday afternoon in his apartments at 20 West street by a revolver shot.
(All the essential facts about the story are here told in a nutshell. The lead could have stood as a complete story had space requirements demanded that the succeeding paragraphs be " killed.")
IV. Opening of a fire story from the Chicago Record-Herald in which the human-interest feature is " played up " :
Seven families were driven to the streets and two sleeping infants rescued and carried from their cribs by their terrified mothers in a fire which last night attacked the Catalpa Apartments, 1727–29 Humboldt boulevard, causing a loss of $30,000.
The fire, which spread rapidly throughout the three-story brick apartment building, was caused by a faulty boiler in the basement. The flames rushed up the air shaft, thus attacking the three floors at practically the same time.
The fire occurred early in the evening, before any of the families had retired, and this fact alone prevented probable fatalities.
(Note how the writer has jumped right into the middle of things without waste of words. While the human-interest element is made prominent, other features of the story are not neglected.) V. Lead showing that good news style does not demand that all the salient facts be crowded into one sentence :
LONDON, Nov. 18.- An army of 350 militant suffragettes tried to storm Parliament Friday. Charging with Amazonian fury against the double line of police about the building, they made half a dozen attempts to break through the cordon. Six women were arrested.
VI. Lead from the New York Sun which begins with a direct quotation :
"If hell stood in need of a king or queen there are people on earth today who could take the job and hold it down," said Bishop Quayle of the Methodist Church, in a sermon he preached yesterday morning in the Washington Heights Church. Bishop Quayle, a product of Kansas City, is considered " a typical man of the West," one who not only ventures to slap another man on the back, but whom another Westerner would dare slap on the back.
(Here the news writer has called attention to his story by picking out and " featuring " a striking sentiment from the speaker's remarks. The second sentence skillfully characterizes the speaker and conveys the idea that here is no stereotyped report of a sermon, as the reader might have feared, but a pleasant, informal summary of its most interesting points.)
VII. In which the story is summarized in a short opening quotation :
LAREDO, TEX., Nov. 19.-" Mexico to-night faces the most serious crisis in recent years."
The foregoing statement made to-night by United States Consul Garrett at Nuevo Laredo, Mexico, just across the border, summarizes the situation as it exists now along the frontier.
VIII. Illustrating the use of direct quotation in the lead to give the " atmosphere " of an interview :
NEW YORK, Nov. 18.-" This is the age of woman, the domestic pet. Also it is the age of gold, which is necessary to the proper coddling of domestic pets."
This is one of the ideas which Miss Margaret McMillan has come to America to lecture about. Miss McMillan is not " another of those English suffragists." She was born in Westchester, N. Y., and is an authority in England on the education and needs of children.
IX. Lead in which the feature is put in indirect quotation :
BALTIMORE, Nov. 12.- Drinking and cigarette smoking are not on the increase among the women of America, according to Lillian M. N. Stevens, president of the National Women's Christian Temperance Union. Addressing the annual convention of the organization here today, she said in part:
(Direct quotation follows.)
X. The chronological method of telling a story which is so short that a summary of the facts in a formal lead would be useless:
NYACK, N. Y., Oct. 27.- Joseph de Bonti, an 8-yearold boy of Haverstraw, before starting for school put a revolver cartridge in his mouth and began biting on it.
The cartridge exploded and the boy fell to the floor dead, the bullet having gone upward through the brain.
XI. Example of the use that is sometimes made of an apt quotation to precede a feature story. From the Kansas City Star:
Matilda wash the dishes; Lucinda fetch the broom; And Sookey set the chairs nice all around the room. — Old Song
HUTCHINSON, KAN., Nov. 18.—Because Stubbs won in Kansas, Ernest Switzer, an employé of the Bell Telephone Company, must play the part of an unwilling Cinderella while the hired girl spends the evening taking in the canned drama at the motion picture shows.
XII. Where the time is the feature of the story:
An hour before the funeral of his father was held yesterday, William Brown, 3o years old, was called from his home, 113 Z street, and arrested. The arrest was made at the request of the police of Chicago, etc.
XIII. Where the place is the feature of the story :
GUTHRIE, OK., Nov. 17.- In rooms numbered 62, 47 and 32 at the Royal Hotel there is sweeping and dusting tonight. Governor Haskell has notified the landlord of the hotel that he will return to Guthrie early Saturday morning to resume his official residence, which he abandoned the night of June 11 to go to Oklahoma City.
XIV. Showing how the same story was epitomized by two different writers :
1. From the Chicago Record-Herald:
DENVER, Nov. 17.- Ralph Johnstone, the Wright brothers' most daring aviator and the holder of the world's record for altitude flights, fell 5oo feet at Overland Park to-day, and broke every bone in his body. In attempting a " spiral glide " to the earth he forgot for a moment that the atmosphere here has not the carrying power of that to which he was accustomed, and death was his penalty.
Many thousands of spectators were on the field when Johnstone fell, but only a few hundred of them actually saw the accident, for the attention of the great crowd was centered upon Johnstone's partner, Hoxsey, then in air.
2. From the Kansas City Star:
DENVER, Nov. 17.- With one wing tip of his machine bent and broken, Ralph Johnstone, the aviator who held the world's altitude record, fell from a height of five hundred feet into the inclosure at Overland Park aviation field late this afternoon and was killed. When the spectators crowded about the inclosure reached him, his body lay beneath the engine of the biplane with the white planes that had failed him wrapped about it like a shroud. Nearly every bone in his body was broken.
XV. The following leads illustrate various faults. Criticize from the point of view of style and re-write :
1. Alleging a systematic police third degree by means of which she insists special officers of the Blank Street District have persecuted her 19-year-old son, John, Mrs. Mary Smith of 1010 C street appeared before Judge William Brown in chambers, Friday noon, and succeeded in laying before the judge evidence of such a character that the court held in abeyance its revocation of the young man's parole. If the contention of the mother proves correct, Chief of Police Jones will likely take a hand and the Board of Police Commissioners may be given the matter.
2. The three-story brick building at 140–158 D avenue was completely destroyed by fire early to-day, the blaze being extinguished only after three alarms had been sounded. The damage is estimated at $50,000. The building was occupied by the Blank Bag Company and was situated in the center of a factory section. The three hundred employés, men and women, are thrown out of work.
3. At the meeting of the Blank Improvement Association at Smith Hall, Broadway and Wilson street, yesterday afternoon, a fight was proposed against the City Railways Company and a complaint will probably be filed in Police Court in a few days if the Eighth street car line is not extended to the city limits. They also want more cars during the rush hours over the present line. William Howard, manager of the City Railways, has refused to put on more cars to accommodate the traffic, it is said.