Saturday, January 3, 2009

Chancellor&Mears on Leads

LEADS: Getting it right
By John Chancellor, CBS News, and Walter Mears, The Associated Press

Every story has to begin somewhere. This is about beginnings—what journalists call leads.

The lead is how you start, which sounds simple enough, except that it isn’t. More wastebaskets have been filled with crumpled paper because of trouble with leads than anything else in newsrooms.

Leads are supposed to be brief, but not too brief. James Thurber once ran up against an editor who kept telling him the lead was too long. Finally, in frustration, he made it as brief as could be:

That’s what the man was when he was picked up.

It was a joke, of course. Thurber wrote too well to end a sentence with a preposition.

At the other extreme, some reporters who aren’t kidding have tried to cram everything into a sentence. As in:

The mayor’s office announced today that the federal government will provide $136,000, the state will contribute &223,000 and the city will put up $735,000 to finance summer job programs that should make employment to 17,239 young people between June 15 and Sept. 5, mostly in public works projects.

That’s so bad it’s funny—but there are copy desks that inflict such writing upon readers.

Then, too, there are writers who wish they were poets. A little poetry goes a long way; too much chokes the lead. As in:

Jimmy Carter, the man who would be President, buckled on his political armor today and began his quest for the White House as a haze-shrouded sun rose over the magnolia trees in his small-town back yard.

It’s easier to write bad leads than good ones.

Leads are keynotes, the overtures, the tee shots of newswriting. Properly crafted, the lead answers questions before they are asked and promises more answers to follow. The lead sets theme and points the way.

That is a lot to ask of a sentence or two. But it is neither so awesome nor so mysterious as it sounds. A lead is simply a disciplined beginning.

One of the highest compliments in journalism is to have it said the writer got the lead right. No one gets it right every time; the selections of facts and the way in which they are packaged is too complex a task for perfection every time.

Getting it right means finding the phrase, the quotation or the fact that reaches the essence of the story.

Sometimes that is easy: a president is elected, a leader is dead, a war has ended. These stories are the exceptions. More commonly, there are competing sets of facts, all clamoring in the writer’s mind to go first.

In January of 1981, a day came when two competing sets of facts arrived on the same day, and each one was important enough to have dominated to news for most of that month. On the day when Ronald Reagan was inaugurated president, the American hostages in Iran were released.

Those two events within one hour produced the biggest news day in a decade. For each of us, it meant combining the two stories into a single lead.

MEARS: I put the two stories together this way:

WASHINGTON (AP)—Ronald Reagan became President of the United States on Tuesday promising ‘an era of national renewal’ at home, and restraint but never surrender abroad, his inauguration blending the passage of power weith a passage to freedom for 52 American hostages.

We had to revise the story over the course of that afternoon and evening to cover the latest developments as the hostages headed West and Reagan took over the White House. We even inserted material that night and produced what in wire service language is called a “news lead,” to cover the latest inaugural balls. I wish they were called dances. The note editors explaining what was new in that last story said simply: “To update with balls.”

The hostage/inauguration lead was difficult to handle. It wasn’t complex, in that anyone had to choose among competing facts, since only two really counted. Reagan was President and the hostages were out. It was the combination of all this happening at the same time that we had worried about handling for weeks. It got to be kind of in-house joke—what do we do it it all happens at once? So of course, it did.

CHANCELLOR: Nightly News had the same problem. We decided that the program would begin with Reagan taking the oath right at the very top, no announcer and no titles. But our first extended story was the hostage story. The reasoning behind that was that everyone had known since the previous November that Reagan would be inaugurated, but the hostages were not a predictable story, so we began with them.

I wrote: “Good evening on the 444th and final day of the hostage crisis, which is also the first day of the new Reagan presidency.”

Then we went right to the pictures of the hostages boarding the plane at Teheran airport. I did not know until I rolled the paper into the typewriter and sat there and said, what the hell am I going to write—and then all of a sudden it wrote itself. “Final” and “First” seemed to be the story to me.

MEARS: It took me a while to get things into a manageable set of words. There was so much to cover and so few words to do it. I needed to say that Reagan had been inaugurated, I had to give some sense of his inaugural address, and I needed to cover the hostages. It would have been easy if he had mentioned the hostages in his inaugural address, so of course he didn’t. I struggled. Then I hit “passage of power—passage to freedom,” which described both the combination and contrast. After that it all fell into place. That’s not unusual, in my experience; once you get a handle on the lead, and you’re satisfied with it, the rest of the story usually comes easily.

CHANCELLOR: The biggest stories are usually the easiest to write. The Germans have surrendered. John Lennon has been killed by a maniac. The stock market lost 40 points. The release of the hostages and the inauguration of Reagan were uncomplicated facts in themselves, which did blend into a coherent combination lead. Not all combinations are that way.

The best test to determine which competing facts gets top billing is to ask yourself: Which of the facts interests me most? Anyone who writes to inform must begin with more information that the reader or viewer. That rule seems obvious, but it isn’t always observed. And a failure to recognize the most important among competing facts will produce a lead that runs away from responsibility, a lead that says the writer is lost.

Anytime you pick up the paper and read that the White House has passed a complex tax bill, that story will tell you little. If it is too complex for the writer to explain in the lead, the story that follows will very likely be too complex to wade through.

There are differences between writing for newspapers and writing for television, but the fundamental obligation of the writer in either medium remains the same: get the essence of the story in the lead.

Choosing is the essence of leadwriting. Somewhere in any complicated story there are elements than lend themselves to simple, direct explanation. The job is to find them. A vague beginning usually means a vague story. The lead disciplines what comes afterward, and without discipline, the succeeding paragraphs are likely to be aimless.

The easiest place to begin is the nice, simple, factual lead: Four men with guns help up the Amalgamated Bank on Main Street this morning and got away with $50,000.

CHANCELLOR: The lead is: “From now on, students at Siwash will have to have their homework in on time.” And then, in a second sentence, you tell how that decision was made, and that takes you to the meeting of the faculty committee.

MEARS: The committee could have decided a dozen things, but if the homework decision is the one that affects the people who’ll be reading the story, that’s the lead.

CHANCELLOR: I have a kind of rough rule. I sometimes pretend I’m calling my mother. I say to her, You know what they did here at Siwash? They say the students have to get their homework in on time. She might say, Who decided that? And I reply, the faculty committee. And that’s the lead.

MEARS: What if you were forced to put it into a one-minute phone call – or less?

CHANCELLOR: If it takes one whole minute to say it or read it, you don’t have a lead, you’ve got more than 125 words, and the worst editor in the world wouldn’t let you put that lead in the paper. And if you’re rattling off at that rate, you surely don’t have it worked out in your head.

MEARS: I meant for that one-minute phone call to include some time for thinking. But I suppose you’re right; that ought to do be done before you get on the phone.

Working it out in your head makes it easier to avoid dressing up a lead with a word like “dramatic.” If the event being described is dramatic, the word is unnecessary. If the event is not dramatic, writing that it is won’t make it so.

Dramatic events produce such dreadful phrases as “emotional homecoming,” “solemn vows” and “major speeches.” “Homecoming” is an emotion word by itself. If vows aren’t solemn, they don’t count. No one ever admitted to making a minor speech. Writers are not salesmen for the events they recount. It is the description, not the shopworn adjective, that can make a lead extraordinary.

For example: Robert F. Kennedy is assassinated. Dramatic, ironic, tragic, shocking—all those words apply to what happened. But a lead can be fashioned without them: “Sen. Robert F. Kennedy died of gunshot wounds early today, prey like his president brother to the savagery of an assassin.” Writing that lead did not require a selection of facts. Writing that lead did require a selection of words. Using words like “dramatic” or “shocking” in that kind of lead is not only sloppy writing, it demeans the event itself.

Of course it was dramatic, and of course it was shocking. What why it went without saying. That is why it is not to say that it needed to be a lead without drama. But drama is in the telling, as in the masterful lead with which Douglas B. Cornell of the AP told of the burial of Robert Kennedy.

Robert F. Kennedy was buried on a gentle hillside Saturday in the uncertain light of a full moon and the flame flickering eternally over the grave of martyred President John F. Kennedy.

So, too, the day Richard M. Nixon resigned as president. The right lead was the simplest: Richard M. Nixon resigned today as the 37th president of the United States.

The reader comes soon enough to the fact that no president had ever resigned before. Say what happened and leave it alone.

CHANCELLOR: This is, perhaps, even more important in writing for television. Big news is very often bad news. Leads on these stories need to be spare and lean as possible. The viewer needs to know the facts, and needs a little time to let them soak in. It’s one thing to pick up a newspaper, read of some calamity in the headline, and go on to read the story itself. It’s another thing to watch a television news program. A reader can go at his own speed, but a viewer needs time to comprehend the news. Which is why I take my time with leads on really big stories, beginning with the basic fact, which just writes itself, then adding other facts as slowly and logically as I can. One way to help the viewer is to find a way to repeat the information contained in the first sentence in about the fourth or fifth (“Nixon’s resignation became official as he was flying to California,” not “It became official as…”). If it is done properly, the essential facts can be methodically outlined and reinforced in about half a minute of copy. And if you think that’s a very short time, stop reading now, look at your watch, and think of the things you could say about a big story in 30 seconds.

Being simple does not mean being dull. Even in the most uncomplicated leads, there can be tension and vivid contrast. When the 1968 Democratic National Convention delivered its presidential nomination to Hubert H. Humphrey, there was discord in the convention hall, and rioting in downtown Chicago, where antiwar demonstrators battled police. It was a night of ironies—a gently man reaching his life’s goal in circumstances that belied everything he had preached in a long political career.

That could have been a “meanwhile” lead: Hubert H. Humphrey won the Democratic presidential nomination tonight. Meanwhile, there was rioting downtown Chicago, a few miles from the convention hall.

“Meanwhile” leads are lousy leads. You can do anything with “meanwhile,” but you’ll usually regret it later. The stock market crashed today. Meanwhile, snowed in Boise. “Meanwhile” is sometimes heard to avoid, and no one who writes can claim to innocent of using it, but it is best left in the dictionary.

MEARS: My lead on the Humphrey nomination went this way:

Hubert H. Humphrey, apostle of the politics of joy, won the Democratic presidential nomination tonight under armed guard.

That gets Humphrey trademark, the nomination and the tumult of the Chicago rioting into a sentence. It doesn’t refer specifically to the rioting, which comes in the second sentence, but it makes the point indirectly.

A lot of newswriting involves telling people something they already know. Between wire services bulletins broadcast on the radio and television network special reports that interrupt the soap operas, most people are going to know something big has happened. They hear it on their car radios, or other people tell them. Because of television, everyone gets to be something of an expert, and in many cases an eyewitness to breaking news. That makes more difficult the task of commanding attention in a lead. In many cases, the consumer is looking for confirmation and explanation of what is already known—possibly seen, live and in color.

Leadwriting becomes even more difficult when the story is not dominated by a single event, but describes an assortment of facts. That happens, for example, on a night of speechmaking at a political convention, or in crisis which brings reaction—or response—from other countries, or when a president sends one of his major messages to Congress.

MEARS: One of the toughest annual stories to write is the president’s budget message.

CHANCELLOR: Sometimes the budget doesn’t produce an overriding lead, so I write what you might call an omnibus lead. It says the president has made his budget proposals, and then I list the most important ones. It takes a lot of words, and it’s cumbersome.

MEARS: In my terms, that’s not a lead. You’ve got to choose. For instance, you may have to say the dollar figure is the important one, even though to many people that is not a meaningful figure. Nobody in the damn world understands $900 billion.

CHANCELLOR: It seems to me that one way of writing that lead is to find a shift in the way the White House proposes that the money be spent. The lead might that the president proposes spending more on defense, and less for the poor and the old.

MEARS: If that’s in there, that’s the lead.

CHANCELLOR: But suppose you’ve got four categories of that kind in the budget, and all are about equal in importance? You can’t explain them all in the lead.

MEARS: Then you’ve got to pick one.

CHANCELLOR: Maybe you’ve got to pick one, but in television I can come on and say, in effect, Hello, the budget: Here’s what they want to do to you and for you.

MEARS: I couldn’t write that as a hard news lead.

There are some leads that seem to be repeated again and again. The president gives his State of the Union address. If he’s a Republican, his party’s leaders praise it, and Democratic leaders don’t. The standard goes something like this:

Reaction to President Reagan’s State of the Union address varied along party lines tonight, as Republicans applauded while Democrats complained he ignored key social programs.

With variations, that is written annually. Change the name, reverse the parties, insert different grounds for complaint, and the lead will stand up in the next administration. And it will be just as dull the next time.

There’s a better way, and it is to find one or two politicians who said something that wasn’t predictable, something fresh and quotable. When the story is predictable, just pick what’s interesting. All politicians think they are interesting, and some of them occasionally are.

Not all stories are equally newsworthy. Sad to report, some aren’t very newsworthy at all—yet some in that category are unavoidable. People do need to know about an annual report from the governor’s office or the school board. It may not be exiting, but it goes with the territory. The job is to make it as interesting as possible. There is always—something buried in all those pages. Sometimes it takes quite a search, but it will be there and it will be the lead. Otherwise you’d wind up with copy that began: “The school board issued its annual report today and it was really dull.” That’s a good way to begin the search for another line of work.

It’s likely that a beginning reporter is going to be assigned some of those predictable stories. They are like slices of bread in the toaster: They pop up at intervals. IN a way they are drudge work, but they are also a challenge because it takes extra effort, observation and reporting to find their ingredients to make this year’s story different—better—than the one in the file from last year.

The city council members are sworn in, or the groundhog sees his shadow, or school opens with more pupils, or fewer, than a year ago. That property tax increase enacted six months ago takes effect tomorrow. It’s the Fourth of July and, just like last year and every year before, there’s going to be a parade.

Stories like that are routine, predictable and obligatory. They can be written from the files, with slight variations year to year. Or they can be written with some flair, by a reporter who tries to look beyond the routine and see something just a bit different.

For example, George Washington’s birthday used to be a big sale day in the Washington stores. There’d be lines of customers waiting for the $10 automobiles and the like. And there would be annual stories about the sales gimmicks. The stories were as predictable as the loss-leader bargains. But it was possible to change the far, as in:

WASHINGTON—That silver dollar George Washington is supposed to have thrown across the Rappahannock River might buy a brand new typewriter today.

Holiday stories are predictable. Christmas doesn’t change much from one year to the next, but it’s always in the paper. Parade stories are like that, or circus-coming-to-town stories. But news is about change, not about sameness, so the challenge is to find what is different this Christmas, or this parade, and write it.

Journalism is white-collar work, too often at blue-collar wages, and much of it is imprecise; that’s why it defies fixed rules. But there are some things to keep in mind. One of them is the definition of news, which depends on who’s doing the defining. Gerald Johnson, an editorial writer for the Baltimore Sun and a historian as well, once said: “News is what interests a good newspaperman.” James Reston of the New York Times defined news as a chronicle of conflict change.

People need to know about changes that may affect them. They need to know about conflicts, at home and abroad, because that affects them too. John F. Kennedy once said that domestic issues can be troublesome, but foreign policy can kill you.

If it’s interesting, if it tells of change, if it reports — or explains — conflict, you’ve probably got your lead. That’s as true of stories about the city council as of reports about the Kremlin.

There is nothing more humbling than to sit down at a desk stacked with handouts—our word for press releases—or speech texts, and be forced to sort out all the verbiage and turn it into a story to meet deadline. But there are few things more satisfying than the experience of wading through it all and finding a lead which gives coherence and structure to the whole uncoordinated mess of information. That involves not only the freedom to choose but the necessity of choice. A good journalist has the capacity for good decision, even when it runs against the grain.

MEARS: At one of John F. Kennedy’s early press conferences, I was just a cut above office boy in the Washington bureau, but there were two things he said that I thought were important. It was right after John Glenn’s first orbital flight, and Kennedy said he thought it was super that Glenn had circled the earth. And he also said that if Nikita Khrushchev came to New York for the UN General Assemble, he would like to meet him. That would have been a summit conference. Our guys kept writing that Kennedy thought it was just wonderful that Glenn had circled the earth. But I said, Excuse me, sirs, but don’t you think we ought to lead this story with the fact that Kennedy has just invited Khrushchev to a summit conference in New York? And they said, NO, you’ve got to go with the flow of the news. Finally, I sat down, with a certain temerity, for I was the junior man in the place, to write a sidebar on the summit story for I was the junior man in the place, to write a sidebar on the summit story. But they were right. The story that was printed the next day—not only the AP copy, but the Times, the Washington Post, UPI, everybody—was that Kennedy had hailed the hero John Glenn for orbiting the earth. And the invitation to Khrushchev was buried elsewhere. The reason was, the Glenn thing had been going on for days, and leads on that made the editors comfortable and the readers comfortable, and it was the guaranteed story that was going to get play. I still don’t think it was the news.

One kind of lead that can work well—although it has to be done with care lest it misfire—is that lead that plays off an adage or a cliché, slightly amended. It uses a familiar phrase in a new setting. So when Lyndon B. Johnson traveled to Independence, Missouri, to sign, in the company of Harry S. Truman, the bill that created Medicare, this was the lead the reporter wrote: President Johnson journeyed a thousand miles today to sign the bill beginning government medical care for the aged and share “this moment of truth” with Harry S. Truman.

That played off the Chinese proverb that a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. Some deskman took a single step of his own to undo it. He checked the mileage and changed the lead to say that President Johnson had journeyed 996 miles. Reporters talk with each other a lot about stories they are covering, but the good ones make their own decision, independently, about the leads they write and the way to tell the story.

This independence can be difficult, particularly in national political reporting or on any other story that draws a crowd of newspeople. Some of the reporters in the crowd will write safely, with the pack, emphasizing the same points, even writing similar leads. Seasoned reporters have been known to check the wire service leads to make sure their copy covers the same ground. That way, cocktails and dinner are not interrupted with a call from the editor, complaining that the copy doesn’t cover the same ground the wires do.

Candidates, especially presidential candidates, usually say the same things every day, and the reporters who trail them and write about them tend to develop a caste system based on seniority. Those who have been following the candidate longest become walking encyclopedias on what’s been said and what’s been done in the past. Let Ronald Reagan say he wants to withdraw the Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty from the Senate, and these encyclopedias will argue that there is not news in that because he said something similar in Dallas five months earlier.

Ignore that kind of talk, and don’t let some other reporter’s judgment alter your own. If you’re beaten on a story, you’ll have to catch up—but choosing your own angle isn’t being beaten. You are not writing for people who have heard every word uttered by the candidate. If you’ve done your homework, you know what he said five months earlier. The basic point is that if it is interesting to you as a well-informed writer, it is likely to be interesting to a well-informed reader or viewer.

MEARS: I wrote a story on Reagan and the SALT treaty during the 1980 campaign. It was based on an AP interview, and it came at a time when President Carter was denouncing Reagan daily as some kind of warmonger. Carter kept citing his opposition to the treaty as evidence that Reagan would be dangerous in the White House. It was a point of dispute, of conflict, and therefore a natural lead. A day after it appeared, Carter was making speeches about the interview while Reagan’s people were trying to play down what their man had said.

CHANCELLOR: I read your story and gave it a pass because Reagan had said that five months previously. Sorry about that.

MEARS: That was your loss, not mine. I think you were wrong on that one, but we’ve all got to follow our instincts. Some days they’ll steer you the wrong way. I remember a day like that in 1964. Sen. Barry Goldwater was opening his campaign in the New Hampshire presidential primary. He had a news conference at which he talked about defense issues and also about the assassination of President Kennedy, two months earlier. Goldwater said that strategic missiles were not reliable weapons, and that the only sound defensive system would rely on manned bombers. He was an Air Force reserve pilot and he’d been arguing that way for years. It was old stuff. The Kennedy assassination was the most sensitive subject a politician could mention at the time. So when Goldwater mentioned it, I figured I had my lead. It was that Goldwater had accused President Johnson of joining a leftist attack on American conservatives by saying that an atmosphere of hate was behind the assassination. My mistake. A reporter who hadn’t seen or heard Goldwater until that day led his story with the missile comments. The Defense Department accused Goldwater of damaging national security. Suddenly it was the senator against the Pentagon, an instant conflict, and an old story made new. The story I dictated would up on the spike.

Leads con do wondrous things. Richard M. Nixon never said he had a secret plan to end the Vietnam War, but history will record that he said it. What Nixon said, in the cafeteria of a New Hampshire textile mill one winter day in 1968, was that as President he would end the war in the Pacific, and win the peace. But Nixon said he would not second-guess the Johnson administration by explaining how.

There were two ways to handle the lead. One was to quote what Nixon had said. The other was to paraphrase and characterize it.

The straight quote is, usually, preferable. But that day a rookie political reporter wrote that Nixon had said he had a secret plan to end the war, and that is what’s going to be in some history books.

MEARS: I stuck with the Nixon quote in the lead I wrote that day and got wiped out—everybody used the competition’s story. You learn some things by losing.

You’ll lose some, but you’ll win many more by sticking with the quote. It gives you an unassailable lead, for it is what the man said. Too many writers opt for the paraphrase to save a word or two. But the quotation tells it better in almost all cases. In the depths of Watergate, Nixon said, “I am not a crook.” That was the lead. Barry Goldwater’s 1964 assertion that “extremism is the pursuit of liberty is not vice” was a clear lead. So was Gerald Ford’s description of the situation when he replaced Nixon: “Our long national nightmare is over.”

If a quotation is both apt and graceful, it makes a natural lead because lead sentences are themselves best written when they are easy on the tongue. Whether you’re writing for broadcast or for print, it helps to read the lead aloud. If a lead can’t be phrased in graceful spoken English, it is not a well-crafted lead. It must be easy to say, as well as easy to understand.

MEARS: If you can say it, the likelihood is that it will read well. If it takes two breaths to say it, find the period key and use it. Although I have to admit some of mine require one very deep breath. If it sounds awful, it will read that way too. But be careful when writing in the company of colleagues. Read softly and be prepared to be taunted as a writer who can’t type without moving his lips.

CHANCELLOR: One of the most effective leads I ever wrote was on a study of dietary habits of the elderly poor. It read: “Poor people eat cat food.” The second sentence told how that had been learned.

MEARS: On some stories the words themselves give a particular flavor and texture to the lead. When the American hostages were released from Iran I used Biblical words, Old Testament words: “deliverance” and “passage.” I wrote that they had been released from “Iranian bondage.” I don’t read the Bible a lot. Those words just seemed to fit that day.

Writing leads for the ear, instead of the eye, often calls for different techniques. The British Broadcasting Corporation uses single words as signals on many of its radio broadcasts. The announcer will read: “Politics. The Labour Party today voted…” or: “Europe. The Commissioners of the European Economic Community…” or: “Football. Tottenham Hotspur last night defeated…”

The utility of these brief signals is obvious. The listener is told that the subject is being changed, and gets a brief idea of what the new subject will be. The writer of broadcast news must always be aware that he is competing for the listener’s attention.

CHANCELLOR: One of the most common mistakes in radio newswriting is the lead in which a key fact is stated only once and not repeated. For example: “Bolivian police today reported that 24 American tourists were rushed to hospitals with stomach poisoning after a Fourth of July picnic at the American embassy. Doctors say all will recover.” If you missed the first word, you’re lost. Better to say, “Bolivian authorities say all will recover.” That’s not very flashy, but it helps a listener who is already digesting, if you will pardon that word, the fact that a couple of dozen Americans got sick at a picnic at their own embassy. Broadcast news needs constant reinforcement.

Beware of leads that are too dense, too overladen with facts. Suppose the day’s big story is that inflation is down but unemployment is high. Here’s the way not to write it:

The government announced today that the rate of inflation calculated on an annual basis had declined from 4.6 percent in May to 3.5 percent in June, while unemployment continued at a postwar high of 9.2 percent during the same month, with more than 890,000 people out of work.

No lead needs that many facts. That one groans and creaks under the weight of everything that’s in the sentence. Better to write: “Inflation eased during June, but unemployment remained at a postwar high of 9.2 percent.”

The other elements need to in the story, but they shouldn’t be crammed into the lead. The better lead is brief and simple. It has the same elements, but without an overdose of numbers.

MEARS: Long leads are not a problem as long as they’re clear. The Associated Press once considered a ratings system for leads. You got points for short leads and short words. I went home and dug out the 10 stories for which I got the Pulitzer Prize and found they would have flunked. I called the people who were setting up the system and said, “I just wanted you to know I flunked.” The plan was never put into effect. Brevity is not the primary goal. Clarity is. The old rule holds that the shorter the lead, the better. That’s old enough to be forgotten. There are limits, but a 25- or 30 word lead is not necessarily better than one 35 or 40 words long. It needs to be simple and understandable, not necessarily short. A lot of editors will tell you two-sentence leads are against the rules. To hell with them.

CHANCELLOR: There are times when a lead just falls into your lap. When the French National Assembly voted to abolish the death penalty, I wrote: “The guillotine got the ax today in the French National Assembly.” But there are times when you simply can’t write a short lead. I remember the story of a frustrated lover who murdered his girl friend, cut off her head and mailed it to a former admirer, cut off her toes and five to the President of the United States and five to the President of the Soviet Union. All you can do with that one was to tell it just that way.

MEARS: One of our guys was saying that his favorite lead of all time was: “The nude body of a headless red-haired corpse was found today…” This came out as a funny lead on an awful story, but it wasn’t intended to be funny. You’ve got to be careful with words.

There are times when there is not a final story, but a lead must be written, nevertheless. An election has been held, but no candidate has been declared a winner. A jury is still out. The Boy Scouts are still lost. This kind of leadwriting calls for more imagination that the straight it-happened-today hard news lead, and yet the basic principle remains. If the election hasn’t been settled, write it that way, perhaps with some color thrown in about the candidates waiting. A lead on a jury unable to make up its mind can be dressed up with a phrase or two describing the vigil in the courtroom, but the story is still that no verdict had been reached. Something that hasn’t happened can be hard news. It’s a cliché, but it’s a story when the wedding doesn’t happen because the bride never showed up. The old newsroom line is about the reporter who didn’t file a story because the wedding never happened.

CHANCELLOR: There are times when you’ve got to write what I call a hedge-your-bet lead. I remember being on deadline in Jerusalem once, when President Carter and Prime Minister Begin were meeting on the Middle East peace talks. Israeli officials said that things had gone well, but Carter’s press secretary, Jody Powell, had confirmed that view after his public briefing by talking with Powell in his hotel room. I then wrote a hard lead that things looked very dark, and I showed it to Judy Woodruff, our White House correspondent. She said, “I know these Carter people. I think they’re conning us. I don’t think it’s as bad as it looks.” So I changed my lead to say that members of the President’s party were extremely pessimistic in contrast to some optimism on the Israeli side, and added that it seemed too early to say that Mr. Carter’s mission to Israel had ended in failure. The next day Mr. Carter went to Cairo, and a few hours after he arrived, his mission was a success. I had been saved by the caution of a colleague, and while the lead I wrote had a lot of on-the-one-hand and on-the-other hand in it, it was accurate. Sometimes you’ve got to hedge.

We have found that a way to write good leads is to think of them in advance—to frame the lead while the story is unfolding. This can be of a crucial help on a fast-breaking story, a briefing or an announcement that comes right on a deadline. When you’ve got to run to a telephone to start dictating, or when you’ve got to go on camera and start talking, the one thing you really need is to have a lead in your head. It doesn’t have to be fancy, but if you frame it properly, the rest of the story will flow from it in a natural and graceful way. And you can have that very special pleasure of knowing you got the lead right.

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