Strong advice on leads

Recently, whenever I have to start a story, I find myself suddenly paralyzed. How should I start the story? Should it be a long or short lead? Is a hard news approach or more feature-y one better? Oh, and don’t forget to add SEO into the mix. The Google Gods must pick up the story, or at least register it somewhere.

The latest story I’m working on is to share the news that a department won a prestigious grant. There are two ways I can write this story: One is simply a hard news lead, such as the Department of Blah Blah has been awarded a $3.5 million grant from Yadda Yadda to study when people should say maybe. The other alternative is to discuss what the problem is in the field of Blah Blah and how the grant will solve this problem. I’m not sure which is better. I’m leaning towards the first and then explaining what the grant is addressing in the second paragraph, but I have my doubts.

So I am sitting at my computer with two open Word documents — a different one for each beginning. These two different sentences might as well be an enormous animal sitting on my hands, stopping me from typing. I can’t think of anything else besides the beginning.

To my good fortune, Poynter had a live chat with Roy Peter Clark on how to write good beginnings. Here are some of his tips, which I paraphrase:

  • Long stories don’t have to have long leads. Or as Clark says, “You can write a good short lead even for a long, long story.”
  • A good lead “does many things, but one of the most important is to signal to the reader the sound of the writer’s voice for this particular story or post.”
  • Put the news in the lead, but don’t over do it.
  • The more important the lead, the more direct it should be.
  • Brainstorm some leads up and which one is the voice you’re looking for.

Here’s the advice I found most helpful, in response to someone commenting that the hardest part of writing was getting started:

My advice would go something like this: 1) lower your standards early in the process so you can get your hands moving and not feel paralyzed 2) keep asking yourself questions like “What is my story all about?” Or “What’s the point here?” Such questions give you focus, and the focus often dictates, among other things, how you will begin.

That’s what I need to do. Simply lower my expectations and write. I can edit it later. And that’s what I’m going to do.

Flickr photo by Rennett Stowe.

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