Chapter 5: News Writing Basics

27 Summary lead

A summary lead concisely tells the reader the main idea of the story or conveys its news value. Most journalists and editors believe that the lead should come in the first sentence or first few sentences of a hard news article. Reporters use the term “burying the lead” or “delayed lead” to describe one placed later in an article. A buried lead may give the impression that the writer wasn’t able to determine what the real newsworthy material was, and can therefore reflect poorly on his or her journalistic judgment. In features or other soft news stories that use more dramatic storytelling techniques, the lead sometimes is buried in order to increase suspense or add an element of surprise.

A summary lead should address the following questions:

  • Who is the story about? or Who is involved?
  • What is the story about? or What happened?
  • When did the event take place?
  • Where did the event take place?
  • Why did the event take place?
  • How did the event happen?

Keeping the 5Ws and H in mind when writing a news story will help you organize the content and find a focus for the article. News judgment consists of figuring out the organization of these aspects of the content and prioritizing them in terms of their importance. It’s not necessary to cram the 5Ws and H into one sentence for the lead; however, the lead usually should contain information about the Who and What.

Take a look at the lead in this article from the Washington Post.

Now, let’s answer the 5Ws and H for the lead:

  • Who? Female undergrads
  • What? Claims of unwanted sexual advances
  • When? 2015
  • Where? Universities
  • Why?
  • How? Large study

In this case, the Why of the story is not addressed in the summary lead, perhaps because of the complexity of the issue. Still, the reader can easily understand the main idea of the article. When you’re practicing writing summary leads, remember to keep the sentence(s) relatively concise, with no more than 30 words.

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Summary lead by Jasmine Roberts is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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