Finding the Lead

New Yorker writer John McPhee says, “The first part‑the lead, the beginning‑is the hardest part of all to write. I’ve often heard writers say that if you have written your lead you have 90 percent of the story.” Locating the lead, he says, is a struggle.

“You have tens of thousands of words to choose from, after all‑and only one can start the story, then one after that, and so forth. . . . What will you choose?” McPhee asks.

But before the words can be selected, the facts must be sorted out. How does the reporter select the one or two facts for a lead from the abundance of material he or she has gathered? What’s the focus of the story?

Fact sifting begins well before the reporter sits down to write. Experienced reporters agree with journalists John W. Chancellor and Walter R. Mears, who say: “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.”

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