WORLD Magazine / Telling the Truth / Chapter Eight
Leads, Nut Grafs, Bodies, Ends, Headlines

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Once your journalistic research is done and you have a strong sense of how you want to organize the material, it is time to think of a lead. Sometimes, you will have thought of the lead as you are gathering material, and the organization will flow from it. But remember that in journalism, the perfect is often the enemy of the good: Look for a good beginning, not the perfect lead.

Generally, it is better to rough out the article and then come back to wrestling with the lead. I have provided a chapter on organization before discussing leads because many writers either get hung up at the lead or construct a pretty lead that does not connect well with the bulk of the article. Remember that most leads do not have to be grabbers: They can ease readers into stories.

Feature leads, like other parts of articles, vary in length according to the size of the overall article, but their purpose remains the same: They are to give the reader a sense of what the article is about, establish a mood, and entice the reader to march on. Feature leads are not supposed to summarize the news. Feature and standard newspaper leads are opposites: The latter variety is designed to save the reader from reading the entire story, but the former is to push him or her into doing that.

There are many different kinds of leads: I have listed eight here, four of which are generally superior, four of which need to be handled with care.

Superior Leads
First on the superior list is the anecdotal lead: It is often the best because it gives readers a character with whom to identify and action to grasp. In directed reporting, an anecdotal lead is a specific ministory that begins teaching the reader about the nature of the overall problem. Here is an example:

Jim Gold was bankrupt, burdened with depression, and, through it all, born again. He was also wide awake, notwithstanding the handwritten note left on his windshield:

"Wake up fool! Forests aren’t just for chopping down. Many of us prefer to have them for owls and recreation, rather than have fatso fools like you chop them down, never to be replaced. Look over your shoulder. Earth First is watching you!"

The threatening note was long on sentiment and short on scholarship. But it wasn’t just a product of an eco-terrorist’s bad-hair day. It was, in fact, a seedy but faithful reflection of federal policy.

It was not what Gold needed after perching for 5 1/2 frustrating hours on the boom of his swing yarder in front of the Washington capitol in Olympia. He would rather have been harvesting timber in the vast forests of the Olympic Peninsula where he had operated an independent logging business for 16 fulfilling years. Now the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, armed with the Endangered Species Act, had locked up federal timberlands. And, in Gold’s words, the state had then "caved in to the federal government," locking up most state timber as well.

"You’ve Gone Too Far" read the placard mounted beside him on the rusty boom. It was a last whimper from a vanquished culture, catching only the ear of a state trooper who ordered Gold to move his machine away from the unmoved and unmoving legislature.

There was nothing left to do but abandon the yarder for the bank to sell for scrap. He returned to his home north of Hoquiam, drained in pocket and in heart.

Anecdotal leads are good for arousing immediate interest by involving the reader in the story. Often, anecdotes with people in them humanize what could be dry, or personalize what could be merely sensational. The anecdotal lead has to be true to the rest of the story: It should be colorful but directed, accurately representing the article and pointing the reader to it. An anecdote that is colorful but does not begin directing the reader to a deeper understanding of the problem can be used further down, but should not be the lead. The anecdote should be factual, an actual scene, not a composite or a product of the imagination.

Second on the superior list is the descriptive lead: It presents a scene without including characters or action. A descriptive lead works particularly well when the physical setting or the emotional mood is key, as in this example.

A large black crow is furiously flapping against the blustery south wind sweeping over the desert of northern New Mexico. Silhouetted by rolling mounds of cracked orange sand that roll upwards into a perfect blue sky, the crow is neither moving forwards nor backwards. It is only maintaining, bounced up and down by wind sheers whipping under and over it.

Such is the case today with those trapped in pockets of rural poverty in America. The neglected segment of Americans that are the rural poor finds that it is a battle to maintain while faced with a barrage of forces bouncing it up and down like a cork. The rate of rural poverty in America (16.1 percent) is higher than the much more publicized rate of urban poverty (13.7 percent).

Why doesn’t the crow ascend to higher, more helpful winds? Its instinctual nature should tell it to do so. Yet it seems frozen in space, destined to remain in the currents it now rides. In thirty minutes, would it still be there?

Likewise, social and cultural forces such as government dependency and ill-equipped churches seem to be keeping many rural poor people stuck in thin air.

Descriptive leads are photographs rather than videotapes, but they can focus wonderfully.

Third on the superior list is the situation lead: It presents a problem and raises a sense of conflict or suspense about how a person will escape. Here is an example:

It’s just after 11 p.m., and Houston police officer Al Leonard has his gun drawn as the elderly black man approaches the patrol car. The 9mm pistol is out of sight, pointing through the car door. Leonard rolls down his window and casually greets the man.

"What can I do for you?"

The man shakes his head in disgust. "Some kids," he says. "They was throwing bricks. Up over there on the corner. Broke my windshield. Musta been 10 or 12 of them."

Leonard nods. "When did it happen?"

"Few minutes ago. . . ."

What will Al Leonard do? The lead pushes us to read on; it is a purposefully incomplete anecdote. A situation lead should end with a sense of imminent trouble, or at least a circumstance demanding resolution.

Fourth on the superior list is the multivignette lead: It communicates a sense that many people are undergoing a particular problem. You can show several actual examples–do not make them up–and thus communicate the reality.

Although she wanted more children, Janet White felt that a tubal ligation–severing the fallopian tubes–was "the thing to do." Never questioning the "pressure from society for small families," she felt she had pushed the limit with three. But since then, her desire for more children has intensified–after her ability to have them was gone.

Jennifer Barfield’s marriage, on the other hand, was in shambles. She didn’t want her husband around the two children they already had. Her husband didn’t seem to care, so she took the bus to a doctor’s office and had the option of more children surgically removed from her life. It became a decision she and her second husband later regretted.

John Barja underwent sterilization surgery because doctors warned that pregnancy might endanger his wife’s health. It nagged at him for 11 years.

Now, in the early ‘90s, a number of men and women, because of various circumstances, are changing their minds. A small but slowly growing movement is taking a closer look at the rights and wrongs of reproductive sterilization. . . .

Handle-with-Care Leads

Along with the superior or classic feature leads, four others are useful, but should be used sparingly. The summary-lead is the first type of sparingly used opener. This mainstay of news reporting is rare in a feature story, but useful when leading into a first-person account or some other story that will appear to have minor news value unless its significance is explained. Summaries of this kind should be printed in italics, with the main story in standard type; for example:

President Clinton’s proposal to allow openly homosexual men and lesbians to serve in the military is in obvious trouble on Capitol Hill. During Senate hearings on the proposal, influential lawmakers have pushed a compromise "don’t-ask-don’t tell" policy, which would prohibit recruiting officers from inquiring about the sexual practices of potential enlistees while effectively keeping homosexual soldiers in the closet–for now. Hours of expert testimony have dealt with the negative impact of open homosexuality on combat effectiveness, unit cohesion, and esprit de corps in the armed services. . . .

What the senators–and by extension, the public–saw illustrated was the prospect that the way of life that has preserved their freedom could be destroyed. Is it a way of life worth preserving? World sent Norm Bomer, editor of the God’s World current-events newspapers, to Nellis Air Force Base in Nevada, where the top guns of the top guns train, to observe military life firsthand. Here is his report.

The heads-up flight data display monitor blocked my view directly ahead. I couldn’t see the pilot, Col. Bentley Rayburn, until he leaned slightly to the side and peered around at me. His eyes twinkled from under his gray helmet. I knew his oxygen mask covered a joyous grin.

I grinned back with a thumbs up that belied unconvincingly my gripping nausea. I had adjusted the power air vents between my knees to hit me full in the face. I wasn’t sure Col. Rayburn could distinguish my skin from my olive drab flight suit. . . ."

The story goes on to show, through action, the esprit de corps of the flyers, and suggests that it can readily be threatened by congressmen who do not ask about it and do not care to listen when officers tell them.

The quotation lead is the second type of sparingly used opener. It often does not work because the quotation needs to be explained, and explanation slows down the story. But if a person is quoted while in action or in an evocative situation, a quotation lead can work, as in the following example.

Brian, a young scriptwriter, sinks deeper into his chair but speaks into his jacket collar loud enough to be heard. "A friend who was working on the set with River Phoenix last summer said that he was shooting heroin between his toes every day. What did I do with that? All I did was take it and gossip it. I didn’t intercede for him. I never prayed for River Phoenix."

There is a long moment of quiet in the fellowship hall at Sherman Oaks Presbyterian Church, where a normally chatty group of Hollywood writers, directors, and producers called Associates in Media has gathered for its monthly meeting.

The next day the coroner’s office for Los Angeles County will confirm that Phoenix, who collapsed Oct. 31 outside a Hollywood night club, died of a massive drug overdose.

The book-excerpt lead is the third type of sparingly used opener. It should only be used to present a gripping story directly tied to the theme of the article that brings in foreshadowing, foreboding, or some other form of drama, tension, or suspense. For example, a story about psychobabble began:

A man claims, "I am God." He is breathing hard and writhing. Richard Ganz hesitates, then responds by reading the New Testament: "False Christs and false prophets will arise."

The man suddenly calms down and asks what Ganz is reading from. Ganz gives him the New Testament. Four weeks later the man calmly walks into Ganz’s office and announces, "I want to become a Christian."

Richard Ganz was a clinical psychologist working at a state hospital. The man who claimed to be God had not spoken a word for several years. Nor did he speak again until he told Ganz that he wanted to convert. After that, however, he could not stop speaking of the healing power of Jesus Christ. He was able to leave the state hospital soon afterward, a changed man.

Shortly after he left, Ganz left too. Ganz was also a changed man. Before the incident he had been a secular psychologist who happened to be a Christian. But when confronted with an apparent incurable who suddenly wanted to know about the gospel, Ganz became a Christian counselor. His boss gave him a chance to apologize for using the Bible and pledge to sin no more, but he refused.

That account of Richard Ganz’s heresy and resulting excommunication from secular psychology is described in "Confessions of a Psychological Heretic," the first chapter of his forthcoming book Psychobabble: The Failure of Modern Psychology–and the Biblical Alternative. Ganz’s work is the latest sally in a battle taking place within evangelicaldom over the value of clinical psychotherapy within Christianity.

And the controversy is growing.

The essay lead is the fourth type of sparingly used opener. It lends itself to pontificating. For example, this lead came in a draft and had to be excised.

To most outsiders, Russia is a country with little hope. . . .

Still others think that Russia is stumbling toward stability. . . .

Both perspectives, however, are right. Russia is a country in economic and political despair, yet there are glimmers of hope that remain. . . .

This lead was actually throat clearing, a false lead before the story’s real beginning in a fourth paragraph that showed the "kiosks and tables all through the city that sell anything from live chickens to furniture. . . ."

Quantitatively and qualitatively, lead writers have great variety to choose from. The length of a lead often is tied to the length of the article–short for short, long for long. A good rule of thumb is that the lead should not be more than 10 percent of the story, but there is much leeway. The crucial point to keep in mind is that the lead should draw attention to the theme of the story, not to itself.

Lead construction is not either/or. It is not necessary to adopt one or another of the types of lead listed above; forms can be combined, as long as the lead does not dither but comes to a point. The following opener, for example, is both descriptive and anecdotal.

Inside a small Bedouin goods shop in Jerusalem’s Old City, the smell of strong Arab coffee cuts through the foreign aromas that have combined into a confusing but unforgettable blend. Outside the shop, a commotion . . . reaches a peak. Shouts and screams in Arabic are heard, and a moment later an Arab youth is carried away atop the shoulders of eight or 10 of his friends. His shirt is off and blood from knife-wounds flows freely. . . .

Nut grafs

What comes directly after the lead goes by many names–point statement, theme-paragraph thesis, justifier–but I like the pungent journalistic expression, nut graf.

The nut graf is the essence, the underlying idea of a story. Generally following an anecdotal or descriptive lead, the nut graf gives the basic news value and describes the significance of what the reader has just been shown. The nut graf is expository writing: After a lead that shows, the nut graf tells. The nut graf is vital because it explains that the story is not about an isolated incident, but that many people are affected.

Lack of a nut graf confuses readers and opens the door to dithering. Lack of one also wastes a good author’s tool: Once the nut graf is in place, sentences and paragraphs throughout the body can be measured against it and discarded if they do not help to make the point or provide reflection upon it.

The nut graf should be one paragraph, sometimes one sentence. Here are various examples:

This scenario is far-fetched, but proposed legislation in Congress that would establish a nation wide computer-tracking system for inoculations is getting a closer look.


And that’s not the only problem. The president is counting on national anxiety over a "health care crisis" to generate support for his plan. But the public is unsure that there’s really a crisis at all.


The shy, reclusive ninth-grade dropout from Texas has evolved into a despotic cult leader, able to command hundreds of followers and hold off 400 federal agents for days outside his dusty Mount Carmel compound.


NBC has handed a sword to those who believe that many journalists deserve skewering.

This abortionist shortage represents the soft underbelly of the multi-million dollar industry that has grown up around the concept of choice and personal sovereignty.


Prisons are in the news this month because a Republican-sponsored amendment to President Clinton’s crime bill (up for debate in both the House and the Senate) sets aside $3 billion for new jails. But Christian leaders are divided over whether more prisons are necessary.

You should remember that readers want news, but they want it in an interesting, lively way. They want color but need connection. You can kill two birds with one nut graf–draw the reader forward by hinting at what is coming.

Here is an example of how to go from lead to nut. First, you powerfully present the situation.

They kicked open his door in the middle of the night during a power outage last month, blinded him with flashlights while others in the house were being beaten and interrogated. Six others who accompanied Dennis Balcombe on that trip to mainland China last month were arrested as well. Three are still missing, at first rumored to be executed, but now said to be held without being allowed visitors.

Then comes the nut graf:

Dennis Balcombe sees little of the progress China is claiming in its human rights record, progress the Clinton administration says must be made before China’s Most Favored Nation trade status is extended in June. China, Balcombe says after his four-day ordeal, is repeating the atrocities of Mao.

An investigative report often presents the subject in action. First comes the lead.

Satanists and the demon-possessed show up frequently in Bob Larson’s ministry, and they love to dial 1-800-821-TALK for apocalyptic showdowns with the energetic radio talk-show host. For two hours every day, via satellite from Denver, almost 200 radio stations across the country hear Larson’s slugfest with the supernatural, "Talk-Back" with Bob Larson.

"What do you want? Mr. Milquetoast?" he says in a promotional tape. "Hey, flip the dial. This is me, this is real, this is ‘Talk-Back.’"

Then the nut graf:

But 13 past Larson associates interviewed for this story–nine speaking openly, four confidentially–challenge Larson’s public image.

The follies of secular liberalism often lead to a three-part lead-nut opening. First comes the news, with an emphasis on how big media spun it.

Nine women members of Congress marched last week in an attempt to swing the vote on demoting Adm. Frank Kelso upon his retirement–just as some women marched during the Anita Hill—Clarence Thomas hearings. The press covered last week’s march with the same ear for righteous indignation given to Miss Hill and her supporters among the nation’s feminist leaders.

Second, spotlight the contradiction.

But so far, no one has marched for Paula Jones. In fact, most people haven’t heard of the 27-year-old woman who states that she was sexually harassed by then-governor Bill Clinton in 1991. Nor have the press or feminist leaders taken up her cause–one based on more evidence than was Miss Hill’s.

Third, provide the explanatory nut (and sometimes a good quotation works well here).

"It’s politics, pure and simple," says Tim Graham, associate editor of Media Watch."There’s such a dramatic difference between this and the response to the charges made by Anita Hill. With Anita Hill, there was no need to check her background, to check her witnesses, to check her facts. The Washington Post ran the Anita Hill allegations the day after the story broke. But now, it says it’s taking months to investigate Paula Jones’s allegations."

The nut graf is a highly directed part of World reporting style. By itself, it can be obnoxious; but when it follows specific detail and leads into a strong body, readers need and value it.

Running the Race: The Body of the Story

Many stories that start well become mushy in the middle: There is no sequence of ideas and sensations, no pattern of cause and effect, no narrative, no pearls–just puddles. Here is where it is important to turn constantly to the nut graf, and to remember that your goal is to convey information in support of that point. Ask yourself every step of the way as you write: What is my point?

Writers who are trained in writing for newspapers or writing for children sometimes fear long sentences, on the theory that they slow down readers. Actually, a well-organized longer sentence takes no longer to read than a series of short sentences, because periods are like stop signs. The real issue is complexity of material. The more complicated the idea, the shorter the sentences and paragraphs should be, in order to slow down the reader. But a narrative sentence can be long if it is good.

Keep thinking of readers, and then help them by relating the unknown to the known (for example, faraway place X is like nearby place Y). Do not overuse confusing statistics or technical information: A little goes a long way. Translate jargon into regular English, and give a face to a fact by explaining macro matters in human terms: Let the small represent the large.

Keeping readers in mind is especially important when dealing with big numbers. Instead of merely noting that the national debt is about $5 trillion, you should point out that there are about 100 million taxpayers; thus the average taxpayer’s portion of the national debt is about $50,000. Instead of merely mentioning that New York spent $2 billion in ten years on 25,000 homeless persons, you should do the division problem for the skimming reader and note that the per person per year expenditure was $8000.

Logical transitions also contribute to the cause of moving readers from one chunk of information to the next. Write tightly, but do not neglect transitional words such as and, but, nevertheless, still, meanwhile. Do not bury good information in the middle of a paragraph. Key points of emphasis are the beginnings and ends of sentences, paragraphs, and stories. Your best stuff should be in the most emphatic locations.

Some editors use readability formulas. Rudolph Flesch in the 1940s had a famous one: He called seventeen to nineteen words per sentence ideal, and desired 150 syllables per one hundred words. Robert Gunning’s "fog index" in the 1960s had writers adding the average number of words per sentence and the percentage of words having three or more syllables, then multiplying by 0.4 to determine the number of years of school the reader would need in order to understand.

Practical literacy has decreased during the past three decades, so it is even more important to pay attention to reading capacities. Still, commonsense checking may work better than formulas. For example, reader-friendly prose places the subject before the verb, uses the active voice rather than the passive, and uses the past tense. Some novice writers think that present tense is better because it supposedly makes the action more immediate, but it also can make reporting sound like a breathless romance novel.

The most important thing to remember throughout the body of the article is the inclusion of specific detail. Beginning writers often fall in love with their material and try to compress anecdotes and description so they can force everything in. Sometimes even experienced reporters with a lot to say cut out descriptive and narrative material so they can include all their points. But good stories require showing, not telling, and showing takes space: Selection, not compression, is the key.

You may also find it possible to use quotations more concisely. Try not to quote more than a sentence at a time (unless the goal is to throw a spotlight on the sentences themselves, as in this book). When quotations just state facts, put them in your own words, unless it is important that a particular person is acknowledging a particular fact. Quote colorful words: "The sacks are juiced" is better than, "The bases are loaded."

In general, end quotations with "he said," unless you want to call attention to his particular way of saying. Noted implies that you agree with what the speaker is saying, argued that you disagree. Maintained means he is sticking to his story, insisted means that he is under fire. When in doubt, stick to said–it moves the story along, without calling attention to words of attribution.

Try to use, subtly, some literary devices, such as alliteration (words in a sentence beginning with the same initial letter), assonance (same internal sound), and onomatopoeia, which features the sounds of a word or words suggesting the meaning: Bees buzz.

Another way to summarize material quickly is to quote public-policy jargon but, instead of going on about it, merely place the question under the biblical lens.

He defines behavioral poverty as a "cluster of social pathologies including dependency and eroding work ethic, lack of educational aspiration and achievement, inability to control one’s children, increased single parenthood and illegitimacy, criminal activity, and drug and alcohol abuse."

In a word, sin.

Journalists sometimes fall into some of the mistakes listed above, but if you are a typical writer you will be particularly susceptible to the sin of coveting so-called inspiration and not working unless you have it. Remember, though, that although good writers work in a variety of ways, they all work hard. Some prefer morning, some afternoon; some write by hand, some type at computers; some need silence, some do well with children running through the room. The common denominator in success is perseverance: keeping at it, staying with it. Like a baseball player, you might get a hit the first time up and then strike out four times. Similarly, you might strike out in the first inning and hit a game-winning home run in the ninth.

When you do get stuck, ask yourself if you have done enough reporting. If the answer is yes and you still are stuck, you might try to describe to a friend what you saw or found out; type your good quotations, write lead-ins and follow-ups to them, and then eliminate some of the quotations; imagine yourself telling the story to a child–and then, and then. When the writing is going very poorly, you might try typing a page or two quickly without worrying about the sense of it; then print out the page(s), circle what is important, and rearrange the circled materials into an outline.

Other writing tips include: Be sure to identify in some way the people you quote or cite; vary sentence structure and length; and–as T. S. Eliot said when a young writer asked for advice–when it is cold, wear long underwear. For a good, brief compilation of basic stylistic pointers, you might pick up the classic and readily available little book by Will Strunk and E. B. White entitled The Elements of Style.

Endings give readers a sense of closure and a sense that the writer knows what he is doing. You need to ask yourself what you want the reader to remember; often, last is most in memory. You should compare the lead and the ending: They should make the same point. (Sometimes, they can be more effective if switched.)

Of the several different types of endings, summary endings (like summary leads) are functional but weak. Four popular kinds of endings are the metaphorical, the next step, the nail-it-shut, and the circular. With all four kinds, do not hesitate to appeal to the emotions as well as to the intellect.

A metaphorical ending works well when you want to evoke a response either by making a biblical reference or placing the problem you have reported on in some other cultural context. For example, a story on the highly publicized tug-of-war concerning an adopted child ended, "No one is proposing that the child be cut in half physically; most people are hoping that Jessica will not be sliced and diced emotionally."

The next-step ending tells readers what happened after the time span emphasized in the article. Here is the end of a story about a woman who did abortions in China but escaped having one herself.

As for Chi An and her family, they live in the southwestern United States. Now that Mahwae is in kindergarten, Chi An is studying for her nursing credentials. She hopes one day to work in a maternity ward, helping to deliver babies, not destroy them.

The nail-it-shut quotation has one of the persons quoted strongly elucidating the story’s central theme.

"At his funeral, they were saying what a tragedy it was–that Gary was a Christian and had even been a missionary. I didn’t know anything about that part of his life. I knew he was a good officer, a good person. But I told God right then that people I ride with aren’t going to hear [for the first time] at my funeral that I was a Christian. I knew I had to do better at letting people know what I am. Because like I said, without God I couldn’t make it."

We have already discussed circular structure in stories; circular endings that bring back for a final look a central character of the article can increase reader identification.

A full set of logging equipment for a site operation is called a side. It includes a yarder (a diesel-powered dragline and tower), a shovel, and a cat. In 1988, Jim Gold owned three complete logging sides, employed 14 men, and had a net worth of $700,000. It’s all gone. . . .

"When you’ve lost everything, threats don’t matter," he says. "We’ve got no fight left."

In all these types, look to make a Christocentric point if you can do so without preaching at readers or seeming smarmy. An article about illegal Chinese immigrants in jail ended powerfully.

One detainee’s wife wrote to him and warned him not to return, unless his new God was a powerful one.

"As to your pursuit of Christianity, as mentioned in your letter, I will leave it up to you to decide whether you want to believe it or not," she wrote. "It is very dangerous to come home now. The village officials are still working on your case, which is why I am still in hiding. You know very well the consequences. If deported, your fate wouldn’t be better than the one who took his life. I can only hope you can be saved by the Jesus that you mentioned in your letter. I hope you can count on the power of Jesus to avert the unthinkable."

Now as in the past, only that power can yank humanity out of sin and individual men and women from the clutches of those still totally captive to it.

The job of traditional newspaper headlines, like leads, is to tell the essence of the story. Magazine headlines, however, are designed to draw the reader into the story. Since magazine headlines can more readily evoke and provoke than their newspaper counterparts, there is room for occasional wit.

Some of my favorite headlines, of the many excellent ones written by World managing editor Nickolas Eicher, are "No Advance, No Retreat," to discuss Newt Gingrich’s decision to turn down a book advance but stick with his writing plans; "PC on the Pecos," concerning a review of a new, ideologically up-to-date Disney movie, Tall Tale; "God Save the Monarch," over a story concerning butterflies; "," for a story about computer pornography, pedophiles, and children; "Political Science," for an article about how the federal government’s subsidies for scientific projects do better at propping up particular interests than promoting breakthroughs; and "Foundation of Lies," concerning the Foundation for New Era Philanthropy’s pyramid scheme.

There are some technical details to be mastered, but the bottom line on these top lines should be: Have fun.

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