Saluting the most scintillating leads of the year

Regardless of platform or publication, your lead paragraphs must
grab the reader.

There are
many methods to writing captivating, compelling leads—enticing storytelling salvos that
propel readers into your piece—but it’s a delicate art that requires a deft
editorial touch.

[FREE GUIDE: How any communicator can bring life to dull stories]

Roy Peter Clark, senior scholar at The Poynter Institute, has compiled a “Best Pulitzer
Lead” list for four years now, and
he’s just published this year’s winners.

Clark’s criteria for the honorees include:

  • I will, in most cases, only consider the lead of the first story in
    any entry, unless one jumps up and pokes me in the eye.
  • Categories compete against each other. Leads are leads.

  • Long leads are not punished, but shorter ones get extra points.

  • If I don’t get the point of the story in three paragraphs, you are,
    as we say in Pulitzer judging, “thrown under the table.”

  • Unusual elements get extra points, as long as they don’t distract
    from the focus of the story.

Julie Johnson of The Press Democrat in Santa Rosa, California, nabbed top honors for this jarring “narrative
action” intro:

Cal Fire Battalion Chief Gino DeGraffenreid was about to jump back into
his truck after loading a fleeing family into a police car when he
thought he heard someone yelling amid the roaring wind and fire in the
hills northeast of Santa Rosa.

He ran toward the voice and saw them: a couple wearing next to nothing,
freezing amid an unprecedented fire belching smoke and raining

“They were soaking wet,” DeGraffenreid said. “They had awoken to a
smoke detector, jumped in the pool and for about an hour had been in
the pool trying to stay away from heat.”

He wrapped them in T-shirts, put them into his truck and caravanned
with police down Michele Way to Mark West Springs Road, a white-knuckle
trip with fire and intense heat — a burning neighborhood already wiped
clean of all that had once been so familiar.

“All of the landmarks — the houses, the fences, the goofy Volkswagen
bug — all of the visual landmarks were gone,” DeGraffenreid said.

John Archibald, who’s been serving up hearty helpings of comeuppance and accountability
to Alabama’s powers that be since the ’80s (and who also just won a “real”
Pulitzer for commentary), was recognized for
this roast of Biblical proportions:

I’m starting to think they’re reading from a different Bible up in
Etowah County.

Maybe Roy Moore thumped the thing so hard the words got mixed up.

“Let us prey.”

Clark also recognized three “honorable mention” leads:

  • Rachel Kaadzi Ghanash, for her profile of mass murderer Dylann Roof.
  • Jerry Saltz, who wrote about the Obamas’ official portraits for Vulture.
  • The Arizona Republic and USA Today Network, for a piece about President Trump’s proposed border wall.

Communicators of every ilk can benefit from reading laudable leads. Whether
you’re writing for an internal or external audience—or if it’s on social
media, a marketing blog or a press release—the principles remain the same.
You have to work to woo and hook your readers, and it starts with your

Read the rest of Clark’s insights and explanations about his “Best Pulitzer
Lead” selections
here, and let this year’s winners inspire your own writing.

(Image via)


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