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Making the Headlines

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Message Richmond Shreve

Originally Published on OpEdNews

Whether you are a first time Op-Ed contributor, or have already been published, you will find value in this very simple and direct formula for approaching news so that a strong story almost writes itself. But more than that, these concepts will help you earn rapid publication, and favorable placement. It's all about writing for the reader and editor.

News readers tend to scan. They scan headlines, they scan the first paragraph if the headline hooks them, and they read the whole piece if it flows and builds logically from a basic concept. The last paragraph clinches what you set out to communicate.

That's what it's about isn't it? -- getting your point across memorably. You fail if the headline fails to interest, or if the first few sentences don't draw the editor and the reader in. The formula I'm advocating here is not a set of hide bound rules, but rather a model, one that you can modify creatively to suit the subject. But using it it will let you make a very good first draft, one that makes any needed rewrite easy and obvious.

How to Begin

I like to take a blank sheet of paper and map out the ideas and how they connect. I pick a word or two symbolize the core idea, and write it in the middle of the sheet. Around that I cluster other words to represent the main arguments, facts, questions, players, etc. In other words I scatter the elements of the story around the center theme. For very complex stories, I might redo this process, grouping and connecting words with lines. Tony Buzan calls this "Mind Mapping." Nothing is better to break writer's block and get the creative juices flowing.

Although this doesn't take long, an interesting thing happens. Without writing a complete sentence, that mapping process forms the embryo of the story in my mind. It's organized there with all the concepts, leaving only the word-smithing to make it real.

The Lede

"Lede" is the newspaper term for the first paragraph of a story that tells what it's about and entices the reader to continue. You don't necessarily need to disclose your whole point, but you want to entice the reader and define the scope of your article. To begin your article, write the lede without trying to polish it much; the final phrasing will be easier after you complete the draft.

The Body

The paragraphs following the lead should develop only the essential and most important elements that make clusters in your map. Each paragraph should be a complete idea. Use a series of paragraphs to develop the theme that leads to your conclusion or call to action. If there are several such themes, you may find that sub-headings will help the reader get the over-arching concept that you are presenting.

The Close

The close is where you repeat the essence of what you want the reader to take away from reading your article. It answers the question: what was the story about? It could be very literally a succinct two or three sentence summary, or it could be something that evokes the main point: a rhetorical question, a call to action, or a logical conclusion. By reading only the lede and the close you should have a pretty good sense of what the story says.


In the early days of newspapers, reporters phoned in their stories and left it to a "rewrite desk" to craft the story. The editor who did the rewrite would create the lede, the body, and the close. Often another editor would write the headline. You need to be your own rewrite editor. Here are some criteria:

  1. Verify that each and every paragraph informs or develops the theme in the lede or it supports the close. Kill the ones that don't - they are flab.
  2. Check the logic for obvious unanswered questions and/or the need to addressa likely contrary point of view. Avoid triggering skepticism by errors of omission.
  3. Fact check your assertions, and add sources where possible. Be rigorous if it controversial. The facts must be right, your opinion is what it is perceived to be.
  4. Direct quotes enliven the writing. Use them and attribute them. If the quote is essential evidence for your conclusions consider verifying it with the source.
  5. Add photos and illustrations. Always attribute them properly.
  6. Rephrase the lede to increase its "hooking" power.
  7. Rephrase the close to make it more memorable.
  8. Rephrase the title. It not only needs to hook interest, it should have keywords you want search engines to index.

No serious writer expects to publish the first draft; and many discard it altogether. The real craft lies in the rewrite, not the creative explosion of the first phrasing. Compact, well crafted prose will reach more readers, and affect them more deeply.

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Richmond Shreve is a former Senior Editor at OEN, a writer, and an author of short stories. His "Lost River Anthology" ( was released in March 2009. His "Instructor Candidate Manual" ( is widely used by motorsport clubs to train (more...)
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