This is something I recently felt compelled to share with some young writers at the beginning of their careers as journalists. Tell me what you think.
There is an art to writing a good lede, but not everyone masters it without effort.
To be sure, there are lede-writing artists out there, people who know how to construct just the right combination of words to grab a reader’s attention, pull them into a story, and propel them into the body of it – with grace.
Those lede-masters never lose a reader.
A lede has to make people want to read your story, which means that it has to grab their attention and hold it – but just a little while. The main weight of a story is borne by the rest of the story. The lead paragraph is like the hero in many an adventure tale – carrying the attack first with a small force, while waiting for the cavalry to arrive.
The good news is that like many aspects of art, writing a good lede is a skill that can be learned. So here are a few tips, followed up with some examples to demonstrate that good ledes of differing styles have crucial elements in common: they’re always easy to read, and they’re written with the knowledge that the first paragraph is not the whole story.
Tip 1: Keep it tight. The lede in a newspaper should not be more than 25 words, as a general rule. Why? Attention spans wane if you go on too long. So even if more than 25 words are necessary (which is sometimes the case), the writer’s goal should be to get the reader into the body of the story as soon as possible.
A lede should be a concise entry point into the story. It does not need to tell you everything in the story in one paragraph. Rather, the role of the lede is to set up what comes next.
One advantage is that the headline will already have let readers know the general subject matter of the story. History and studies of news readers show that they first scan headlines (or look at the picture, if there is one), then they look for other quick ways to determine if they want to read or keep reading. The lede, therefore, needs to give them some incentive to keep reading. It needs to do so with an economy of words – not so many that it puts the reader to sleep.
Tip 2: Always lead with the news in your lede. Consider what the audience already knows. Many an inexperienced writer will have to tackle a subject that someone else has already written about. It’s the nature of the news business. And the inexperience shows when that writer attempts in the lede to summarize everything that has happened on the subject, before actually telling the reader the news – that is, what’s new. But it is very possible that the reader is already familiar with what went on before – particularly if it’s been written about several times in the past. The only one new to the story might be the new writer.
So a good rule of thumb is, always lead with the news in your lede. If you’re writing about gun control, you do not have to give the reader the history of gun control in the lede. Your job is to first tell them what has happened lately that they may not know about. Then, after you’ve brought them up to speed on the latest, give them the history in context so they see how recent developments advance the issue.
Tip 3: Write it quickly, then come back to it. Sometimes the lede is the first stone in writer’s block, because a writer can get hung up on the worthy effort of trying to make it perfect. My advice: write the best lede you can as quickly as you can, then proceed to the main body of the story. When the main body of the story is done, return to the lede. Re-read your lede, and then rewrite your lede. You will find that having the rest of the story clearly in mind will often help crystallize what the lede needs to be.
Tip 4: Keep working on it. Just as every story will be different, every lede should be different. And just as practice makes perfect in your writing (cliché, but basically true), your ledes will continually improve if you keep working on them every time you have a story assignment.
If you’re a seasoned writer, you may not need these tips, but maybe you can join the discussion. What do you think makes a good lede?