Tips on writing a great lede (or lead): Are you doing it right?
Updated: Jul 19, 2019
If you are going to put your name on anything as a writer, it better have a great beginning. Journalists call it the lede (that's how we spell it), and it is the foundation upon which everything you write after it is based.
A lede (or lead) is the introductory sentence or opening paragraph of a news story, and the goal of the writer is to give the reader the main points of the story in as few words as possible. A great lede sets the stage, it hooks the reader with crucial information, and it makes an otherwise mundane article stand out.
I'd go so far as to say in the readers' eyes, it separates a good writer from a great one.
With that said, writing a quality lede isn't easy. So how do you know you're doing it right?
If you scour the Internet long enough, you will find plenty of opinions on everything from the preferred length of a lede (no longer than 35-40 words) to what rules you should follow or even break. Much of it boils down to a few basic principles:
1. Write in the active voice
2. Write tight
3. Cover the who, what, when, where, why and how
4. Add context
5. Be specific
(From the Dallas Morning News)
A 22-year-old man was arrested after leading authorities on a motorcycle chase from Ellis County through Dallas County late Wednesday night.
(Or this lede from the New York Times after the Chicago Cubs won the World Series)
CLEVELAND – If you are going to endure years – no, generations – of futility and heartbreak, when you do finally win a World Series championship, it may as well be a memorable one.
There are plenty more examples of great lede writing, and if you truly are serious about your writing, the lede – whether it be for a straight news story, a sports article, or a human interest feature story – will dominate your creative juices until you get it right. I've often found writing the first two, three, or even four paragraphs of a detailed article to be incredibly time consuming and draining from a creative standpoint. But when I've got it where I want it, the rest of the article flows so much easier.
Here is the beginning of an article I wrote about a high school basketball player who had suitors from several Division I college programs, but ultimately chose a small school.
Argyle’s Vivian Gray could have gone anywhere to play college basketball. She just redefined anywhere.
Gray, one of the nation’s most coveted high school basketball recruits, whose suitors include Texas, Baylor, Rice, Oklahoma State and others, confirmed Tuesday she will sign this afternoon with Fort Lewis College — a Division II program in Durango, Colorado — on the first day of the early signing period.
The goal was to make the reader want to hear more! Why did this great young athlete make that decision? Did I hook you? I hope so! I see the lede as an art form that continually needs tweaking. I'm not perfect at it, but I'm trying. Sometimes you hit it out of the park, other times you may not. But it's the pursuit that makes being a writer fun!
Here are 4 more tips to think about when trying to come up with a great lede:
Don't be robotic – No two stories are the same, so avoid making all your ledes sound the same. Stand out by thinking outside the box. What is the article about and how would the reader want this story presented? Maybe a hard news lede isn't the answer, but instead an anecdotal or delayed lede. You're a writer, be creative!
Don't get too cute – I talk to young journalists all the time about avoiding the temptation to get too cute with their writing. When I say that, I mean keep it simple! Sure, you want to be creative. But when you try to cram too much information into a single paragraph, or you try to get too wordy, the idea seems forced and the reader becomes confused.
Be willing to spend time – The top of your article is unbelievably crucial, so expect to spend the majority of your time crafting the best lede possible. If you do, the reader is more likely to read the rest of the article. An editor of mine once told me that if he were writing a lengthy piece that would take him roughly 10 hours to write, he'd spend more than half of that time perfecting the first four or five paragraphs.
Perfect your interview skills – What? Yes, your interview skills are an important piece to crafting a great lede. If you aren't asking the right questions, or you aren't taking the time to actively listen to your sources or the situation as you watch it unfold, you won't come close to understanding the heart of the story. Hence, you can't set the stage.
I hope this blog was helpful. If you have any questions, please don't hesitate to give me a call.
Thank you so much for reading!
*STEVE GAMEL is the Owner/President of Edit This, a writing and editing services company located in Denton, TX. Along with being a sports writer for the Denton Record-Chronicle, Steve handles anything involving the written word. Give him a call today to help give your business a clear voice.