How to Write a Lead Paragraph

By Mark Nichol

Absent — or in spite of — a photograph or other visual information, the headline is the first thing most readers notice. But even the most captivating headline has to be followed by a lead paragraph (known in journalistic jargon as a lede) that convinces the reader that the article is worth reading.

What’s the function of a lede? (The odd spelling supposedly derives from the tradition of distinguishing the noun lead or the adjectival form in “lead paragraph” from the homonym lead, as in “lead type.”) An article is a story, and the lede is the pitch to woo the reader. But that analogy is of dubious use if your storytelling overtures are along the lines of “Let me tell you about this crazy thing that happened to me today” — no more useful than clearing your throat or shuffling papers before you give a speech. In person, your audience might patiently and politely await your account, but readers, knowing you’re not there to have your feelings hurt, will likely not hesitate to move on.

But what if you cut to the chase and said, “A guy pulled a gun on me today”? Your audience will almost certainly invest some time and effort into hearing what comes next. By the same token, a lede must be constructed to attract attention.

What content, exactly, goes into a lede? The first paragraph of an article provides the main points without digressing into details; those can follow in subsequent paragraphs. A lede tells the reader something interesting and/or newsworthy, providing context and perspective. Ideally, it speaks to the reader’s curiosity, and perhaps their desires or fears. It might introduce conflict or controversy.

The traditional lede for a news article includes what journalists call the 5 Ws (and sometimes an H thrown in for good measure): This term is shorthand for who, what, when, where, and why (plus how). Of course, a lede that includes all five (or six) elements is usually overstuffed; it’s better to focus only a couple or at most a few of these. (One of the most celebrated newspaper-article ledes, in reference to a man who was shot and killed because he attacked a fast-food worker over an order of fried chicken, tells you only who and what — and is reticent about the what: “Gary Robinson died hungry.”)

The challenge to writing a good lede is achieving both specificity and brevity. To be specific, remember who and its friends. Pick one, or another question, to answer, and wrap the lede around it. To accomplish brevity (ideally, a lede should consist of less than thirty words), choose strong, vivid nouns and verbs, eschew verbosity and redundancy, and make every word count. To test the lede, read it aloud, and omit adjectives, adverbs, and wordy constructions — and, especially in these search-engine-driven times, focus on keywords.

To craft an effective lede, avoiding writing what readers already know and telling readers what you’re going to tell them. Keep to one point, and avoid attribution and specific numbers (an exception to the specificity rule). Think of the lede as an elevator speech — the proverbial opportunity to sell your story to a movie producer or book publisher with a brief pitch during the interval the two of you share an elevator ride. This is your chance; take it.

What if you just can’t put a lede together? Write a placeholder sentence, and come back to it later after you’ve completed the rest of the article — the result may show you the way. You might also think about potential ledes before you even begin to report or research, or during the process. You may not end up using anything you come up with at that stage, but it will get you thinking.

Also, keep in mind that the traditional journalistic lede isn’t the only way to go. Besides the summary form, there’s also the anecdotal lede, the question, the quotation, and the direct approach — or a combination of forms.

Remember “A guy pulled a gun on me today”? Though the question, quotation, and direct forms are challenging to pull off, the anecdotal form, a hallmark of what is called narrative journalism or narrative nonfiction, is increasingly popular and often intuitively constructed. Here’s the lede to a true first-person story I might write: “I had always wondered how I would react if someone pulled a gun on me. Today, I found out.”

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7 Responses to “How to Write a Lead Paragraph”

  • ApK

    Wow. I miss lede paragraphs. Back when people who wrote news articles were journalists, and had the mission of reporting news, you could skim a newspaper for headlines and lede paragraphs and know what was going on.

    Those days seem long gone, replaced by people who’s mission seems to be to get a book deal or TV hosting slot, or to act as advocate for some personal opinion, and opening paragraphs that seem to serve no purpose but to allow the writer to try to show off what they learned in creative writing class.

  • Gordon Havens

    As a rookie journalism student-reporter at the University of Missouri in the early 70s, I often struggled to come up with a good lead. By the time I graduated, my struggle was which of a dozen good leads to use. Practice makes fertile.

  • Nicole

    a journalism instructor of mine told me that journalists spell “lead” and other markup words incorrectly so as not to indicate “insert the word ‘lead'” or whatever.

  • Tom

    Wonderful piece!
    Would love to see something about crafting reaction and/or response essays.
    Thanks!

  • Stephen Thorn

    A caveat: A stage magician learns not to foretell what he’s about to do (ex.: “Now I’m going to pull a rabbit out of this hat,”) because his audience won’t be surprised by the trick when it happens. This causes them to lose interest in his performance and he may never get it back completely. A similar thing can happen with your lede if you overdo it and put too much into that opening paragraph. Hook your reader and reel them in, but don’t give them so much information that they don’t need to read further.

  • Jevon

    Always hook them with a captivating intro like a story, and cut to the chase. I agree.

  • ApK

    Steven: “Hook your reader and reel them in, but don’t give them so much information that they don’t need to read further.”

    For the opening paragraph of chapter fiction story, this is good advice.

    For a lede paragraph in a news story, it’s…how can I put it kindly….scummy. Like the TV News promos that go “Poison in a popular baby food…we’ll tell you which one at 11….”

    Fact is, if you can tell the readers everything they’d want or need to know in a paragraph, then that’s exactly how long the piece should be.

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