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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