Lessons I’ve learned on writing better ledes

Beginnings say as much about who begins them as they do about what they begin.

Journalists and writers, of professional kind or independent and online, take very seriously the ledes they produce and how others see them.

It’s very likely that I have had harsher scrutiny for ledes I’ve written than for anything else, and it’s even more likely you’ve found the same. Thusly, I’ve gotten lots of lede lessons through the years, particularly those with a bite or two that are worth sharing.

Below, lessons I’ve learned about crafting a strong lede. Share your own, so I can add to this list.

  1. The rule: Don’t bury the lede
    My mistake: There is a difference between a soft, feature lede to tell a story and simply stringing a reader on for too long before making it clear what’s the story’s point. It’s a delicate balance and something we all grapple with in the industry, myself absolutely included.
    The reasoning: If you want to write a novel, get a publisher, an editor once told me. Online writing, newspapers and magazines have always been pithy media, so to understand that, spice in your storytelling with a solid point.
  2. The rule: Don’t use a quotation
    My mistake: I once submitted a story to Allentown Morning Call state Capitol reporter John Micek in which I took a quote from a particularly quotable government activist.
    The reasoning: Only one time in all of history will a quotation be admissible in a lede,” he told me. That’ll read: “I’m back,” Jesus said. More broadly, don’t give a single source so much power over the story as to lead it.
  3. The rule: Avoid cliches, like these
    My mistake: An Inquirer story of mine fell into the ‘just another day on the job’ catch.
    The reasoning: Simply nothing more unforgivable exists in modern writing. No faster way to turn off readers exists.
  4. The rule: “To use ‘and’ in a lede, you better have a good reason and think about it twice.”
    My mistake: Hell, I still spend a good portion of my writing career trying to jam as many phrases and flowery language into my first sentence.
    The reasoning: A lede is meant to welcome, first, and inform second. Don’t overburden the reader too early. Keep your writing tight, particularly in the start.
  5. The rule: “There are no reasons for using ‘There are’ to lede a story.”
    My mistake: Handing a former Washington Post executive editor this column of mine from my college newspaper.
    The reasoning: Give the reader a strong noun or verb within four words, and ‘there are’ can almost always be replaced. i.e. “There are a handful of fresh sculptures at 11th and York streets,” could easily and perhaps more powerfully become “[Five] fresh sculptures stand naked in the wind at 11th and York streets.

These posts take a more academic approach but aren’t half bad: seen here, here and here.

What other rules have I missed?

4 thoughts on “Lessons I’ve learned on writing better ledes”

  1. Thanks for these techniques. This is very useful when starting to write a story, especially the critical top few paragraphs: Karen

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