Your news story’s lede is its first sentence (or paragraph), which succinctly tells readers what your story is about while piquing their interest enough to get them to read further into the story.
As traditional news stories are written in the inverted pyramid format, you’ll want to cover all of the major points of the event on which you are reporting right off the bat.
With that in mind, it is important that you ask yourself the following three questions when sculpting your lede:
- Did I provide my readers with the most important points in my story?
- Is my lede interesting enough that people will want to keep reading?
- Is my lede short and crisp?
The Five W’s
You can answer the first question by determining if you’ve covered the five ‘W’ question words in your lede paragraph. Who is the story about? What happened? Where? Why? When did this take place?
Keep in mind that you can be creative in your word choice in answering these questions, and that leaving a little bit of gray area in answering one of the questions in favor of placing specifics a paragraph or two later might help in keeping your readers’ interest piqued. As with all writing, this is a matter of discretion, and these rules should only be broken when you’ve gotten the basics of lede writing down pat.
Keep ‘em Hooked
Since all of your main points will be appearing in the very beginning of your story, there won’t be much room for suspense for your readers. That’s why it’s important that you practice writing ledes that are interesting enough to keep your readers engaged and reading further into the story for more details.
Often, this is as simple as practicing sentence structure and word choice. What makes people respond? Can I get them to respond to my lede on a humanistic level — will they laugh? Respond with shock? Does my lede fit the tone of the story I’m covering?
It is also possible to write a lede that both provides enough information for the reader and leaves them asking questions. You can accomplish this by leaving a bit of gray area in answering one of the five W’s — most often the ‘why’ (or ‘how’).
Crisp and Clean
Your lede must be short and to the point, but rich in information.
It’s often not easy for the new journalist to balance these two qualities, but once you have it down, your readers (and editors) will thank you.
The Delayed Lede
There is, of course, an exception to the rules, which is most often used in feature writing — the delayed lede.
Feature stories allow for the journalist to write with a bit more creative freedom and structural malleability. As these pieces often come with a heavy dose of the human condition, you are allowed to bury the main point of your story a few paragraphs down in favor of shaking your reader out of the doldrums of headline-skimming.
Here is an example of the first paragraphs a feature story I wrote on illegal immigration in the summer of 2009. You’ll notice that I focus these paragraphs on grabbing the readers’ attention and on getting them to react emotionally to the subject than to explaining right away what the story is about:
Jesus Hernandez Arias lay in the Arizona desert, half-blind and freezing.
Dawn was approaching on March 11, 26. It was cold –- no more than 45 degrees -– and winds upwards of 35 mph only added to the discomfort brought on by obstinate, unrepentant rain.
Hernandez, a 43-year-old diabetic, had by now lost almost all feeling in his extremities, and his vision amounted to nothing more than varying shades of black. He worried about his blood glucose level, the possibility of paralysis or death.
The lede is easily the hardest part in writing a news story. Journalists can spend the majority of their time dedicated to writing on that first paragraph. It’s painful to perfect. But once you’ve got it down, the rest of your story will flow from your fingertips. For more information on writing your lede, check out these resources:
- How to Write a Great Lede, About.com
- The Lead, by Columbia journalism professor Melvin Mencher
- Calling the beginning of a story a ‘lede’ is just another form of nostalgia, a piece by Steve Myers on why we still spell ‘lede’ the way we do