How to write a good lede.*

Writing a good lede* is one of the most formidable challenges any journalist faces.  You’ve got an instant to catch readers’ attention or lose them forever.  You’ve got to find an organizing idea in a notebook full of information, ideas and quotes.   No wonder even the most experienced journalists quake at the prospect.

Over the years, we’ve shared lots of ideas for how to write better ledes. Our favorite description comes from the legendary nonfiction writer and Princeton teacher John McPhee, who said a good lede serves as a “flashlight shining down into the story.”  A good lede, then, not only entices the reader to find out more but illuminates where the story is headed.

Our best advice, based on the problems we see most often in student work, is to keep it simple.  Take the time to think about what your story is about, the organizing theme you want to explain and illustrate to the reader.  Then choose a simple, powerful way to reflect this theme.  Don’t try to tell the whole story in a single paragraph.  And don’t, in the words of Craft Professor Wayne Svoboda, let the perfect be the enemy of the good.  Write your best idea for a lede and realize you can come back to refine it later.

Channon Hodge caught our attention with the way she got into what could’ve been a routine story about a ceremony to officially open a new housing complex in Harlem:

A new 11-story building overlooks the river on 140th Street in West Harlem. It has a rooftop terrace, new Energy Star appliances and its very own library. It also has its very own clientele: More than half of the apartments are reserved for ex-convicts.

Channon manages to lure the reader with the building’s amenities but then closes the deal with her punchline  — half the apartments are reserved for ex-convicts.  Note, too, the deft use of parallelism to set up the punchline: ‘its very own library’ and ‘its very own clientele.’ She managed, as Jere Hester noted, to accomplish a lot in relatively few words and still maintain a nice sense of style.

“This is a good time to start working on the craft of getting to the point quickly and concisely while finding your own sense of style,” said Hester.  “Part of the key is building the confidence to take control of the story and tell the reader what’s the news here. I would encourage young reporters not to bury the best material or detail — let the cream of the story rise to the top and give us a quick taste up top.”

The art of reporting

Matt Draper thought he had a story about the vendors at the U.S. Open only to find out there weren’t any.  So, in the best CUNY tradition of think-on-your-feet reporting, he found another angle — the lone hot dog vendor allowed into the grounds of the tennis fortnight.  It took him a few anxious hours of walking around to find vendor Tommy Chan but the effort was well worth it. Note some of the storytelling details Matt managed to dig up:  how much money Chan made in a day ($2,000) at the Open versus his usual take ($400), and where Chan set up his cart, between the practice courts and a Mercedes-Benz kiosk.

We liked the reporting effort, too, by Geoffrey Decker, who turned a routine interactive assignment on pests into a revealing look at how those dreaded bedbugs have found their way into New York City classrooms.  In his research, Geoff discovered no one had done a story on bedbugs in schools, and then found public documents that showed the pests had shown up there. He got a source to give him the name of a school where they’d been found and, presto, he had his story.  Geoffrey kept his lede simple and backed it up with solid information on the big increase in bedbugs at schools.  He also acknowledged some good help from editors here (David Lewis, Jere Hester) to help him get the story in the Times.

Words to live by

“Learn to be a reporter… Learn how to be flexible.  Don’t get lost in the form, get the skill,” said Adam Moss, editor of New York Magazine, when asked last week for his best advice to budding journalists.

“Bless you,” Dean Steve Shepard said.



*Footnote:  Why do journalists spell “lead” as “lede” when they’re talking about the start of a story?  Back in the dinosaur age, when newspapers used molten lead, or hot type, from linotype machines to print newspapers, the word “lede” was used to distinquish it from the “lead” used to print the paper.

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5 Responses to How to write a good lede.*

  1. Jack Styczynski says:

    Thanks for that explanation on the spelling of “lede.” I still don’t like it, but at least now I understand it.

    • Heath Meriwether says:

      what happened to all those anachronisms of the hot-type age? like -30- for the ending, the copyediting marks, the “stet” to keep something in? doesn’t sound like you’re too nostalgic about those times. cheers.

      • Jack Styczynski says:

        Not that I’m not nostalgic. I’m just a stickler for spelling, so “lede” always jumps out at me. But at least now I can appreciate knowing why it’s misspelled.

  2. Steve Strasser says:

    Whenever I did a story for Heath, he would glare at me and say, “Get the lede out!”

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