The difficulty lies in the importance. Your initial paragraph is a first impression on anywhere from a handful of readers to hundreds of thousands of sports fans eager to see what you have to say. And, as we’ve all been told countless times throughout our lives, first impressions can make or break you.
Back when I first started writing, ledes were by far the most difficult part of the process for me. I can’t even begin to count the number of articles that began with me staring at a blank page, wondering what to say first.
As the years went by and the articles started piling up—both the ones I’d written and the ones I’d read as part of helping develop B/R’s newest writers—ledes got easier and easier. Some of the credit undoubtedly lies with experience, but I’m also convinced that three questions and one habit aided me greatly.
Question 1: What does this lede make people think my article is about?
The criteria for ledes are different depending on what kind of article you’re writing.
In a news report, you want to introduce that key point of narrative tension, the one that your story helps introduce and develop. When you’re writing an argumentative argument, you want to get out there with a statement or question that will grab readers right away. If you’re dealing with a ranked list, you want to advertise the competition for the No. 1 spot in your article.
But all three types of pieces we commonly write have one thing in common when it comes to ledes: They should echo the theme of your headline, not just repeating what it says up above, but adding to it.
Next time you write a lede, cover up your title. If you have anything written below that first paragraph, don’t look at that either. Read only your lede and then ask yourself, “Self, what does this paragraph lead me to believe this article is about?”
If your answer is the same as the overall topic of your article, you’re in great shape. If not, you should probably go back and make some changes so that it’s a more accurate representation of the product as a whole.
Question 2: Is this interesting?
For those of you whose minds haven’t already started to wander, we live in the era of the short attention span. Given the vast reaches of the interwebs, it’s easy to look elsewhere for information on a topic.
That’s why it’s more important than ever to captivate readers just one paragraph into your article.
Don’t feel like you’re giving away the thrust of your piece if you launch into the thesis right away, bring up the competition between two of your top candidates in a set of rankings or delve into the forward-looking analysis during a news report. Instead, think that you’re grabbing readers’ attention right away and giving them no choice but to continue on until your conclusion.
Ledes aren’t just about getting people to your articles; they’re about getting them to stay there as well.
Question 3: Is my lede made up solely of background?
There’s a time and place for background. It’s important to the crafting of every story, after all.
But if your lede is comprised solely of background, that’s just asking for trouble.
The first paragraph of your article is your initial—and potentially only—chance to differentiate yourself from the masses. And on the Internet, those masses are innumerable.
Everybody can recap a story. The facts are out there for everyone. It’s the analysis, specifically the forward-looking analysis, that allows you to stand out and provide your own spin on a topic.
Habit: Write your lede last
This doesn’t work for everyone, but it’s often true that I don’t fully grasp what I’m trying to say until I get into writing the body of my article.
Because you want that first paragraph to be an overall encapsulation of your entire message, it’s important that you know what the overarching theme is before you attempt to sum it up.
Let the rest of your writing take direction, as there are no rules about including full primary keywords and such throughout the remaining portion of your article. As you write, it will become increasingly clear how you should open your piece.
Next time you sit down and stare at your computer screen, write “LEDE” in all caps at the top of the writing interface to remind yourself that you need to come back. This applies to both standard articles and slideshows.
It might work for you. It might not. But in the interest of honing your craft, at least give it a whirl.
* * *
We hope that by now you’re comfortable with the revamped publishing tool, which features much easier media discovery and placement in standard articles.
Here comes the next big thing. The testing is just about done and the Product team is set to release the redesigned tool for slideshow creation to all writers on Tuesday.
If you’re not comfortable with the new tools yet, the best way to fix that is probably to just play around with them for a few minutes, but if that’s not your style, Community Moderator Jeff Chase has posted a brief how-to in the B/R Forum.
One thing that’s raised a few questions among the testers of the new slideshow tool is the absence of the button that allows you to save and go to the next slide. The slideshow will autosave whenever you navigate between the slides in the sorter rail, so there’s no need for a save button—though if you’re the nervous type, as I am, there will still be a button that will allow you to manually save the slideshow.
As I began life after graduation from Miami University last summer, all I knew for sure was I would be a part of the Bleacher Report Sports Media Program. Through a series of fortunate connections, hard work and plenty of chances to prove myself, I’m now a full-time writer for the Breaking News Team.
Every day is a new opportunity to make a new mark. What has driven me is something profound I heard from standup comedian Joey Diaz—minus the profanity: “Justify your existence on a daily basis.”
As I was going through the rigors of the program, that stuck with me—and still translates to the work I do now.
Living up to that notion is a burdensome personal undertaking, but it gives me a constant chip on my shoulder in writing.
The Sports Media Program was extremely rewarding, but there were growing pains. Writing a higher volume than I was used to while still adhering to B/R quality standards and attempting to establish my own, distinct voice all at once was overwhelming.
I kept coming back to Diaz. I will not make a massive leap every day, but shooting for that as a goal continues to provide freshness to the writing grind.
Bleacher Report being the sports provider for CNN supplies plenty of motivation, but the main, intrinsically fueled objective is simply for me to get better with each article.
B/R presents a great platform to show what you can do. By being proactive, taking advantage of opportunities and making the most of everything published, you can make all the hard work can pay off in a big way.
Gradual, steady improvement is what’s unlocked every door I’ve stepped through at this cutting-edge company, and the key for me has been the seven words that perpetually ring in my head.
“Justify your existence on a daily basis.”
I may not always reach that expectation, but amid the constantly changing media landscape and the competitiveness in online writing, it’s a nice target to aim for.
* * *
One Thing You Need to Know is a series in which we ask members of the Bleacher Report Advanced Program in Sports Media to write about just that: One thing they’ve learned that they would pass along to other aspiring writers.
We’re bringing Shoutouts back to the B/R Blog. With the help of the Quality Editing team, I’d going to get back to highlighting some of the really good pieces that run on the site.
This won’t be systematic. The articles highlighted here shouldn’t be chalked up as The Best Articles on Bleacher Report. They’re just pieces that have caught the eye of Quality Editors or someone else on the editing team, and we want to shine a little extra light on them.
Here are three pieces, all of them centered on the NBA Finals, that have stood out in the last week or so.
Cohen uses humor and a set of interesting factoids that even hardcore NBA fans might not know to present this portrait of the San Antonio Spurs coach as he entered the NBA Finals for might be his last chance to win it all.
Unless you’re an NBA referee, or you hang out a lot with NBA referees, you’re just about guaranteed to learn something from this interview with former NBA ref Bob Delaney. Martin asks him about flopping, superstar calls, players’ tendencies and more. Officials in various sports tend to fall back on drab clichés—or denials—in their rare interviews, but Delaney really digs in with colorful, vivid answers.
Favale’s well-thought-out analysis reads smoothly and is supported extensively with statistics and quotes. It also features excellent use of media.
There’s a lot of high-brow academic talk in this post on the Circa Blog about the thinking behind the mobile news app Circa. I mean, the post is headlined “Mona Lisa stopped smiling–A Conversation on the Phenomenology of News” and the 43rd word in the post is “taxonomy.”
Full disclosure: I’ve been working in news for almost three decades, and I’ve spent zero time thinking about the phenomenology of it. Whenever I try all I get is this.
But I think there are some thoughts in the post that even those of us who fell asleep in the back of philosophy and art history classes can take back to our writing.
The Circa Blog post launches from one headlined On elephants, obsessions and wicked problems: A new phenomenology of news, by Gideon Lichfield, global news editor at Quartz.
“Instead of fixed beats,” Lichfield had written, “we structure our newsroom [at Quartz] around an ever-evolving collection of phenomena—the patterns, trends and seismic shifts that are shaping the world our readers live in.”
Lichfield defines many of these phenomena as “wicked problems,” a policy term that, put simply, means an ongoing problem that’s not just difficult or impossible to solve, it’s not even easy to define. The Circa Blog gives global warming, the war on terror and gun control as examples of wicked problems.
The Circa Blog then gets into a comparison of journalism to art, in the sense that, as the “first draft of history,” as it’s been famously called, journalism traditionally captures a moment. But that doesn’t always capture the “shape” of the world:
Like all paintings, however, articles are flat with only the illusion of three dimensions. Subject to interpretation, but never alteration—paintings and most journalism are a process of seeing light and capturing it like a mirror. It is reflective. Even the “live-blog” with its Pollock-esque emotional truth, a flurry of words, eventually comes to a rest.
But the world doesn’t rest…The next day Mona Lisa stopped smiling. The day after every article, circumstances change. At Circa we want stories to model the shape of world. The world moves—and so must our storylines.
That starts to get into Circa’s organization and format, which it describes as “comprehensive yet concise news updates paired with a clean, simple mobile experience.”
But regardless of the format, that idea is an important one: Stories evolve, the world is in motion even after you’ve captured a moment of it in your story, graphic or video.
That used to be an unfortunate fact that we had to live with. We captured the shape of the world as best we could in the newspaper, and as soon as we put that edition to bed we began work on the next one, trying to create the best snapshot we could the next time the presses rolled.
Now, we have real-time content. The “next edition” is the next time someone reaches for their phone, which happens millions of times every minute. What are we doing to give that person the best view of the shape of the world we’re covering at that moment?
And I really mean at that moment, not five minutes ago. Because five minutes ago is just so five minutes ago.
One of the trickiest aspects of verifying the accuracy of online information is that some of the best tools at our disposal are hardly foolproof. An incident in the tech media world last week illustrated that beautifully.
Two of the best verification methods we use and teach at Bleacher Report are spelled out in a B/R Blog post written by Director of Quality Control Dan Bonato in 2011, Verifying sources: A primer and checklist. Note that on this checklist, “source” refers to the person or outlet reporting a piece of information:
“Consider the social history of the source.”
- Does the source have a history of reporting credible news, such as the New York Times, SI.com or a local outlet with beat writers? …
- Does it have a history of presenting information in a straightforward, objective manner? Is it known for being biased? If the latter, does that bias influence the report? …
- Are its reporters respected as authorities on the sport/team/player/etc. in question?
“Seek social corroboration.”
- Are other reputable media outlets running with the news, either from your source or otherwise? If so, are they presenting it as fact, rumor or speculation?
In the sports world, the cases of Tia Norfleet and, especially, Manti Te’o's nonexistent girlfriend, Lennay Kekua, have reminded us that even those with sterling reputations sometimes report things that aren’t true, and things that aren’t true sometimes get reported widely by usually credible media outlets.
That last part is particularly dangerous. If a usually reliable media outlet reporting something is an indication that the information is good, then it only takes one usually reliable media outlet to make a mistake. Others, citing that usually reliable outlet, will pile on, and before you know it, the false report becomes accepted fact. Look: Everybody’s got it!
One factoid from her report—the average user looks at their smartphone 150 times a day—was picked up widely, despite the fact that, according to Jeff Elder of SFGate.com, it wasn’t true:
But there was never any solid data to back it up. The numbers cited in the presentation were taken from opinions posted on a blog. And the blog post wasn’t even discussing smartphones, but non-smartphones …
The misinformation has now appeared in news stories, hundreds of tweets and on thousands of blogs. It helped Meeker make her case on one of technology’s biggest stages for a whole new realm of tech, “wearables” like Google Glass. But that case was not made with facts.
There were so many problems with the slide that Meeker’s team, since being questioned about it by The Chronicle, has changed its headline and its sourcing.
Meeker is the usually reliable source in this case, and when a bunch of other usually reliable media outlets repeated her factoid, it became accepted fact.
Until, that is, Elder fact-checked it.
I don’t know enough about smartphone usage to know if Meeker’s statement passes the sniff test. But I do know that what Elder did, chasing down the truth rather than just relying on the statement of a usually reliable source, is the best method of verification we’ve got.
I had a great conversation with one of our writers this week about battling writer’s block and just hitting the wall. We’ve all had the dark days where it’s a drag to do this. I spent a long time as an unpaid writer/producer/reporter and have even given up (temporarily) out of frustration. More than once.
It certainly happens more often than you think. If you ever want to chat, hit me up at email@example.com. Seriously. For now, here’s a pep talk based on what (little) I’ve learned and seen.
1. On the one hand, it absolutely is a job. It’s a grind and it’s work. Contrary to popular opinion, it isn’t all fun and games. That’s only the silver lining to a lot of cloudy days we spend soldiering through.
2. On the other hand, it is a lot of fun. It has to be, otherwise there wouldn’t be thousands upon thousands of candidates all scrapping for a few hundred jobs at most. When feeling down or out of verve for what you’re doing, remember what made you want to do it in the first place, how lucky or blessed you are to be in a position with the opportunity and ability that so few get to experience (regardless of how much they “want it”). Then change your perspective on who you’re writing for …
3. Every time you write, you should have an audience in mind. For fun, switch it up from time to time. Are you going to concentrate on diehards? Contrarians? Haters of your team? New arrivals to the fan base? Casual basketball fans? Changing this variable presents entirely new challenges. Don’t even get me started on what it means to change your voice. Suddenly, you have an endless possibility of variables and outcomes to play around with.
I’ve mused on this before. Maybe these will help:
4. Finally, keep perspective about why you’re doing what you do. Does writing for little to no money suck at times? You bet it does. All paid writers started out that way in one way or another. However, every opportunity to talk or write while people listen or read is a chance to hone your craft.
Every opportunity is a chance to market yourself and then leverage that for other opportunities. That’s the only way to outlast people in a marathon, which so many think is a sprint. It may not feel like you’re moving forward at times, but you’re gaining experience while others just sit around and wish about the destination without actually getting on with the journey.
Worse yet, others are sprinting with no backup plans or mental toughness to keep their stamina up. They’re gonna drop out of the race sooner rather than later.
Finally, is it about the money? Yes. You have to pay the bills. there are a lot of ways to pay the bills, though. But wouldn’t you be writing, talking, obsessing about sports either way? Yes. That’s why you love what you do and are willing to run the marathon.
* * *
Joel Cordes is an NBA Assistant Editor at Bleacher Report.
I never planned on being a full-time sportswriter. If I had, I probably wouldn’t have spent four years working to earn a degree in marketing. But if it weren’t for my background in marketing, I might not be writing this post.
Funny how things work out.
I stumbled across Bleacher Report in the fall of 2011 as a sophomore in college, and I’ve gone from sports fan with a blog who was overly enthusiastic about the Boston Red Sox to full-time sportswriter.
How did I do it? I sought out opportunities to get noticed and marketed myself.
When MLB Team Leader Stephen Meyer asked me if I wanted to try out to become a Red Sox Featured Columnist just a few weeks after I gained permission to write for B/R, I couldn’t believe it, but I hit the ground running.
If Stephen sent out an email at 10 p.m. about a piece, I’d be sure to respond saying I was available. I wrote every day despite only having one assignment per week. Then, when I found out that there was a B/R internship for the summer, I immediately submitted an application.
With the Bleacher Report Sports Media Program, I began expanding my comfort zone—writing about some sports that I had never even remotely followed. But I put all my effort into each article I published.
Fast forward a few months and I am now working with B/R’s Breaking News Team, writing about sports 40-50 hours per week. You can’t beat that.
I got here because I took advantage of opportunities and marketed myself as a strong writer who would be an asset to any team. If you want to succeed in this industry, you must take advantage of the opportunities on the table and seek out those that aren’t so apparent.
Go the extra mile, especially when you aren’t asked to do so. But make sure to remember your limits. Quality always comes before quantity.
Finally, please tell my parents that my college degree wasn’t a complete waste of money.
* * *
One Thing You Need to Know is a series in which we ask our interns to write about just that: One thing they’ve learned in the B/R Sports Media Internship that they would pass along to other aspiring writers.
Sometimes the most compelling way to present information is through an infographic—a data visualization, if you’re looking for the buzzword.
As Bleacher Report’s product team redesigns the publishing tool, one thing slated to roll out soon will be an infographics feature, something to help writers create those data visualizations.
As NFL Lead Writer Ty Schalter showed recently, you don’t have to wait for the tool to start making graphics. But whether you’re ready to begin today or you need some time to get up to speed, you’d be wise to spend seven minutes watching “The Art of Visualization,” a PBS Off Book video featuring four leaders in the field talking about the thinking behind the craft.
If you’re not a seasoned graphic artist, it’s like the head-swimming first day of school.
“Every single pixel should testify directly to content,” says Edward Tufte of Yale, a pioneer in and scholar of information design. “Style and aesthetics cannot rescue failed content.”
Julie Steele, a designer at O’Reilly Media, notes that there are three things that should inform your design. I’d say they should similarly inform your writing. They are:
You: What you have to say.
The reader, who is most decidedly not you and his their own biases and assumptions that you have to account for.
The data itself, and what it has to say. If it’s helpful, you can change the word “data” here to “truth.”
Steele also talks about how our brains are wired to process visual information quickly, the better, as she points out, to tell us if those dark shades in the tall grass are just shadows or the stripes of a tiger that would like to eat us. We also respond emotionally, she says, to aesthetics and design. That makes for fertile fields for designers:
So if you want to change someone’s mind, if you want to change someone’s behavior, sometimes putting the information in a visual format is the fastest way to get them to engage with that information.
The way your grandma put that was “A picture’s worth a thousand words.”
“Anybody can visualize data in Excel and see some bar charts” says software artist Jer Thorp in the video. “For me, it’s about showing them something in this kind of loose narrative frame that they can interpret.”
Check it out. I predict that in seven minutes you’re going to want to go make an infographic.
“I kind of thought, ‘Damnit, (sportswriting) is what I actually want to do and didn’t take advantage of working for any of the university newspapers or anything,’” he said.
He couldn’t have guessed that only a few years later, his talent for putting words in front of each other would have him covering an England-Ireland friendly at Wembley Stadium or earning the praise of Alexi Lalas for both his knowledge of world football and, of equal importance, his hair.
Tighe, Bleacher Report’s Featured Columnist of the Month for May, has risen through the Bleacher Report writer ranks since joining the site in August 2011 and is now the world football team’s Tactical Analyst, publishing four pieces a day.
His staggering knowledge of the sport, along with his locks, earned him the high praise of Lalas (who knows a thing or two about hair) during a Google Hangout with B/R Lead Writer Will Tidey and Featured Columnist Matteo Bonetti.
“I mean, of course that was a big moment to have him compliment my hair,” Tighe said. “But it really meant a lot more that he told me he really enjoyed working with me and that he thought I really knew my stuff.
“You’d hate to have an analyst or especially a former pro tell you, ‘That’s rubbish,’ so to have that type of approval from Alexi really meant a lot.”
A devout Aston Villa supporter, Tighe was originally compelled to write for Bleacher Report when Tottenham right back Kyle Walker* was on loan to Villa and Tighe didn’t understand the hype surrounding him.
Since then, he’s forged his own specialty in the World Football section that few have tackled with the same passion: advanced tactics. He analyzes things like spacing, player tendencies, formational trends and player movement. Read Tighe’s piece from last week about how German giants Bayern Munich were able to bully all of Europe from a tactical standpoint.
Tighe says he was a decent footballer growing up, but started picking up on more advanced aspects of the game by watching it. He also knew that in order to flourish in the writing industry, he’d have to do something to make himself indispensable.
“A lot of writers could replicate a How-Arsenal-Can-Try-To-Replicate-Robin-van-Persie story, but not everyone can say exactly what Bayern did to beat Borussia Dortmund,” he said.
He now goes into any match he watches knowing the pros and cons of formations certain sides utilize, looking for how they’re changed throughout the match and doing plenty of research in between.
Tighe says that he strives for one thing above all else: consistency. He says he knows that he’s competing against hundreds of other bloggers and writers, so building an interesting, consistent brand is the best way to gain and keep readers’ respect.
His tireless work rate and growth as a writer have impressed his editors, even if his choice of a Premier League team hasn’t.
“Sam is exactly the kind of success story to which other B/R writers can aspire,” Soccer Editor Adam Hirshfield said. “Despite what being a fan of Aston Villa and the Detroit Lions might suggest, he’s bright, knowledgeable and quick-witted.
“But he’s become a star at B/R because he’s worked his rear end off and has been willing to take on whatever is asked of him. He’s an excellent writer with a bright future ahead of him … and he has great hair.”
Added Tidey: “I’d consider him one of our best writers and brightest prospects. He’s conscientious and always looking to improve.
“Just a shame he supports Aston Villa.”
* Post has been updated to correct Walker’s position, and the photo has been updated to a better view of Tighe’s hair.
* * *
Sean Swaby is Bleacher Report’s Featured Columnist Coordinator.