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Apr 14 / King Kaufman

How to write a good lede

With the possible exception of the headline, the lede is the most important part of your story. It’s your best chance to grab readers’ attention and interest and get them to keep reading or click through to the rest of the piece.

The traditional hard news lede includes the “Five W’s” — who, what, when, where, why — and sometimes “how.” It gives the basics of the story even if the reader reads nothing more than that first paragraph.

At Bleacher Report, we don’t do a lot of breaking news stories, so our ledes generally don’t follow this form. But the lede still plays the same vital role. It gets the story started, pulls the readers in, engages them, hooks them with something interesting right off the bat.

Quick aside: Why I spell it “lede.”

John McPhee, a great long-form magazine feature writer and author, has said that a good lede is like a flashlight shining down into the story.

A good way to get yourself started on a good lede is to pretend a friend has just asked you what you’re writing about. For example, this week, if you’re writing a series by series NBA or NHL playoff preview, you wouldn’t answer, “The time has come. Now the games get serious. After half a year of struggle to eliminate 14 teams and decide seedings, the playoffs are here.” And so on.

You’d say, “I’m writing an NBA/NHL playoff preview, picking the winners of each series.” That’s not a lede, but it tells you what your lede should be about. Not: Playoff time is here, but: This is a preview of each series.

The Newsroom Guidelines at NowPublic have similar advice, put this way:

If you were riding an elevator and someone said, “What is your article about?” and you had two floors to answer, what would you say? That’s the lede. We know you’ll want to set the scene and offer some background, but resist that urge. If you boiled the 600 words down to 50 what would they be? Now write that.

Another good trick, here at Bleacher Report, is to think about your headline, and about the guideline for writing headlines at B/R. Done correctly, with search engine optimization (SEO) in mind, our headlines use important keywords to get at exactly what the story is about. Your lede should do the same thing.

Get in the habit of looking for good ledes in your reading. Read just the ledes of as many pieces of writing as you can. Each time, ask yourself: Do I want to keep reading this story? Then ask yourself why or why not.

Some things you should try to do when writing your lede:

Be specific. Name names. Use keywords. What exactly is this piece about?

Get right to the point. Don’t bother with the big wind-up. Don’t feel like you have to justify what you’re going to talk about — “XYZ season is fast approaching, folks, so …” Just start talking about it. If you feel like readers need a little background information or they’ll be lost, don’t lead with the background information. Lead with what’s new, with what your article is about. If you need to fill in background info, do that in the second paragraph.

Don’t be a calendar. You’re better than that. Resist the temptation of starting your story by telling readers what time of year it is or what big event is about to happen. They’re sports fans. They know the NBA playoffs are about to start.

You certainly can get creative and start with something that isn’t the main point if you think it can do a better job of pulling in the reader. Sometimes teaser ledes can be effective.

An example from one of the links below: A story about a bank robbery by a transvestite had this first paragraph:

“What a drag.”

But it had better be really good. Look hard at it. If it’s merely a “throat clear,” some warm-up writing before you really get going, get rid of it.

Pro tip: If you write “Without further ado” at some point, you should go back and delete the “ado.” Ado isn’t interesting.

Write shorter. Once you’ve written your lede, see if you can write an alternate lede that’s shorter, crisper, more direct. Compare the two side by side. Don’t be afraid to let your lede be one sentence. Long, ponderous first paragraphs are often a turnoff for readers.

Hand in hand with the last one: Make every word count. Every single word in your lede should be pulling its weight, accomplishing something. Ask yourself: If I took this word out, would the story suffer? Ask yourself that question about every single word. Actually, that should say: Ask yourself that question about every word.

Use active voice and strong subjects and verbs. If you’ve got a form of the verb “to be” in your lede, try rewriting to get rid of it. Sometimes you can’t, but you should try. “Have,” “do” and “get” are weak verbs. “There are” and “It is” are weak phrases. See if you can re-write to put more action in your lede.

Read your lede out loud. If it’s awkwardly phrased, too wordy or doesn’t flow smoothly, you’ll hear it. And if you feel like a fool reading your story out loud, get over it.

If you’re stumped and can’t seem to get the lede down, press on. Write the rest of your story, then come back to the lede. Seeing how the story pieces together can be helpful in trying to figure out the lede.

Some things you should try to avoid:

Writing a lede that could have been written at some previous time. I can’t emphasize this enough. If your lede is something like, “Baseball season is only a few weeks away …” or “The Super Bowl is one of the most exciting events on the sports calendar …” then you aren’t being specific enough, you haven’t drilled down to the thing you’re writing about today.

Similarly: Telling your readers what they already know. Read your lede. Ask yourself: Do the sports fans who are likely reading this need this information? Am I telling them anything new or just repeating something they already know?

Writing a lede that sounds like a note to your editor telling him/her what you’re going to write about. Read your lede. Is it a lede, the real start of the article? Or is it a note you might have written for planning purposes?

Drill down to what matters in your lede: What the story is about, what’s new, specific points, keywords. Write using active voice and action verbs. Grab your reader by the collar with your writing and say, as quickly as possible: You have to read this.

Further reading

Now Public’s advice to its writers, which I like because it echoes my advice on ledes.

A whole archive of helpful articles from the Write Stuff.

Newsroom trainer Steve Buttry, currently at TBD.com, offers some lessons on writing ledes.

A wonderful survey of some classic ledes, mostly in the crime genre, including my all-time favorite lede, by Edna Buchanan: “Gary Robinson died hungry.”

The art of a good lede by Seed Academy.

  • Jack Duhamel

    As the moth flies to light, so to shall B/R writers fly to the sage wisdom of King Kaufman.

    There’s a lede.

    Good advice.

  • David Boutin

    Great advice, very helpful. Just FYI, your “why I spell it lede” link takes you to a page with no relevant content, which is too bad because I wanted to know.

    • Anonymous

      Oh for crying out loud. That’s a link to a page on the Random House website. Of course the page has gone away. I have never had an encounter with the book publishing industry that did not leave me thinking, “Damn, the book publishing industry is stupid.”

      Thanks for the heads up. I’ll replace that link.

      • Anonymous

        OK, I’ve replaced that link with a William Safire language column from 1990, which is a little more meandering but does explain the spelling variant. Also served as a reminder to me: I miss William Safire’s language columns.

  • Bobbycruz216

    You guys sound like a bunch of geeks — stop bragging to the lady how good you are in bed. Show her!!!