3 questions and a habit for writing better ledes
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.
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