Ledes: Giving the reader something to find and engage with
Part 3 of Playbook: The Basics of Writing for Bleacher Report. Click here for more information and to download all of Playbook for free.
If you’ve been reading the Bleacher Report Blog for a while, you shouldn’t be surprised that we put special emphasis on ledes during the evaluation process. After all, a good lede is the first and last chance you have to grab potential readers—as we’ve discussed at length in other explanatory posts, instructional videos and true-life dramas.
Writing a good lede is one of the most important things you can do in crafting an effective article. For evaluation purposes, we define a lede strictly as the first paragraph, on the theory that quick-scanning, gratification-seeking readers may click away from a piece before the first line break unless it can capture their attention in that space. And to be sure that everyone’s using the best possible hook, we ask the following questions about each lede we review:
- Does the lede contain the article’s primary keyword?
- Does the lede echo the theme of the headline?
- Does the lede give readers a reason to keep reading?
Including the primary keyword
Now, you might be thinking this primary keyword rule is all about search-engine optimization. SEO is important: Search algorithms favor articles with keywords in the first paragraph. But that’s not the main issue here. What we’re concerned about is appealing to readers by getting right to the point—and “the point” is always going to include an explicit reference to the most important figure, team or event in your story. That is, the primary keyword.
This is a requirement for writing a good B/R lede. If you don’t use the primary keyword in the lede, your lede won’t be evaluated positively.
So what’s the primary keyword? The primary keyword is the most prominent personal name, team name or event title in the headline. Often, it’s a keyword that appears before a colon in the headline. And if the head lacks any obvious keywords, the primary one is the most prominent personal name, team name or event title associated with the topic of the article.
Echoing the theme of the headline
A lede that echoes the theme of the headline is one that restates, develops or otherwise alludes to the head’s most enticing message—without boring readers by just repeating what the headline said.
The idea here is that you want to maintain the momentum of your title, which is what convinced readers to click on the article in the first place. If your headline promises one thing and your lede delivers another, it’s a good bet that people who got excited about the former are going to be let down by the latter. And if readers end up feeling let down at the end of your first paragraph, you can be sure they won’t stick around to find out whether things get better.
Making readers want to keep reading
This third and final element that goes into a good lede depends on the article type. Here is the third question we ask for each:
News report: Does the lede introduce a point of narrative tension, a conflict to be developed or resolved by the analysis of the reported news item in the rest of the story?
Argumentative article: Does the lede contain a provocative statement? That means a claim of sufficient boldness to make a typical reader want to read on in search of a justification, or a question intriguing enough to make that typical reader want to keep going in search of an answer. A caveat: Provocation for its own sake has little value. However bold, the statement must be plausible, not ridiculous.
Ranked list: Does the lede explicitly reference the top two or three candidates for the list’s No. 1 spot? It can suggest a competition between the candidates or it can openly identify the winner. The key is to give readers a sense of what’s coming, which will encourage them to read on whether they agree (and want confirmation for their beliefs) or disagree (and want to snicker at how stupid your picks are). In either case, this is a situation where showing your hand is a much better strategy than playing it close to the vest—so don’t make the mistake of thinking that you’ll do better by keeping a secret.
Case studies: Lede for every article type
Let’s look at some examples, starting with a good lede on a news report published Sept. 18, 2013. The headline: “Source: New York Knicks Split on Signing Earl Barron.” Here’s NBA writer Jared Zwerling’s lede:
The New York Knicks coaching staff would like to sign Earl Barron, but team management is not in any rush to do so, according to a source close to the veteran free-agent center.
That lede contains the primary keyword (New York Knicks), echoes the headline without repeating it and creates a point of conflict or narrative tension. The coaching staff wants Barron—but management might not.
Now let’s imagine some other approaches the writer might have taken that wouldn’t have worked nearly as well. Here’s a lede that lacks all of the elements our evaluators are looking for. One can assume the hypothetical writer of this pontificating, specifics-free lede will meander to the point eventually, but most readers will have long since clicked away:
It’s not the first time that coaches and front office personnel have disagreed on roster moves, and it certainly won’t be the last in New York. But unfortunately for Knicks fans, the dire frontcourt situation only compounds the problem.
Here’s a lede that would be evaluated better than that last one, but it’s still missing something important. See if you can figure out what it is:
According to a source close to the situation, the New York Knicks coaching staff is interested in veteran free-agent center Earl Barron.
Did you get it? That lede has the primary keyword, but that’s about it. It doesn’t allude to the headline’s most enticing message and doesn’t set up any kind of narrative tension. If you’re a reader seeing that lede in a Google search or Twitter preview, would you be compelled to click over? Probably not.
Here are examples of excellent ledes from the other two types of stories we evaluate. We won’t deconstruct these two. See if you can identify all three required elements in both of them.
Argumentative article: Are the Minnesota Vikings Heading into 2013 with Unrealistic Expectations?
In 2012 the Minnesota Vikings had the best single-season turnaround in franchise history, bettering their 2011 mark by seven games. Don’t expect them to overachieve in 2013.
Although the 2013 Stanley Cup playoffs have been full of excitement, with talented players from multiple teams, fans wish that stars like Steven Stamkos, Martin St. Louis and Sergei Bobrovsky were currently representing their teams in the playoffs.
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Playbook: The Basics of Writing for Bleacher Report Writers is an 18-part series outlining the metrics and criteria of B/R’s objective Writer Evaluation system. The system complements the subjective assessments made by members of our Editorial Team, which means that a solid evaluation is a necessary but not sufficient condition of success with B/R. You can find more information and download the full Playbook for free at this link.
Playbook Table of Contents:
Three story types
News Report Story Angle
News Report Narrative Structure, Information Aggregation
Argumentative Articles: Thesis, Rhetorical Structure, Factual Evidence
Ranked Lists: Ranking Logic
Ranked Lists: Topic, List Composition
Attribution and Hyperlinks
Sentence and Paragraph Structure
B/R Style and Formatting
Common Mistakes: General
Common Mistakes: Three Article Types