What Is a News Lede -- and How to Write a Great One

Snappy Ledes Tell Who, What, When, Where, Why and How

The lede -- that’s how journalists spell it -- is the first paragraph of any news story. It’s also the most important part. The lede must accomplish three things:

  • Give readers the main points of the story;
  • Get readers interested in reading the story;
  • Accomplish both “a” and “b” in as few words as possible.

Typically, editors want ledes to be no longer than 35 to 40 words. Why so short? Readers want their news delivered quickly.

A short lede does just that.

What Goes in the Lede?

For news stories, journalists use the inverted pyramid format, which features the five “W’s and the H” – who, what, where, when, why and how.

  • Who – who is the story about?
  • What – what is the story about?
  • Where – where did the event you’re writing about occur?
  • When – when did it occur?
  • Why – why did this happen?
  • How – how did this happen?

Example 1: Let’s say you’re writing a story about a man who was injured when he fell off a ladder. Here are your five "W’s and H":

  • Who – the man
  • What – he fell off a ladder while painting
  • Where – at his house
  • When – yesterday
  • Why – the ladder was rickety
  • How – the rickety ladder broke

So your lede might go something like this:

A man was injured yesterday when he fell off a rickety ladder that collapsed while he was painting his house.

That sums up the main points of the story in just 20 words, which is all you need for the lede.

Example 2: Let’s say you’re writing a story about a house fire in which three people suffer smoke inhalation. Here are your five "W’s and H":

  • Who – three people
  • What – they suffered smoke inhalation and were hospitalized after a house fire
  • Where – at the house
  • When – yesterday
  • Why – a man fell asleep smoking in bed
  • How – the cigarette ignited the man's mattress

Here's how this lede might go:

Three people were hospitalized for smoke inhalation yesterday after a house fire that officials said was ignited by a man in the home who fell asleep while smoking in bed.

That lede clocks in at 30 words -- a little longer than the last one, but still short and to the point.

Example 3: Here's something a bit more complicated. This is a story about a hostage situation. Here are your five "W’s and H":

  • Who – six people, one gunman
  • What – the gunman held six people hostage in a restaurant for two hours before surrendering to police
  • Where – at Billy Bob's Barbecue Joint
  • When – last night
  • Why – the gunman tried robbing the restaurant but police arrived before he could escape
  • How – he ordered the six people into the kitchen

Here's how this lede might go:

A gunman who tried to rob Billy Bob's Barbecue Joint last night took six people hostage when police surrounded the restaurant, but he surrendered to authorities after a two-hour standoff.

That lede is 30 words, which isn't bad for a story that has a bit more complexity to it.

Write Ledes on Your Own

Here are some examples to try on your own.

  • Who – Barrett Bradley, the president of Centerville College
  • What – he announced tuition will be raised 5 percent
  • Where – at a gathering in the college's amphitheater
  • When – yesterday
  • Why – enrollment is dropping and the college is facing a $3 million deficit
  • How – he will ask the college's board of trustees to approve the tuition hike
     
  • Who – Melvin Washington, point guard for the Centerville High School basketball team
  • What – he scores a record 48 points to lead the team to the state championship over the rival team at Roosevelt High School
  • Where – in the school's gymnasium
  • When – last night
  • Why – Washington is a gifted athlete who observers say has an NBA career ahead of him
  • How – he is a remarkably precise shooter who excels at making 3-pointers
     
  • Who – Centerville Mayor Ed Johnson
  • What – he holds a press conference announcing he has a drinking problem and is stepping down from his post
  • Where – in his office at City Hall
  • When – today
  • Why – Johnson says he is entering rehab to deal with his alcoholism
  • How – he will step down and deputy mayor Helen Peterson will take over