How to Write Great Ledes for Feature Stories

The Goal Is to Draw the Reader Into the Piece

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When you think of newspapers, you probably tend to focus on the hard-news stories that fill the front page. But much of the writing found in any newspaper is done in a much more feature-oriented way. Writing ledes for feature stories, as opposed to hard-news ledes, requires a different approach.

Feature Ledes vs. Hard-News Ledes

Hard-news ledes need to get all the important points of the story – the who, what, where, when, why and how – into the first sentence or two, so that if the reader only wants the basic facts, he gets them quickly.

The more of a news story the reader reads, the more detail he gets.

Feature ledes, sometimes called delayed, narrative or anecdotal ledes, unfold more slowly. They allow the writer to tell a story in a more traditional, sometimes chronological way. The objective is to draw the readers into the story, to make them want to read more. 

Setting a Scene, Painting a Picture

Feature ledes often begin by setting a scene or painting a picture -- in words -- of a person or place. Here’s a Pulitzer Prize-winning example by Andrea Elliott of The New York Times:

"The young Egyptian professional could pass for any New York Bachelor.

Dressed in a crisp polo shirt and swathed in Cologne, he races his Nissan Maxima through the rain-slicked streets of Manhattan, late for a date with a tall brunette. At red lights, he fusses with his hair.

What sets the Bachelor apart from other young men on the make is the chaperone sitting next to him -- a tall, bearded man in a white robe and stiff embroidered hat."

Notice how Elliott effectively uses phrases like “crisp polo shirt” and “rain-slicked streets.” The reader doesn't yet know exactly what this article is about, but he is drawn into the story through these descriptive passages.

Using an Anecdote

Another way to begin a feature is to tell a story or an anecdote.

Here’s an example by Edward Wong of The New York Times' Beijing bureau:

"BEIJING — The first sign of trouble was powder in the baby’s urine. Then there was blood. By the time the parents took their son to the hospital, he had no urine at all.

Kidney stones were the problem, doctors told the parents. The baby died on May 1 in the hospital, just two weeks after the first symptoms appeared. His name was Yi Kaixuan. He was 6 months old.

The parents filed a lawsuit on Monday in the arid northwest province of Gansu, where the family lives, asking for compensation from Sanlu Group, the maker of the powdered baby formula that Kaixuan had been drinking. It seemed like a clear-cut liability case; since last month, Sanlu has been at the center of China’s biggest contaminated food crisis in years. But as in two other courts dealing with related lawsuits, judges have so far declined to hear the case."

Taking Time to Tell the Story

You’ll notice that both Elliott and Wong take several paragraphs to begin their stories. That’s fine – feature ledes in newspapers generally take two to four paragraphs to set a scene or convey an anecdote; magazine articles can take much longer. But pretty soon, even a feature story has to get to the point.

The Nutgraf

The nutgraf is where the feature writer lays out for the reader exactly what the story is all about. It usually follows the first few paragraphs of the scene-setting or storytelling the writer has done. A nutgraf can be a single paragraph or more.

Here’s Elliott’s lede again, this time with the nutgraf included:

"The young Egyptian professional could pass for any New York Bachelor.

Dressed in a crisp polo shirt and swathed in Cologne, he races his Nissan Maxima through the rain-slicked streets of Manhattan, late for a date with a tall brunette. At red lights, he fusses with his hair.

What sets the Bachelor apart from other young men on the make is the chaperone sitting next to him -- a tall, bearded man in a white robe and stiff embroidered hat.

'I pray that Allah will bring this couple together,' the man, Sheik Reda Shata, says, clutching his seat belt and urging the Bachelor to slow down.

(Here is the nutgraf, along with the following sentence): Christian singles meet for coffee. Young Jews have JDate. But many Muslims believe that it is forbidden for an unmarried man and woman to meet in private. In predominantly Muslim countries, the job of making introductions and even arranging marriages typically falls to a vast network of family and friends.

In Brooklyn, there is Mr. Shata.

Week after week, Muslims embark on dates with him in tow. Mr. Shata, the imam of a Bay Ridge mosque, juggles some 550 'marriage candidates,' from a gold-toothed electrician to a professor at Columbia University. The meetings often unfold on the green velour couch of his office or over a meal at his favorite Yemeni restaurant on Atlantic Avenue."

So now the reader knows – this is the story of a Brooklyn imam who helps bring young Muslim couples together for marriage. Elliott could just as easily have written the story with a hard-news lede something like this:

"An imam based in Brooklyn says he works as a chaperone with hundreds of young Muslims in an effort to bring them together for marriage."

That’s certainly quicker. But it’s not nearly as interesting as Elliott’s descriptive, well-crafted approach.

When to Use the Feature Approach

When done right, feature ledes can be a joy to read. But feature ledes aren’t appropriate for every story in a newspaper or website. Hard-news ledes are generally used for breaking news and for more important, time-sensitive stories. Feature ledes are generally used on stories that are less deadline-oriented and for those that examine issues in a more in-depth way.