Writing a Lead or Lede to an Article

Rules? What rules? Just tell the story effectively and hold the reader

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A lead or lede refers to the opening sentences of a brief composition or the first paragraph or two of a longer article or essay. Leads introduce the topic or purpose of a paper, and particularly in the case of journalism, need to grab the reader's attention. A lead is a promise of what's to come, a promise that the piece will satisfy what a reader needs to know.

They can take many styles and approaches and be a variety of lengths, but to be successful, leads need to keep the readers reading, or else all the research and reporting that went into the story won't reach anyone.

Most often when people talk about leads, it's in professional periodical writing, such as in newspapers and magazines. ​

Opinions Differ on Length

Many ways exist as far as how to write a lead, the styles of which likely differ based on the tone or voice of the piece and intended audience in a story—and even the overall length of the story. A long feature in a magazine can get away with a lead that builds more slowly than an in-the-moment news story about a breaking news event in a daily paper or on a news website.

Some writers note that the first sentence is the most important of a story; some might extend that to the first paragraph. Still, others might emphasize defining the audience and message to those people in the first 10 words. Whatever the length, a good lead relates the issue to the readers and shows why it's important for them and how it relates to them. If they're invested from the get-go, they'll keep reading.

Hard News Versus Features

Hard news leads get the who, what, why, where, when, and how in the piece up front, the most important bits of information right up top. They're part of the classic reverse-pyramid news story structure. 

Features can start off in a multitude of ways, such as with an anecdote or a quotation or dialogue and will want to get the point of view established right away.

Feature stories and news both can set the scene with a narrative description. They also can establish a "face" of the story, for example, to personalize an issue by showing how it's affecting an ordinary person.

Stories with arresting leads might exhibit tension right up front or pose a problem that'll be discussed. They might phrase their first sentence in the form of a question.

Where you put the historical information or the background information depends on the piece, but it can also function in the lead to ground the readers and get them context to the piece right away, to immediately understand the story's importance.

All that said, news and features don't necessarily have hard-and-fast rules about what leads work for either type; the style you take depends on the story you have to tell and how it will be most effectively conveyed.

Creating a Hook

"Newspaper reporters have varied the form of their work, including writing more creative story leads. These leads are often less direct and less 'formulaic' than the traditional news summary lead. Some journalists call these soft or indirect news leads.

"The most obvious way to modify a news summary lead is to use only the feature fact or perhaps two of the what, who, where, when, why and how in the lead.

By delaying some of the answers to these essential reader questions, the sentences can be short, and the writer can create a 'hook' to catch or entice the reader to continue into the body of the story."
(Thomas Rolnicki, C. Dow Tate, and Sherri Taylor, "Scholastic Journalism." Blackwell, 2007)

Using Arresting Detail

"There are editors...who will try to take an interesting detail out of the story simply because the detail happens to horrify or appall them. 'One of them kept saying that people read this paper at breakfast,' I was told by Edna [Buchanan], whose own idea of a successful lead is one that might cause a reader who is having breakfast with his wife to 'spit out his coffee, clutch his chest, and say, "My God, Martha! Did you read this!"'"
(Calvin Trillin, "Covering the Cops [Edna Buchanan]." "Life Stories: Profiles from The New Yorker," ed.

by David Remnick. Random House, 2000)

Joan Didion and Ron Rosenbaum on Leads

Joan Didion: "What's so hard about the first sentence is that you're stuck with it. Everything else is going to flow out of that sentence. And by the time you've laid down the first two sentences, your options are all gone."
(Joan Didion, quoted in "The Writer," 1985)

Ron Rosenbaum: "For me, the lead is the most important element. A good lead embodies much of what the story is about—its tone, its focus, its mood. Once I sense that this is a great lead I can really start writing. It is a heuristic: a great lead really leads you toward something."
(Ron Rosenbaum in "The New New Journalism: Conversations With America's Best Nonfiction Writers on Their Craft," by Robert S. Boynton. Vintage Books, 2005)

The Myth of the Perfect First Line

"It's a newsroom article of faith that you should begin by struggling for the perfect lead. Once that opening finally comes to you—according to the legend—the rest of the story will flow like lava.

"Not likely...Starting with the lead is like starting medical school with brain surgery. We've all been taught that the first sentence is the most important; so it's also the scariest. Instead of writing it, we fuss and fume and procrastinate. Or we waste hours writing and rewriting the first few lines, rather than getting on with the body of the piece...

"The first sentence points the way for everything that follows. But writing it before you've sorted out your material, thought about your focus, or stimulated your thinking with some actual writing is a recipe for getting lost.

When you're ready to write, what you need is not a finely polished opening sentence, but a clear statement of your theme."
(Jack R. Hart, "A Writer's Coach: An Editor's Guide to Words That Work." Random House, 2006)

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Nordquist, Richard. "Writing a Lead or Lede to an Article." ThoughtCo, Apr. 14, 2018, thoughtco.com/lead-lede-article-introductions-1691220. Nordquist, Richard. (2018, April 14). Writing a Lead or Lede to an Article. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/lead-lede-article-introductions-1691220 Nordquist, Richard. "Writing a Lead or Lede to an Article." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/lead-lede-article-introductions-1691220 (accessed April 25, 2018).