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Leading With a Killer Lede

Published: January 23, 2014

Author: Michelle Lowery

There are many ways to begin a blog post. See what I just did there? Normally, I would never begin a blog post, or any piece of writing that way. Ever. That’s no way to write a lede, yet I see opening sentences like that online at least once a day. It’s time to stop the insanity and write great ledes that make readers actually want to read the rest of the post, and maybe comply with whatever call to action you’ve got going on in there.
Whoa, hold on there. What’s this lede I’m talking about? Don’t I mean lead? Actually, no. Let’s get that out of the way before we get to the good stuff.

Why Lede Instead of Lead?

We can thank the good ol’ days of newspaper journalism for this one. In a newsroom, lede is used much more often than, if not to the exclusion of lead. In fact, the first time I saw it spelled this way was in something my husband wrote when he worked as a copyeditor at a local paper.
It’s difficult to pinpoint exactly where it came from or why, but this explanation in The New York Times (fitting) seems pretty plausible to me:

“I’ve always heard that lede was a deliberate misspelling,” says Carl Stepp, associate professor of journalism at the University of Maryland. “The wire-service formula reduced chances that a label of a story would appear in print. Nulede was used for ‘new lead’ because such obvious errors would stand out to the eye; the label could then be removed before the copy hit print.”

Makes sense, doesn’t it? And to further clarify, a lede can either refer to just the first sentence of a piece, or the entire first paragraph.
Regardless of how you choose to spell it—and I guess it’s OK if you spell it lead—it’s one of the most important components of any piece of writing you create. If you lose your reader within the first paragraph, you’ve wasted your time writing the rest of the piece.
I’m not going to cover the five Ws and H. You ought to know them pretty well by now, and they’re usually the first thing people will tell you to be aware of, especially in journalistic writing. So let’s look at some other things you may not be considering.

Don’t State the Obvious

I will refer you back to the opening sentence of this post. I’ve said this to writers so many times, I should probably just keep it written out somewhere for easy copying and pasting. Here goes:

Avoid using there is/are/was/were, or here is/are. It’s stating the obvious, and you can say the same thing with much more dynamic language.

Consider these two sentences:

There was a big table in the middle of the room.

The mahogany table, which took up most of the dining room, is where I sat to begin writing my novel.

When you read mahogany, do you see the color of the wood? And dining room helps your mind fill out more details than just plain room. Finally, saying the table took up most of the space in that room suggests its size without stating outright that the table is big.

Most importantly, the second sentence paints a picture for you rather than simply saying “there was a table.” Think about what you’re conveying to your readers—and how you’re going about it—before you fall back on the simplest of descriptors to describe what you’re writing about, and definitely don’t start your content off with such flat phrasing.

Start With a Verb

This is pretty much the complete opposite of there is/are/was/were, or here is/are. More often than not, starting with a verb may actually mean you start with a gerund, which is actually a verb in disguise as a noun, usually ending in -ing. For example, to ski is a verb; skiing is a gerund, a noun that indicates an activity when used this way:
Skiing is a fun sport, even though I’ve broken both my legs numerous times.
I just made that sentence up. I’ve never even been skiing. Mostly because I’d like my legs to remain intact, thankyouverymuch.
So if you were to construct a lede using a gerund, you might write something like:
Writing ledes gets easier when you throw out your old standby phrases and put a little thought into what you want to say.
Then you’d launch into your post about how to write ledes. Only don’t do that because I’m doing that right now. Get your own topic. Sheesh.

Refer to Your Topic

This could also be done very obviously, and it’s something else I see in a lot of blog posts:
In this blog post, we’ll discuss how to write ledes that will get your readers’ attention.
Sure, you’ve just told the reader what your piece is going to be about, but surely you can accomplish that in a more interesting way. Let’s look back at the last two examples:
The mahogany table, which took up most of the dining room, is where I sat to begin writing my novel.

Writing ledes gets easier when you throw out your old standby phrases, and put a little thought into what you want to say.

In both examples, we’ve answered a couple of those five W and H questions. In the first sentence, you know where the writer is, and what they’re doing. In the second sentence, you know exactly what the post is going to be about, and how that task is going to be accomplished.
So without coming right out and saying, “This is what I’m going to write about,” you tell the reader what you’re going to write about.
Now it’s your turn. Next time you write a blog post, article, white paper, or even an email, see if you can conjure a lede that grabs your readers’ attention, and holds onto it for more than a few words. And if you have any tips of your own for writing great ledes, I’d love to hear them in the comments.
Just don’t start with “There are many ways to write a great lede,” or your comment will have to be marked as spam. Sorry, but that’s the rule.

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