The Lede: Making readers want to stay

August 13, 2022

Writing a good lede is like meeting an angry drunk in a dark parking lot. You have to hit him over the head right away to get his attention.

At least, that’s what an editor told me early in my career. While the comparison is a bit violent for my taste, it is impossible to overstate the importance of your first sentence or two in writing. How you begin an article, blog, or the Great American Novel you have been writing in secret for 10 years will determine whether readers will spend 5 seconds on your golden prose or stay until the last sentence.

The best ledes are unforgettable. The great Edna Buchanan, Pulitzer-Prize winning crime reporter for the Miami Herald, elevated the lede to an art form. One of her ledes became famous. It opened the story she wrote about the aftermath of a fight at a Church’s Chicken. A drunken customer named Gary Robinson staggered in, pushing in front of a long line to order a three-piece chicken dinner. He was sent to the back of the line. By the time Robinson shuffled back to the counter, the restaurant had run out of the pieces he preferred. When a worker offered him chicken nuggets, Robinson slugged her. A fight broke out, and a security guard shot him dead.

Buchanan’s lede? “Gary Robinson died hungry.”

You know a great lede the instant you read it. Years ago, Reader’s Digest Condensed Books published a condensed Bible, leading many to wonder which of the 10 Commandments the publishers would lop off the list. A review of the slimmed-down Good Book in the Washington Post began this way: “In the beginning was the Word. And the Word was too long.”

I learned early how difficult it is to write a great lede when explaining technical issues. When I was in graduate school for journalism, my sister Claudia, then a captain in the Army, brought home a lengthy Reagan Administration plan intended to change physical requirements for women in the military, Its proposed point system seemed designed to reduce the number of females in the armed forces. I wrote a workmanlike story about the issue, but my lede was about a thousand words long and a real dud. Nonetheless, the Chicago Tribune ran the article, but rewrote my lede, boiling it down to this sentence: “If a woman wants to ‘be all that she can be’ in the Army, she’ll have to press iron first.” Perfect.

The clip arrived in the mail the day I was to interview at the Lawrence Eagle-Tribune and helped me get my first newspaper job. A good thing, too, as I’m still waiting to get paid for the article.

A few years ago a high-level government official asked me to help him write a commentary for AARP magazine on the issue of fraud and waste in health care. The lede had to make this important, but utterly eye-glazing topic, seem interesting. I could almost feel my forehead bleed as I brainstormed. Finally, I wrote, “Fraud and waste are the Bonnie and Clyde of health care.” I could get away with this lede because the magazine’s elderly demographic would remember that Bonnie and Clyde were bank robbers, while such a comparison would have been lost on a younger audience.

The better your lede, the more effective your writing will be. It doesn’t really have to hit readers over the head. But it does have to make them want to linger.

Photo credit: Warner Brothers

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