The Lead / The Lede

The lead (or lede) is usually the toughest part of writing a story. The lead is the first word, sentence or paragraph of the story. Sometimes it can be two or three paragraphs.

Whatever its length, the lead has several important jobs to do. First, it must interest the reader in the rest of the story. Imagine the reader as impatient, with lots of other things he or she could be doing instead of reading your story. Imagine the reader saying, "Get to the POINT! Don't waste my time! Tell me the STORY!"

If your reader were stranded on a desert island with nothing to read but your story, you could probably get away with a vague, rambling lead. But today's reader has a BART train to catch, the kids are fighting again and the TV never stops blaring. Your story has tough competition.

Surveys have shown that most people say they get their news from TV, but many then turn to newspapers for the details behind the headlines.

Your job is to write a short, punchy, informative lead to attract readers who have grown accustomed to TV's "sound bite" journalism. But then you must supply the details, the insights, the context that TV doesn't have time for.

What are the rules for a good lead?

Keep it short. News writing is always tight, but the lead calls for special care. Condense your story into one sentence, then one phrase, then one word. Make sure that word is near the beginning of the lead. As a general rule, no lead sentence should be longer than 10 words.

Get to the point. What is the story about? Tell the reader in the lead. Don't say, "The city council met last night." Tell the reader what the city council did. "Business taxes were raised a whopping 30 percent on a 6-1 vote of the city council last night." What's the story about? Taxes. So get taxes in the lead.

Focus on the action. Use the "active voice." Instead of saying something happened, say who did what to who. Use the action word. If nobody did anything, it probably not a news story.

Hook the reader. Put the most important, the most interesting, the most exciting thing in the lead. A novel may take 100 pages to lead up to the climax of the story; a news story puts the climax first and then explains what led up to it.

These rules are sometimes thrown out for feature leads, or "anecdotal leads" that start with a little story that sets the scene for the point you are trying to make. But the lean, punchy news lead will work best on most stories.