Taken from Newsroom Training, written by Steve Buttry for Writing Resources:
You need a crisp lede and a strong focus to keep the reader going. These techniques, compiled by Steve Buttry, Writing Coach, Omaha World-Herald, can help strengthen your story, especially the critical top few paragraphs. (June, 2002)
Writing Your Lede
Your lede sets the pace for your story. A brief, breezy lede invites the reader into a story with the promise of a lively pace. A ponderous lede invites the reader to move to the next story, in which case it doesn’t matter how long or how good the rest of your story is.
- Start early.
As you’re reporting, think about the lede. Are you observing an exchange that might provide a scene the lede? Did you just hear the fact that belongs in the lede? Don’t lock in on one lede so that you miss a better one that comes up. Use the reporting process as an audition for potential ledes. Write them down as they occur to you, either in your notebook or on the screen.
- Write as you report.
After your first interview or two, start writing. You may not have your lede yet, but starting to write gets your mind into the story earlier. Keep writing after subsequent interviews. Write each time as though this is the story. You may write two or three ledes before you’re finished with the story. But have you hurt your story if your seventh paragraph, or your 15th, has as much polish as your lede?
- Avoid the blank screen.
Too many writers spend too long laboring over the lede before they get started writing. If you don’t have a good idea for a lede, write a simple declarative sentence and get on with the story: “The School Board meeting discussed education Monday.” Yes, it’s dull. No, you’d never turn that in. But it may get you started and keep you from wasting time staring at the blank screen. Writing the story may help you find your lede. Then you go back and write the better lede.
- Use story elements.
Decide which is the strongest element in your story: plot, character, setting, conflict, theme. Your lede should focus on the strongest element. Or perhaps the lede should highlight the intersection of two elements: a character in conflict, perhaps. If plot is the strongest element, beware of starting at the beginning. Newspaper readers and editors may not read long enough to find out how it comes out. Consider starting at the climax, or at least at a critical moment that establishes the conflict.
- Don’t forget the basics.
If you’re stuck for a lede, ask which of the five W’s or How is the most important question for this story.
- Expand on the basics.
Maybe your lede lies not in one of the five W’s, but in a related question: How much? So what? What next? Why not? Who benefits? Who’s hurt?
- Write without your notes.
This is a helpful technique for your whole first draft, but it’s especially helpful in writing the lede. Notes can be a distraction. Go back to them later when you’re checking facts.
- Get to the point.
If you use an anecdotal or scene-setting lede that delays your explanation of the underlying issue, introduce or at least allude to the issue in your lede.
- Entice the reader.
Don’t treat your lede as a suitcase into which you will cram as much as you can fit. Regard it more like a g-string, brief and enticing. If your lede captures the essence of your story in a few words, the reader will read on to learn the facts. You don’t need them all in the lede. A long lede shows a lack of confidence, like you don’t believe I’ll read the whole story so you have to tell me as much as you can as fast as you can.
Strengthening Your Lede
Once you’ve finished the story, go back and strengthen your lede, even if it’s good and especially if it’s long.
- Challenge every word.
However long your lede is, consider whether it could be shorter. If it’s longer than 30 words, it’s almost definitely too long. A lede that long has to flow smoothly to work, and few ledes that long flow smoothly. Try writing a lede of 10 words or fewer. Maybe you can’t for this story, but it’s always good to try. Especially if your lede is more than 20 words, challenge each piece of the lede and ask whether that actually has to be in your very first paragraph.
- Challenge the verbs.
Are you using the strongest appropriate verb? Is it in active voice? Never use a form of the verb “to be” in your lede without trying some alternatives. Sometimes it’s the only accurate verb, but see if a stronger verb works. Challenge other weak verbs, such as have, do and get.
- Avoid vague phrases.
If your lede starts with (or uses) vague phrases such as there are or it is, see if you can rewrite it with strong, specific subjects and verbs.
- Keep it simple.
Ask whether you’re trying to tell too much in your lede. Are you answering all the 5 W’s, when a couple could wait till the second graf? Don’t try to cram everything into your lede.
- Make one point.
Does your lede have multiple points? If so, perhaps you haven’t decided what the story truly is about. Decide which point is most important and write a lede that makes just that point.
- Remember the news.
Does your lede get right to the news? Does it emphasize the news?
- Stamp out punctuation.
Many of the best ledes have one piece of punctuation, a period. Regard multiple commas or dashes as red flags. See if you can write a smoother sentence with just one comma or none. If you have lots of punctuation in the lede, read it aloud so you can hear whether it’s choppy or whether it flows smoothly.
- Minimize attribution.
Attribution lengthens a lede, as well as weakening it. Can you state something as a fact, rather than hedging it with attribution? If not, do you need to bolster your reporting, so you can write more authoritatively?
- Subtract numbers.
If you use any numbers in your lede, their impact must be strong and their meaning and relationship must be immediately evident. If the reader has to stop and ponder the numbers, they don’t belong in the lede. (They may not even belong in the story, but in a graphic). Rarely could you justify using more than two numbers in a lede.
- Challenge prepositions and conjunctions.
Identify each prepositional phrase in the lede and consider whether the information it adds is worth the words it adds. Can it be replaced with a single adjective or adverb? If your lede contains and, or or but, consider whether you’re introducing another element that you should save for the second paragraph.
- Challenge adjectives and adverbs.
Consider whether the lede would be stronger without each of the adjectives adverbs. What do they add? Can you eliminate them by using more specific (and stronger) nouns or verbs?
- Challenge phrases.
Can you eliminate a phrase without hurting the lede? Can you replace a phrase with a single word?
- Write an alternative lede.
Write a shorter lede and evaluate the two side by side. Or write a lede taking another approach. Don’t accept a long lede without testing it against a shorter lede.
- One hedge is plenty.
If you’ve hedged the central statement of your lede, with a “may” or “might,” do you really need to hedge again by attributing it? Consider whether you can write a stronger statement in the first place. Or at least consider whether you can make the hedged statement without attribution.
- Don’t sweat the details.
An important detail might strengthen your lede, but many details bog down a lede. Tighten your lede by cutting details that can wait until later in the story. Rarely do you need both a person’s name and identification in the lede. If the name is not immediately recognizable to the reader, just use the identification in the lede. Or if the person is in the story as Everyman, just use the name and tell the reader later who he is.
- Don’t get lost in process.
On many beats, particularly government and court beats, reporters must learn and understand lots of processes. Sometimes the reporter loses perspective and thinks the process is as important to readers as it is to sources. Readers care most about results. If your lede focuses on process, or includes some process details, consider whether it would be stronger focusing on results.
- Try to make fun of your lede.
Did you write any obvious statements that will draw a “duh!” from the reader? Do you have any awkward juxtapositions or double entendres? If you know a smart-ass colleague who makes fun of such stories in the paper, enlist his aid by asking him to read your story in advance. If something does get by him, at least you know he won’t be the one making fun this time.
- Focus on reader impact.
Does your lede tell the reader why this story is important to her? If not, should it?
- Say what is, not what isn’t.
Sometimes you have to tell the reader what isn’t, but usually you should tell the reader what is. If your lede has a not or a never, consider whether you can recast to say what is.
- Punch quickly.
Examine the first few words of your lede. Are they strong? Do they get to the point immediately? Can you open with key words that immediately identify what the story is about?
- Close with a kick.
Examine the last few words of your lede. Are they strong? Do they carry the reader right into the next paragraph.
–Taken from Newsroom Training, written by Steve Buttry for Writing Resources.