Thinking about ledes

If your opening sucks, it doesn’t matter what else you say.

That was the theme for a writing workshop I hosted this week at EFF,  with some help from the ever-amazing Danny O’Brien.

We gathered a group of about 10 folks to discuss ledes on Friday afternoon. For the first 20-30 minutes, we talked about the philosophy of ledes and walked through several articles that demonstrated different approaches. I also created a handy worksheet (copied below in case anybody wants to steal it).

After walking through the basics, I passed out a few paragraphs from a complicated, very technical article and asked people to write the headline and first few sentences. Everybody had to write at least two ledes, then pair up and share them with a partner. Afterwards, we got back together as a group and shared a few.

This is the second time I’ve led a writing workshop specifically focused on ledes, and I personally thought it was a blast. I loved the fact that people actually brought pens, wrote something down, and shared it with the group. So often, writing workshops are about thinking, analyzing, and providing feedback, and that accesses the analytic parts of the brain without engaging the creative side. But there’s something a bit magical and even silly about taking pen to paper and creating something on the spot. And then getting to hear what people wrote—unpolished, a bit messy—is also really exciting for me. I am amazed at the ideas people come up with, and I also love the practice of working creatively and then sharing fearlessly in a welcoming environment.

While we didn’t have enough time for it Friday, I think creativity inspires creativity. One or two people who are willing to think outside the box and then share their writing can inspire others to want to do the same. So ideally, I’d like to do this workshop with enough time to do two rounds of free writing.

The main result of the workshop, I hope, is simply mindfulness. The next time someone from the group sits down to write a blog post, they’ll hopefully remember how vital those first few lines are and then give themselves permission to take a few risks.

My workshop handout:

Ledes are Awesome!

What is it?

  • Title
  • Subtitle
  • First couple lines (see examples)

Imagine that you are a director. Your lede is the opening shot in the movie.

What’s the purpose?

  • Convince people to click on the article
    • Intriguing
    • Relatable
    • Alarming
    • Funny
    • Fascinating
    • A topic you care about a lot
  • Convince people to keep reading after the first sentence
  • (Sometimes) Convey all the important stuff in an article, so people get the main gist even if they stop reading
  • Sets the tone for the rest of the article

Why should I care?

In some ways, the lede matters more than any other section in your article. If you don’t get it right, it doesn’t matter what you say later because people won’t click on your article or will abandon it before they get far along.

Also, some people will only EVER see the lede (e.g. skimming Google News results)

Strategies for the process of writing ledes:

  • Write several different ledes (both title and intro text); don’t just go with your first idea.
  • Don’t phone it in.
  • Get creative in a few drafts (you don’t have to use a creative idea, but it helps to get you thinking outside the box to write a few!). Remember: nobody sees your shitty first drafts.
  • Remember: there is no one single “right” way to write a lede!

Some ideas to try:

  • Assertions that may seem unlikely.
  • Narrative moments
  • Powerful quotes
  • A summary of the article—but only if it is a truly amazing summary!
  • A particularly intriguing fact or figure
  • A relatable human

Some things you might want to try to avoid in your lede:

  • A bunch of acronyms
  • Specific names of cases, bills and laws
  • Trying to cram all the details into the first sentence
  • “Last week” and other dated time references
  • Too many facts and figures can be bad (though one really scary fact or figure can be great)
  • A bunch of links

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