14 Writing the Lede
Crafting the doorway into your article
“The difference between the almost right word and the right word is … the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning.”
The quest for the lede begins as soon as reporting begins, and like a detective, a feature writer is constantly striving to find the best way to bring readers into his or her story.
Steve Rushin of Sports Illustrated recalls a story he did on the Bass Master Class, which he called “the Super Bowl of bass fishing.” Fish were weighed at the Birmingham Convention Center, and all-day anglers would swagger in wearing NASCAR-style suits and their biggest catch of the day with a sold-out crowd cheering them on.
Outside the convention center stands a statue of legendary college football coach Bear Bryant, arguably Alabama’s most famous sports figure — and no one paid any attention to it, including the high school fishing teams outside cheering on the competitors.
“I didn’t even know there were high school fishing teams,” Rushin said. “And here is the icon of Bear Bryant in Alabama, representing a sport that dominates the state, being ignored by these high school fishing teams cheering these fish weigh-ins. All week long that image lingered with me, and I knew that was going to be the lede.”
As you do the reporting, you can hear the lede. You can see where the piece is going to start. Somebody might say something that surprises you. How they say it, maybe that’s a good place to start. If you attune yourself to it, you can hear ledes.
Unlike a news story, the lede in features is not just the first graph. It might be several paragraphs. It can be several hundred words if they are constructed properly.
I often think about a feature article like a house and the lede is the door we use to get inside.
That means the door has to connect to the house. It should also be ornate enough to be welcoming but not garish enough to repel. When I walk through it, I better feel welcome and have a good idea of where I am heading, or I am just as inclined to go back outside.
A news-writing lede for an inverted pyramid story is often painfully straightforward: who, what, when, where, why and how.
After reading that, I know the facts, but I am not going to care to get into the story nearly as much as I would if I am drawn in by some personal tale or experience — some character to which I can relate — before learning those six key facts.
A personal anecdote, description, narrative or scenario is more often than not the best way to pull a reader into a story — no matter what the topic.
Consider these examples of different feature ledes:
Moving around the big yellow kitchen lined with stainless steel ovens, prep tables, stacks of King Arthur flour, blocks of Cabot’s butter, and bowls piled with chunks of rich, dark, Callebaut chocolate, 43-year-old Vermont chef, farmer and foodie entrepreneur Abbey Duke inhaled the rich buttery smell of holiday cookies cooling on the racks beside her and broke into a smile.
Cookies for Goodi, The Saturday Evening Post, Nov. 1, 2013
The beat-up black BMW sputtered to a stop, and Harold Stonier stepped out onto the New Bedford waterfront. The sky was overcast, with gulls wheeling in circles overhead. Their cackling grew to a din as Harold walked through the parking lot, past trucks painted with the name “Tempest Fisheries.” A cold breeze, carrying with it the stench of dead fish and brine, blew off the water as he climbed the concrete steps to a rusty, steel-sided building.
The desolate waterfront must have looked perfect to Harold, who was a fan of mob movies and TV shows like “The Sopranos.” It must have been exactly the type of place he had in mind when he logged onto Mafia.com to search for a hitman.
The name he’d found was Frank “Bruno” Moniz, a bodybuilder and right-hand man to South Coast mob lord Timothy Mello. Moniz was working as a truck driver at Tempest Fisheries while awaiting trial on charges including racketeering, drug trafficking and illegal gambling. If Harold had any second thoughts about hiring Moniz, he must have pushed them aside. As he entered the office, the secretary saw a tall, well-dressed man with a boyish face and neatly trimmed hair parted to one side.
“Is Frank here?” Harold asked. The secretary told him no. Harold had come prepared for this. He took a white envelope out of his coat and handed it over. “Just tell Frank this is from Alan Parker and that I’ll call him,” he said. The secretary dutifully printed on the envelope “Alan Parker. He’ll call you,” in cramped letters.
“A Murder Story,” by Michael Blanding, Boston Feature, September 2004
The tantrums were “epic” remembers Brianne DeRosa. The Cranston, Rhode Island, mom admits that her 5-year-old son, Patrick, is still sometimes challenging. But when he was a toddler, he had rage-filled episodes at daycare and couldn’t be calmed. The center wanted Patrick to be evaluated for mood disorders, sensory problems, and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). DeRosa wasn’t convinced. Since his behavior improved over the weekends, she wondered whether the packaged snacks served at daycare could be the culprit.
When she asked for the labels and combed through the ingredients, she kept spotting synthetic food dyes. She asked the teacher to stop giving him the colored snacks, and his tantrums disappeared after a couple of days. “Within a few weeks, it was like nothing was wrong,” says DeRosa.
“The Food Dye Blues,” by Sally Kuzemchak, Parents Feature, June 2014
My husband and I decided to be a one-child family long before our son Oliver was born. With several years of reproductive-health scares behind me, conceiving a child felt like a Powerball win; I didn’t need another chance at the jackpot. Scott thought we could avoid the inevitable slings and arrows of sibling warfare. We both hail from large families, in which continuation of the family name is assured through siblings and cousins. We were content with our decision, and our families took it well, too. A few months after Oliver was born, I bagged up my maternity clothes for a tag sale, and Scott started researching permanent birth-control options.
Is One Child Enough? by Diana Burrell, Parenting,com
Notice what these ledes are not a summary of the story (like the inverted pyramid), nor are they an introductory paragraph (like an academic paper).
Lucas Sullivan of The Dispatch shared one of the best tips he received about lede writing: “If you were talking about a story like a game you just watched, whatever is the first thing you would tell your friend, spouse, partner, that is your lede.”
“Find what excites you most about the story and tell that,” Sullivan said. “I’ll do that if I don’t know how to find my way into a story. I’ll be like what is the thing that excited me the most. I will write that and then I’ll finish the rest of the feature around it.”
The goal of the feature lede is to pique the reader’s interest, grab their attention, introduce the characters and set the article’s direction.
Part of setting that direction is to ensure that the lede takes us toward the nut graph of the story.
Let’s consider this lede from Wired Feature:
Marathon swimmer Mike Spalding was 10 hours into an epic 33-mile voyage between Maui and the Big Island when his escort boat lost sight of him. Being the middle of the night and all, the captain was forced to fire up his lights to reestablish contact with the kayaker at Spalding’s side. This, ironically enough, is the absolute last resort when you get lost swimming in the darkness. With the kayak’s light now blazing as well, the creatures of the nighttime sea began to take notice. Squid amassed around Spalding as he slogged on, forming a slowly moving bait ball. He took a hit from one, and then another and another. After the fourth bump, Spalding felt a sharp pain in his chest.
It was the first bite, albeit just a nibble. The 62-year-old (that’s not a typo) Spalding broke for the kayak.
“As I was eggbeatering to get into the kayak with my legs perpendicular to the surface of the water, I felt this sharp hit on my leg,” he told WIRED. “It wasn’t painful, but it was like you got punched or something. And so I ran my fingers down my calf and I felt this hole.
“It’s a big-ass hole.”
And see how it takes us to this nut graph:
Spalding had earned the dubious title of first living human confirmed to have been attacked by a cookiecutter shark, which gored a 3-inch-wide crater in his leg. At no more than two feet long, this diminutive terror nevertheless packs a set of teeth that are bigger than any other shark relative to body size, according to George Burgess, an ichthyologist and director of the Florida Program for Shark Research at the Florida Museum of Natural History. It’s a glow-in-the-dark evolutionary marvel of the open ocean that takes on beasts hundreds of times its size, including submarines. And it almost always wins.
You have no doubt after reading the lede that the story is taking us in the direction revealed in the nut graph. The story told in the lede shows us clearly where we are heading and how we will get there.
Michael Farber of Sports Illustrated said he started his career with scene ledes — “Here they are in the dressing room or having dinner” — but as he became more comfortable in the work environment, he realized that sometimes features “start where they start.”
“I did a piece on Erik Karlsson in 2016, and the piece starts with how the NHL deals with injury and the secrecy around the injury,” he recalled. “It leads to Karlsson not saying exactly what was wrong with him. It just starts where it starts. A scene lede may not the best place but it’s rarely a bad place to start.”
Listen for the ding
Listening is a key part of interviewing, and one reason for that is to hear the lede and conclusion when they present themselves.
I feel like a virtual bell goes off in my head when I hear my sources provide either the anecdote or quote that will be shaped into the bookend beginning and end of my articles. When I hear the bells, I know to mark those parts with an “L” for lede or “C” for the conclusion.
Conversely, if I don’t hear the dings in my head, I know I need to keep asking questions until I do.
It happened when I was interviewing Columbus (Ohio) Police Chief Kim Jacobs for a profile when I asked her about when she first thought about becoming a police officer. Notice this is a different question than “How did you become a police officer.” Turns out she was sitting with her family in a Pizza Hut when a police officer walked by and noticed how athletic she was (Jacobs was a college track star), and asked her point-blank, “Have you ever thought of becoming a police officer?”
As soon as I heard her say it, I knew I needed that anecdote for my lede.
Conversely, when I wrote about the rise of home births, I knew I wanted my lede to be what it was like for a woman having a birth at home, so I had to get as clear a description as a family feature would print.
In that case, I knew the anecdote I needed; I just needed to ask the questions that would pull it out.
After interviewing one couple, I had great material, but I still couldn’t see it, so I asked them to “walk me through it,” by visiting their bedroom and sharing the experience with them — after the fact.
Here is what we came up with:
The avocado-colored walls of Erin and Ben Johnson’s Clintonville bedroom provide a soothing backdrop for the couple’s queen-size bed. It rests on a fluffy white rug in front of a south-facing window bank. On a lazy summer afternoon, it appears the perfect spot for reading while sipping ice tea under the slowly circulating ceiling fan, or even drifting off for a nap before dinner.
But for Erin Johnson, it was the perfect place to have her baby.
Johnson was neither caught off guard by rapid labor nor trapped by a snowstorm. The birth of her son, August, went exactly as planned using the latest (controversial) trend to sweep the childbirth industry throughout the country and in Greater Columbus — a pre-arranged home birth.
A self-proclaimed homebody, Johnson never had been to a hospital and isn’t particularly fond of doctors — two reasons that led her to consider giving birth in her house. It was a decision her husband, Ben, deputy director of communications at the Ohio Department of Job and Family Services, fully supported.
“It seemed like the most natural choice in all the research I did,” she says. “I’m a personal trainer. My background is in science. The more I read about natural birth and how things happen, the more I realized unnecessary intervention in a hospital setting happens more than it needs to. But our bodies are capable of this. They have been doing it for thousands and thousands of years.”
Johnson admits she hedged her bet. She continued to visit an obstetrician simultaneous to her meetings with midwives at CHOICE — the Center for Humane Options in Childbirth Experiences, an organization in Worthington that assists with many of Central Ohio’s home births.
Whether to birth at home was a “game-time decision,” she says. “Using the midwives was my first choice. But I also knew if something went wrong … I could get to the hospital and call the doctor and say, ‘Hey, I’m here.’ ”
While most women pack a hospital bag around the 37th week of pregnancy that includes comfortable clothes, a toothbrush and family photos, the Johnsons instead prepared a birthing box they stored in the basement, which included super-absorbent Chux pads, sheets they didn’t mind throwing away and a bowl to catch the placenta.
Erin awoke at 3:30 am on July 22, 2010, with her first contractions, although they were manageable enough for her to handle a few personal training clients that morning at Move Your Mind in Upper Arlington. By 11 am, things were serious enough to head home.
Her water broke at 1 pm while she was lying on her bed, and she labored alone in the shower until Ben and the midwives arrived about a half-hour later. They took one look at her, Ben recalls, and said, “It’s time to set up!”
“It wasn’t necessarily painful,” Erin says. “I think they just heard the rise and fall of my moans.”
By the time Ben had changed out of his work clothes and gathered the supplies, Erin was dried off and in full-blown labor.
August Dylan was born at 2:56 pm, weighing 10 pounds and measuring 21 inches.
Ledes to Avoid
What is it: Talks directly to the reader, using “you” and starting with a verb of command.
Example: You are walking down the street, trying to decide where to eat when suddenly the smell of fresh-baked bread catches your senses.
The problem: This is a lazy way to try and manufacture an anecdotal feel, but it is not an anecdote. There is also no guarantee that readers feel as you do, and it’s a quick way to alienate them before the article has even begun.
What is it: You use a quote from a source, or even worse a Bartlett’s famous quotation, to start the story.
Example: “The times they are a-changing,” wrote Bob Dylan, and that is certainly the truth on High Street, just north of campus.
The problem: At best, this is cliché. At worst, you are using your best quotes before you have even pulled readers into the story. Besides, quotes are intended to support facts. You haven’t presented any facts yet to support.
What is it: Asks readers a question in the hopes of engaging them to find out the answer.
Example: What do a college freshman and a new puppy have in common?
The problem: Readers want answers, not questions. And you are either asking readers a question to which they know the answer (so they are already bored) or one for which they do not have the answer (so they feel stupid). Neither circumstance can benefit you as the writer.
Finding the Lede
The anecdotes needed for your lede — and your body — come in your interviews, and that means you must ask questions that pull out the information you need.