How to Write a Seductive Lede

You’re making me nervous.

You clicked on this link expecting to learn something or to perhaps be entertained. I could boldly hope that you may even retweet or bookmark this article. But a lot of that depends on my lede. Here’s hoping it worked.

Young woman of color in white shirt reading magazine intentlyAn article lede can stop a person in his tracks—both the writer who is terrified to start writing the article and the reader who becomes captivated by a great lede. You should aim to write captivating story ledes every day. Otherwise, what’s the point?

Without a seductive lede, your reader has clicked or flipped to a different page or tossed aside the magazine entirely. Here are a few dos and don’ts the next time you craft a story lede:

Show, Don’t Tell.

“Neal Wu’s last chance for international glory, and maybe America’s, too, begins with a sound like a hippo crunching through a field of dry leaves—the sound of 315 computer prodigies at 315 workstations ripping into 315 gray envelopes in unison. “You have five hours,” a voice booms across the packed gymnasium. ‘Good luck.’” This Wired article lede grabs the reader as he imagines what hippos crunching over dry leaves sound like.

But writer Jason Fagone does something equally important: he delivers. He doesn’t just write a strong lede, full of promise, and then merge into mediocre copy. He corrals the reader’s attention throughout with a gift for showing, not telling.

“Show, don’t tell” has almost become a cliché to those who studied journalism. But that’s because it’s so true. This starts in the research and interview process, when you must take detailed notes of your surroundings and your observances.

Don’t just say, “The kids played on the playground.” Say, “Three little boys, all about 5 or 6, chased each other furiously around the swing set, shouting battle cries, as a first-grader named Erica continued to swing.”

Surprise!

“Straddling the top of the world, one foot in Tibet and the other in Nepal, I cleared the ice from my oxygen mask, hunched a shoulder against the wind, and stared absently at the vast sweep of earth below. I understood on some dim, detached level that it was a spectacular sight. I’d been fantasizing about this moment, and the release of emotion that would accompany it, for many months. But now that I was finally here, standing on the summit of Mount Everest, I just couldn’t summon the energy to care.”

This is Jon Krakauer’s engrossing lede to his legendary Outside article “Into Thin Air.” Often when we read, our mind thinks it knows where the story is going. Throw in an unexpected twist, though, and the reader pauses, reconsiders his preconceived notions and is drawn to read more.

“Sara Thomas Monopoli was pregnant with her first child when her doctors learned that she was going to die.”

A sad and shocking start, but Atul Gawande’s “Letting Go” story lede in The New Yorker demands attention. The twist works because when we think of pregnancy, most people think of happy families and adorable babies, not death.

Arouse Curiosity

“Two nights before her mastectomy, D.J. Schneider Jensen slipped into a hot-pink T-shirt that proclaimed “Shh, they don’t know yet,” and drove a couple of miles through suburban Baltimore to her dear friend Brenda Gilbert Schuman’s home. There, in a living room festooned with bras and pink balloons, Jensen nibbled on a breast-shaped red velvet cake, modeled a tiara crafted from a bra and reveled in the love of 35 friends and family members.”

Make your readers curious— as in this Jewish Woman magazine feature lede. Isn’t that what we want all our stories to achieve? If readers aren’t curious, why would they continue to read the story? Be alert to what interests you as you conduct interviews and research; that’s probably what will interest your readers, too.

A Few Don’ts

Ledes that should make any invested reader cringe:
1. Don’t start with the dictionary lede: “Loyalty is defined as …” This is a cop-out that always causes me to think the writer had no idea where the story was going, therefore didn’t know how to begin.

2. Don’t rely too heavily on quotations: “Mark Twain once said …” It rarely works (unless, of course, you’re as skilled as Mark Twain).

3. Don’t start with the date and place: “On Wednesday, March 23, in Metropolis …”

4. Don’t bury the lede: A clever example that has stuck with me since journalism school, even if it probably (hopefully) wasn’t real: “The city council met Monday night at its monthly board meeting.” … Five paragraphs later, after chronologically listing the mundane business of the city, the reporter announces: “After the final vote, a man in the audience stood up and shot the mayor.”

Writing is—and should be—difficult. Don’t settle for the same patterns, language, formats and flow you’ve been using for years. Play with words and format. Don’t accept the ordinary.

What are your tips for writing the best ledes?

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