How To Write Great Lead Paragraphs (a.k.a. LEDES)

After the hed and dek, the lede paragraph is next on the information-delivery totem pole.

If the reader has made it to your lede paragraph, your HED and DEK have done their job—given enough information and intrigue to convince readers that it’s worth their time to read on. Either that or the HED and DEK are so unclear that readers are grasping to figure out what the heck the article is about. Hopefully, that is not the case, so I will move on.

The LEDE should put things quickly into context in an inviting way, not in a thick, jargon-y way. LEDEs don’t have to be flowery, anecdotal-laced writing as is common in many magazines, but real-world anecdotes are a good way to get in to a topic. Good LEDEs get into the topic quickly.

John Lively, a former President and CEO of Taunton Press, described ledes this way during an assistant editor training session: LEDEs close the deal. They should be one paragraph long or a reasonable length. They’re the entryway, they invite the reader in and define the scope and say why it’s important — what are the benefits? The lead should set the tone for the article, introduce the author and allow a personal choice (the reader’s) whether to read the article or not.”

Again, it is about helping the reader make choices about whether they are reading the right article or not.

For blogs with a single author or limited number of authors, the LEDE doesn’t have to introduce the author’s credibility. The About the author box or page can do that. In other types of writing, such as Fine Homebuilding articles, it’s a good idea to set up the author’s credentials quickly—

“I’ve been installing crown molding for more than thirty years; about ten years ago I tried something different on inside joints—mitering rather than coping—and I’ve never gone back.”

This establishes credibility (I’ve been installing crown molding for more than thirty years), is a bit intriguing (about ten years ago I tried something different on inside joints), and is controversial to finish carpenters (cutting miters on inside joints) to make the reader continue to the next sentence.

One of my favorite examples of HED, DEK, and LEDE is from an articles in Fine Homebuilding:

New Life for an Old Floor

How to prepare a wood floor for a new finish

BY CHARLES PETERSON

Quite honestly, I hate refinishing old floors. It’s ten times the work of finishing a new one, but I can’t charge a premium price. And aside from the potentially hazardous materials involved, I don’t like refinishing because of the hand-scraping—sometimes the whole perimeter—to remove the old finish. The saving grace is seeing my customer’s glee when I transform an old, destroyed floor into one in pristine condition.

Much like finishing a new floor, refinishing an old one involves sanding and applying an appropriate finish. However, before you start, you must determine whether the old floor can in fact be refinished.

  • The first part gives important information: the process sucks and the pay is low, but there are rewards.
  • The second part sets up the info in the article.

Charlie didn’t write this, he told it to me on the phone when we were talking about his article. It was the bottom-line of floor refinishing, in plain language, so that’s what we said in the LEDE.

Writing LEDEs for blogs is even trickier than for six page articles because blogs are often short. If you’re keeping the word count to around 500, you need to really focus the LEDE and make it work as hard as it can. The lede for short article should do some of the work for the main text because the lede takes a relatively larger percentage of the whole article.

Outside reference:

Society for Professional Journalists article Write brightly, not tritely

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