Well begun is half done. Scratch that—no clichés. Um. Just as breakfast is the most important meal of the day, the beginning is the most important part of a story. Snore. And that first bit isn’t even true.
But the second part is. We’ve all heard the advice:
“I urge you not to count on the reader to stick around. Readers want to know—very soon—what’s in it for them,” William Zinsser wrote in On Writing Well, his classic guide to nonfiction writing. “Therefore your lead must capture the reader immediately and force him to keep reading.”
“A good lead beckons and invites. It informs, attracts, and entices,” says Chip Scanlan—of the Poynter Institute—in “The Power of Leads.”
“It’s got to deliver on what you promise,” says New Yorker contributor John McPhee of ledes in an interview with The Paris Review. “It should shine like a flashlight down through the piece.”
How do you write a lede that does all this? Here are four editors on ledes they love and why they love them, and the writers on how they did it.
(As for why journalists sometimes write “ledes” rather than “leads”—there’s some lore attributing the practice to the days of linotype, though the lore may be a fable.)
Make the Reader Smile
Interstellar‘s True Black Hole Too Confusing
by Jacob Aron for New Scientist
Lede: Even black holes wear makeup in Hollywood. Last year’s hit film Interstellar used real scientific equations to depict what happens when a team of space farers venture near a supermassive black hole. Now, a joint paper published in the journal Classical and Quantum Gravity from the movie’s visual effects team and scientific consultant reveal that the real black hole was deemed too confusing for audiences, and some of the science had to be toned down.
The editor’s take: “This is my favorite lede of any story I’ve worked on in the past year,” says Lisa Grossman, physical sciences news editor at New Scientist. “It’s hilarious, evocative, and gives you an accurate sense of what the story is about all at the same time.”
The lede should get to the point immediately, Grossman says, with the news nearly always in the first sentence. She also likes humor: “The perfect lede ideally first makes you smile, and then makes you keep reading.”
The writer’s take: The best ledes give you a taste of the story but leave you wanting to know more, says Jacob Aron, physical sciences reporter at New Scientist. Inspiration for a good first line often comes after work, when he’s done reporting but hasn’t started writing. “I’ll have stories from the day before buzzing around in my head, planning out different structures, and something will pop into my head,” he says. “Sometimes I’ll be just falling asleep when something occurs to me, so I blearily grab for my phone and email it to myself.”
Aron didn’t have time to wait for inspiration for his Interstellar lede, though, because the story had a short embargo. Luckily, an idea popped into his head on the spot. While the press release pitched the “Hollywood does real physics” angle, when Aron read the paper he realized that the black hole’s original depiction had been even more real—but so strange the director worried it would leave viewers in the dark.
“I immediately loved this, as it just seemed so typically Hollywood that even the supposedly most realistic depiction of a black hole ever wasn’t safe,” Aron says. “And then I got an image of this monstrous singularity in the fabric of the universe sitting in a trailer, doing its makeup before being called onto the set.”
Leave the Reader Hanging
Mysterious Fairy Circles Are “Alive”
by Rachel Nuwer for Science
Lede: Walter Tschinkel may not have solved the mystery of the fairy circles, but he can tell you that they’re alive. Tens of thousands of the formations—bare patches of soil, 2 to 12 meters in diameter—freckle grasslands from southern Angola to northern South Africa, their perimeters often marked by a tall fringe of grass. Locals say they’re the footprints of the gods. Scientists have thrown their hands up in the air. But now Tschinkel, a biologist at Florida State University in Tallahassee, has discovered something no one else has.
The editor’s take: This lede has everything David Grimm wants. “I’m looking for a few things in a lede: an attention-grabbing first sentence; a clear, concise, and user-friendly summary of the new finding; and a sense of why the average reader should care,” says Grimm, online news editor at Science.
Grimm also likes ledes that are “lean and mean.” He favors short, snappy sentences that are free of jargon and information that isn’t necessary to hook the reader, such as the journal name and research institution.
The writer’s take: Freelancer Rachel Nuwer learned how to write ledes by working with her editors, who “can expedite the process of discovering what differentiates a mediocre lede from an exceptional one.” Her experience is common. “I’ve seen and rewritten thousands of ledes,” Grimm says.
Nuwer wrote this fairy-circle story early in her career, and collaborating with Grimm taught her to structure ledes as mini-anecdotes. Her fairy-circle lede introduces a character (biologist Walter Tschinkel), includes the news (fairy circles are alive), defines fairy circles, and—crucially—leaves readers wanting to know more.
Ledes should “present some form of tension, mystery, surprise, or challenge,” Nuwer says.
Collaborating with another editor, Richard Fisher at the BBC, taught her that ledes in longer stories should tease the reader—giving bits of tantalizing information early on, but not the whole story. “Regardless of the length of the story, however, the more compelling the lede, the better the chances that the reader will read on,” Nuwer says.
Find Common Ground with the Reader
How to Teach Old Ears New Tricks
by Gabriel Wyner for Scientific American Mind
Lede: “Hi! I’m Gabe. What’s your name?”
“Seung-heon. Nice to meet you, Gabe.”
“Sorry, I missed that. What’s your name again?”
This is bad.
“Seung-heon. It’s okay—just call me Jerry. Everyone does.”
I hate it when this happens. I have every intention of learning this person’s name, and my brain is simply not cooperating. I can’t seem to hear what he’s saying, I can’t pronounce it correctly, and there’s no way I’m going to remember it for more than five seconds.
The editor’s take: “This is one of my favorite ledes of all time,” says Karen Schrock Simring, news and letters editor at Scientific American Mind. “It’s instantly relatable—we’ve all been there—and it’s an instant scene.” She adds that starting with a short dialogue is a lot more fun than just describing this predicament (“Remember the last time you met someone with an unusual foreign name and you just couldn’t hear it properly?”).
Simring says the best ledes are emotionally evocative and show rather than tell, giving readers an instant mini-experience without telling them what they should be feeling by using words like tragic, staggering, or amazing. She also likes ledes that introduce the story’s main points effortlessly. “It’s lovely to read an introductory section of an article and be totally sucked in—so engrossed that you don’t even realize you’ve just hit the nut graf or moved into the meat of the article,” she says.
The writer’s take: A good lede connects readers with their own experiences in a funny or provocative way, says Gabriel Wyner, author of Fluent Forever, a science-based guide to learning new languages. While distinguishing sounds in foreign languages is not a universal frustration, many of us have had trouble with foreign names. “My goal was to evoke a memory of this sort of struggle,” he says, helping readers empathize with people who struggle in the same way while learning a foreign language.
Identifying a part of your story that readers can understand experientially shows them why you care about it. “If you can find that connection, then you can bring them in and have them share in your own excitement,” Wyner says.
Make a Promise and Establish Tension
by David Quammen for National Geographic
Lede: Some places on this planet are so wondrous, and so frangible, that maybe we just shouldn’t go there.
Maybe we should leave them alone and appreciate them from afar. Send a delegated observer who will absorb much, walk lightly, and report back as Neil Armstrong did from the moon—and let the rest of us stay home. That paradox applies to Kronotsky Zapovednik, a remote nature reserve on the east side of Russia’s Kamchatka Peninsula, along the Pacific coast a thousand miles north of Japan. It’s a splendorous landscape, dynamic and rich, tumultuous and delicate, encompassing 2.8 million acres of volcanic mountains and forest and tundra and river bottoms as well as more than 700 brown bears, thickets of Siberian dwarf pine (with edible nuts for the bears) and relict “graceful” fir (Abies sachalinensis) left in the wake of Pleistocene glaciers, a major rookery of Steller sea lions on the coast, a population of kokanee salmon in Kronotskoye Lake, along with sea-run salmon and steelhead in the rivers, eagles and gyrfalcons and wolverines and many other species—terrain altogether too good to be a mere destination. With so much to offer, so much at stake, so much that can be quickly damaged but (because of the high latitudes, the slow growth of plants, the intricacies of its geothermal underpinnings, the specialness of its ecosystems, the delicacy of its topographic repose) not quickly repaired, does Kronotsky need people, even as visitors? I raise this question, acutely aware that it may sound hypocritical, or anyway inconsistent, given that I’ve recently left my own boot prints in Kronotsky’s yielding crust.
The editor’s take: “This lede has it all,” says Tim De Chant, senior digital editor at NOVA and editor of NOVA Next. “There’s a hook, a story, and some familiarity, but ultimately there’s something unsettled and unfinished about it. We want to read more.”
The first sentence hooks us. “With just two words—’wondrous’ and ‘frangible’—Quammen has us thinking, ‘Wherever this place is, I really have to see it,’” De Chant says. “But then he pulls the rug out from under us. The sentence is enticing but leaves us wanting.”
Familiarity comes from the image of Neil Armstrong walking on the moon as everyone else watched from their living rooms. Next comes the story of Kronotsky Zapovednik and Quammen second-guessing his exploration of this fragile, remote nature reserve. “Again, he’s pulling the rug out from under us,” De Chant says.
The best ledes “stand alone as their own tiny story,” De Chant says. “Not necessarily as a summary of the story to come, but a passage with a beginning, middle, and end.” And the end of Quammen’s lede is also the beginning of the story of his visit to Kronotsky Zapovednik, making a seamless transition for launching into the bigger story of the reserve.
The writer’s take: David Quammen learned to write ledes by reading the best—literary writers like Samuel Beckett, William Faulkner, and Albert Camus (“My mother died today. Or maybe it was yesterday …”), and nonfiction writers like Loren Eiseley, John McPhee, and Robert Ardrey (“Not in innocence, and not in Asia, was mankind born”).
These writers taught him “to grab the reader, hold the reader, give the reader immediate and potent reasons to proceed past the first sampled line,” Quammen says. “I came to understand, gradually and unconsciously, that the opening of a piece of nonfiction has to do two things, and do them very quickly: offer a promise and establish tension.”
Inspiration for Quammen’s lede to this National Geographic story came from his reaction to hiking in the reserve: An hour or so into the hike, he was appalled at the damage his boots had done to the reserve’s delicate crust and mossy banks. “That’s where the lede of this Kronotsky piece begins,” he says. “It incorporates my sense of the mandate to offer a promise of natural wonders and establish tension.”
Still want more? In April, Roy Peter Clark of the Poynter Institute published his picks for the best ledes amongst this year’s Pulitzer Prize winners. Here is my favorite:
by Diana Marcum for the Los Angeles Times
Lede: The two fieldworkers scraped hoes over weeds that weren’t there.
“Let us pretend we see many weeds,” Francisco Galvez told his friend Rafael. That way, maybe they’d get a full week’s work.
Endings often echo beginnings—but that’s the first time I’ve ever used a lede in the kicker.
Robin Meadows is a freelance science writer in the San Francisco Bay area. She is the new water reporter for the Bay Area Monitor, and also writes for Cancer Commons, Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment, PLOS Biology, and more. Follow Robin on Twitter @noka_oi.