I am writing this essay for two reasons:
1. To help dispel (or should I say “dis-spell”) a preference for “lede” over “lead” to describe the beginning or introduction of a news story.
2. To offer a century of wisdom on the purpose of a good news lead and the best way to write one.
My interest in these topics was ignited recently when the Poynter website briefly expressed a preference for “lede,” a spelling I had avoided since my arrival in St. Pete in 1977. For me, the spelling has been “lead.” After all, a well-written first sentence leads the reader into the story. In addition, lede felt like, not jargon, but slang, from the same generation as —30— to represent the end of a story, and “hed” as short for headline.
I was told early on that lede avoided confusion with the molten lead that dominated print technology in decades past. (So did hed serve to avoid confusion with “head” when writing about the price of lettuce?)
My editor, Barbara Allen, sent me on a scavenger hunt of sorts, but not before sharing a link to a 2011 essay written by Howard Owens. He set out to answer the same question: Is it lede or lead? As a collector of old journalism books, he discovered that even in the era of hot type, the spelling lead was preferred by writers, editors and journalism teachers.
Sitting as I am near a library of about 12,000 journalism books, I decided to re-create Owens’s research — maybe kick it up a notch if I could. His conclusion was that there was “no historic basis for the spelling of a lead as ‘lede.’ ‘Lede’ is an invention of linotype romanticists, not something used in newsrooms of the linotype era.”
So was this lino-tripe, or something else?
Ironically, the only journalism text in which I found the spelling lede was written by a mentor, Donald Murray, who wrote for the Boston Herald in the 1950s. (He won a Pulitzer Prize for editorial writing.) In his 2000 book “Writing to Deadline,” Murray offers a different origin story:
We still used the spelling “l-e-d-e” for the word lead so it would stand out on the telegraphic printout – “NU LEDE” – to signal a new top for the stories that were almost always written in the inverted pyramid style, with the latest and most important information first …
In other words, the intentional misspelling of both NEW and LEAD – to NU LEDE – served as a kind of alert for news or wire editors working on multiple editions of the newspaper.
We’ll get back to what Murray has to say about how to write a good lead, but first, let me take you on a 100-year journey back from the present in reverse chronological order to demonstrate the preference for “lead,” even back in the era of molten lead.
2017: John McPhee in “Draft No. 4”: “The lead – like the title – should be a flashlight that shines down into the story.”
2000: Christopher Scanlan in “Reporting and Writing: Basics for the 21st Century”: “A good lead beckons and invites.”
1977: Melvin Mencher, “News Reporting and Writing”: “Keep the lead short, under 30 or 35 words.”
1956: John Paul Jones, “The Modern Reporter’s Handbook”: “A New York Columnist says today’s newspaper leads are full of lead.” (There’s evidence in that wordplay.)
1949: Rudolf Flesch, “The Art of Readable Writing”: “This is the famous 5-W lead …”
1940: Helen MacGill Hughes, “News and the Human Interest Story”: (The story’s) lead hit you smack in the face.”
1933: Robert Garst and Theodore M. Bernstein (both editors at The New York Times), “Headlines and Deadlines”: “There are two kinds of leads …”
1923: George C. Bastian, “Editing the Day’s News”: “The introductory matter of a news story is called its ‘lead.’”
1913: Willard Bleyer, “Newspaper Writing and Editing”: “The beginning, or ‘lead,’ of the story is the part that requires the greatest skill …”
The original Oxford English Dictionary has no citation for the word lead as the beginning of a story, but its 1976 Supplement provides it: “A summary or outline of a newspaper story.” The first historical reference comes from the book “American Speech” and is dated 1927. Our survey takes us back earlier than that – 1913 – which suggests usages going back to the 19th century. For the record, I have yet to see a dictionary citation for lede, even as an alternate spelling.
My Twitter followers and some Poynter colleagues who prefer lede attribute their allegiance to old-school sensibilities, tradition, and a desire to retain and pass along the dialect of the tribe. These are charming, perhaps even whimsical impulses, but they have no historical basis or practical applications.
More important, if a reporter, or media critic, referred to the lede of a story, readers would be right to scratch their heads. Lead, on the other hand, is an everyday word with a clear meaning, especially when the word is then illustrated by example. For someone who aspires to help a nation of writers — not just a remnant of professional journalists — lead is the way.
It’s not the spelling, but the writing
A stubborn writer or editor who prefers lede can earn my blessing by writing good leads. It is the writing, not the spelling, that matters most.
To help you in that quest, I am returning to my sources listed above, this time in chronological order, to share more than a century of guidance on how to write better leads.
Willard Bleyer (1913)
The beginning, or “lead” of the story is the part that requires the greatest skill in the choice, the arrangement, and the expression of the essential elements of the piece of news. … In the typical “lead” the reporter gives the reader in clear, concise, yet interesting form the gist of the whole story, emphasizing or “playing up,” the “feature” of it that is most attractive. The “lead,”… should tell the reader the nature of the event, the persons or things concerned, as well as the essential time, the place, the cause, and the result. These essential points are given in answer to the questions: What? Who? When? Where? Why? How?
The “lead” may consist of one paragraph or of several paragraphs according to the number and complexity of the details in the story. For short stories a one-paragraph “lead” consisting of a single sentence is often sufficient, because the gist of the story can be given in from 30 to 75 words.
(Bleyer offers this, among several, as an example of a good lead: “In the lion’s cage of Barnum’s circus was performed last night the marriage ceremony uniting Miss Ada Rene, trapezist, and Arthur Hunt, keeper of the lions, Justice of the Peace Henry Duplain officiating from a safe distance outside the cage.”)
George C. Bastian (1931)
News leads should be simple, brief, compact, vigorous, attractive.
They should be written in a manner appropriate to the subject matter. Not all stories are serious; not all may be treated in a light manner.
They should shoot straight as a rifle bullet into the reader’s attention.
Except in the case of suspended interest and other feature leads, they should summarize the story, touching the main news points and answering every urgent question of the reader regarding the event, the actors, the time, the place, the method. They should be adequate, but should not attempt to tell all the details.
Summary leads, which outnumber all other types many times, should begin telling the vital news facts and features with their first words.
They should furnish a clear-cut, logical beginning for the news story which can be amplified without forcing repetition.
They should carry an individual touch. The more varied and individualistic the leads the more interesting the paper. (This point remains relevant for 2019.)
They should avoid beginning with nonessential details, such as “last evening,” or “At 2:39 o’clock this afternoon.” Details of time and place, unless absolutely vital, should be made subsidiary.
Copyreaders should be alert to detect and correct “buried” leads – important news mistakenly placed toward the end of the story.
Theodore Bernstein and Robert Garst (1933)
The copyeditor must know how to construct a story and must understand the importance of making the lead or introduction attract the attention of the reader.
There are two kinds of leads: one which puts the climax first, summarizing the important facts in the first few paragraphs; and the “delayed” lead, or feature-story lead, that works up to the climax later in the story. The first kind is more common; it tells the news immediately and forcefully. The second, reserved for special types of stories, sets the mood at once, reaching the news point at a later stage.
The lead should be brief and lucid, but it should also seize upon the ultimate meaning of the story. This may require cutting through the underbrush of surface developments to discover what lies underneath. It may dictate deferring some of the particularization until later in the story.
Helen MacGill Hughes (1940)
Because more readers will read the beginning of a story than will read through to the end, the most important fact is put in the first sentence, or paragraph, which is called the “lead.” … Since 15 minutes is the average time the typical reader gives to the newspaper, the editor cannot afford to keep the best of the story till the last, even though that would enhance the dramatic effect.
John Paul Jones (1949)
People like to look at pictures. They feel that they understand something better if they can see it. Write for him a lead that he can see in technicolor, or smell, or taste, or hear. As the fellow says, “If he can’t understand it any other way, draw him a picture.”
A New York columnist says today’s newspaper leads are full of lead. He complains that the good old days when reporters knew how to describe a scene and be dramatic are gone. There are no (reporters left) to say of a Texas explosion that killed 450 children: “They’re burying a generation today.”
Maybe so, but there are writers, without by-lines, all over the nation who are holding their readers with news leads that read like picture post cards.
Rudolf Flesch (1949)
Now take a look at newspaper reports. … Obviously this is a perverse, upside-down method of telling a story; newspaper men call it aptly the inverted pyramid formula. But they still use it every day; and now that bad wire service isn’t an excuse any more, they rationalize some other way. For instance, they say this method is easy on the copyreader who wants to save space: he simply snitches the tail end off the inverted pyramid and the story still looks intact. True; but that would be a good reason for writing shorter stories rather than for crowding everything into one sentence at the top.
At Poynter, we call this avoiding the suitcase lead, where everything is stuffed in the top.
Melvin Mencher (1977)
The news story lead meets two requirements. It captures the essence of the event, and it cajoles the reader into staying a while. The first necessitates the use of disciplined intelligence. The second calls on the reporter’s art or craftsmanship. The reporter who masters both is prized.
How to write readable leads:
Find the essential element(s) of the story.
Decide whether a direct or a delayed lead better suits the event.
If one element is outstanding, use a single-element lead. If more than one, choose between a summary and a multiple-element lead.
Use the S-V-O construction. (Subject-Verb-Object)
Use concrete nouns and colorful action verbs.
Keep the lead short, under 30 or 35 words.
Make the lead readable, but do not sacrifice truthful and accurate reporting for readability.
Christopher Scanlan (2000)
Leads are the foundation of every news story, no matter what the medium.
An effective lead makes a promise to the reader: I have something important, something interesting, to tell you. A good lead beckons and invites. It attracts and entices. If there’s any poetry in journalism, it’s most often found in the lead, as in the classic opening of what could have been a mundane weather forecast: “Snow, followed by small boys on sleds.”
Scanlan quotes Jacqui Banaszynski: “Do not ever underestimate the importance of a lead to what we do each day. It is the way in. It is the greeting at the doorway that determines the tenor of the rest of the visit. As important as any first impression, it can be gotten past, but not easily.”
Donald Murray (2000)
The craft of the lead … is still my obsession … The first few lines of a piece of writing establish the focus of the writing. Since I was going to write about a craft that is often scorned but that I have come to respect, the lead established the context of the chapter. It also established the relationship between writer and reader … The lead established the authority of the writer. The lead set the direction of the writing … The lead established the voice, the music of the writing that reveals and supports the meaning …
In summary: the lead establishes the focus, context, relationship between reader and writer, authority of the writer, direction of writing, and the voice that supports the meaning.
John McPhee (2017)
Often, after you have reviewed your notes many times and thought through your material, it is difficult to frame much of a structure until you write a lead. You wade around in your notes, getting nowhere. You don’t see a pattern. You don’t know what to do. So stop everything. Stop looking at the notes. Hunt through your mind for a good beginning. Then write it. Write a lead … Writing a successful lead, in other words, can illuminate the structure problem for you and cause you to see the piece whole – to see it conceptually, in various parts, to which you then assign your materials. You find your lead, you build your structure, you are now free to write.
Roy Peter Clark (2019)
Your lead is important, even crucial, but it is not the only important element in your story. Too many middles of reports are muddles. And too little attention is paid to what can be the most satisfying experience of all for the reader — a memorable ending.