Sign up as a Citizen Journalist and get involved in Information Activism.
Sign Up for Watchdog Updates!
One thing that can make or break your story as a citizen journalist is the lede (or lead). Ledes are like first impressions on a first date- if it goes well, the reader will want more. If it does not go well, the reader will stop reading. Not only is the lede your first paragraph in any news story, it is also the most important because it has to give readers the who, what, when, where, why and how in as few words as possible. Sounds like a tall order? We’re here to help with five simple tips to write better ledes:
1. Write tight
Editors like ledes to be no longer than 35-40 words. Why so short? Readers want their news delivered quickly and are often short on time. It’s usually a good idea to summarize the most newsworthy fact within the first ten words and begin with the subject of the most newsworthy fact.
An elderly Moscow man died Monday when an early morning fire raged through his home.
In 16 words, we know the who (the Moscow man), the what (the fire that happened), the when (Monday, early morning), the where (his home), and a little bit of why (a man died because of a fire). The why and the how can be explained more in the following paragraphs to keep the reader’s interest, but the who, what, when, and where is what will get the reader’s attention in the first place.
2. Find your focus
Sometimes a story will write itself, but most of the time a good news story has a specific angle or focus. Before you start writing, ask yourself two questions: What is the point of this story? and Why does the reader care? When you know what your main point is, think about an interesting aspect of the story that will pique the reader’s interest.
The city council met last week.
We know there was a city council meeting last week, but why does the average reader care about the city council meeting? The lede could be strengthened by talking about what someone said or did at the meeting. How is the city council spending money? What are city council members saying?
The city council voted Tuesday night to hire a contractor for the new public library.
Here, the lede says what the city council did at the meeting, when it happened, and where the contractor will go. The specific details of why and how will come later to keep the reader’s interest, but this lede gives the reader a “taste” of the story to know what is going on.
3. Write in active voice
Passive sentences are very boring not just for an editor, but also for a reader. Editors and readers like stories about people, and stories written in active voice emphasize the “who” over just the “outcome.”
A motion was passed by city council approving reduced transit fares for seniors.
The focus is on the motion, and the people are placed in the background. The “who” of the action isn’t stated clearly and people will wonder why the motion is so important.
City council approved reduced transit rates for seniors.
The “who” is back in focus for this sentence, but this lede could be strengthened even more to emphasize who the decision affects over the people making the decision.
Seniors will pay lower bus fares thanks to a city council decision last night.
People will most likely pay attention to this lede because it puts the most relevant audience first and defines your “target audience.” Seniors will benefit from this decision.
4. Stick to one or two ideas per sentence
Sentences get long when you cram too many ideas into them.
The president, who was suffering from a cold, which he caught last week in Norway where he spoke, signed the treaty, which he had originally opposed, because he said the changes that had been made were sound.
There are four or five ideas crammed into this sentence. The result is a confusing, run-on sentence.
The president had originally opposed the treaty when he spoke to the crowd in Norway. But he signed it anyway, saying the changes that had been made were sound. At the ceremony, he was suffering from a cold that he caught last week.
5. Cut the fat: edit out excessive words
You can make your editor’s job so much easier and your stories much more powerful by cutting excess words in your lede. As you write, be on the lookout for excess words that can be cut. Some of the most common excess words used in ledes are “really,” “that,” “every,” “very,” and “to”. When you’re done, read your story out loud and listen for long-winded sentences. Any sentence that can’t be easily read in a single breath should usually be trimmed.
What else should you leave out of a lede? Here’s a short list of things you can leave for the following paragraphs:
- Exact names of the people involved, unless it’s someone especially prominent or famous.
- The exact time something occurred, unless that’s somehow crucial to the story’s main point.
- Exact street addresses.
- Ages of people in the story
- Specific dates
- Specific dollar amounts, unless it is somehow a key aspect of the story. Generally, dollar amounts in ledes should be rounded.
- Quotes. Quotes are difficult to use in ledes because they need to be placed in context, and it’s very hard to do that in a 35-40 word lede.
Need help coming up with your lede? Contact firstname.lastname@example.org for guidance!
- Sunshine Week Website Audit
- Citizen Spotlight: Woody Merry, City Government Watchdog
- Watchful Citizens Follow Founders’ Vision for America
- Citizen Spotlight: Elizabeth Myers, Maryland’s Legislative Watchdog
- TIP SHEET: Writing Letters to the Editor