Thoughts on writing the lede

Thousands, no, tens of thousands of words have been written about how to write a news lede (or lead, or leed). Whole forests have been felled. So rather than recap a lot of that same information, let me suggest you get the basics by visiting some of the sites linked to in the lede sentence of this post, and instead I will just offer a few supplemental thoughts of my own.

  • If you haven’t already, go read my previous post on the use of tense in ledes.
  • Likewise, my post on names in ledes.
  • Now, in addition: A lede should always feature the ‘grabbiest’ element of the story. Usually, that means featuring the conflict (if any) expressed or implied in the narrative. Other times, it means featuring the ‘twist’ element, or the celebrity name, or some other ‘sexy’ aspect.
  • Ledes, more so than any other part of a broadcast news script, must be in the active voice, if at all possible. (This differs a bit from print, where the important thing is to have the newsmaker as the subject of the sentence, which sometimes forces you into the passive voice.)
  • Ledes should orient the audience, not disorient it. This means different things depending on the audience. In the case of OutQ News, we run a service heard nationwide, so every lede must locate the story in a state or major city. For a local broadcast news operation that does breaking news around the clock, it might instead mean always including a reference to the time the news event occurred.
  • For spot news, such as we do here, only a straight lede is suitable. Creative-type ledes, such as the delayed lede which pushes the ‘nut’ (i.e. point) of the story down several paragraphs, are a no-go.

I’ll include more thoughts on ledes in future entries on related topics–or just as ideas come to me. That’s the great thing about a blog.

Questions? Feel free to add a comment below or [encode_email email=”” display=”email me”].

Names in ledes: Famous, or not so much?

Editing stories from wire services and other outside sources often means ‘translating’ the item from the audience it was written for (Cleveland general audience, members of the military, Italians, etc.) to our particular niche audience, the LGBT community.

I’ve already mentioned a few cases where I had to learn about other systems of government, or phraseology, or currency. Another translation issue that frequently crops up writing ledes is ‘to proper noun, or not to proper noun.’

In general, you should only include the name of someone or something in the lede if it is a household name to your audience. Otherwise, it’s usually best to substitute some kind of generic descriptor and come back to the proper name in the second or third sentence.

That means, for example, that you can always use “President Obama” in the lede without further ado. But you probably wouldn’t want to use “the Human Rights Campaign” in your lede. In that case, you’d say “A gay rights group is lobbying the White House blah blah blah” in the lede, and use the group’s name in the second sentence.

I say you wouldn’t put HRC’s name in your lede. But we probably would, because virtually everyone in our LGBT audience has heard of it. On the other hand, when we’re adapting a story from the local paper in Columbia, South Carolina and it puts “State Rep. Todd Rutherford” in its lede, we’d probably ‘translate’ that by saying “a South Carolina lawmaker” in our lede, and using his proper name further down.

In some cases, a generic descriptor is too generic to put in the lede. Consider this wire service lede:

(Boston, MA) — Members of the Governor’s Council are criticizing Governor Deval Patrick’s latest selection for the Supreme Judicial Court.

Fine for a Massachusetts audience, which hears about the ‘Governor’s Council’ all the time. The Council is an elected advisory body–but that seemed too vague to put in the lede. On the other hand, ‘Massachusetts Governor’s Council’ isn’t so big a puzzler that it’s what we call a ‘show-stopper’ (causing the audience to loose the thread of the story), so I put that in the lede, and used ‘elected advisory board’ as the subject of the second sentence.

Then there’s the middle ground: a name that’s kinda-sorta familiar to your audience, is to use the name in the lede, but add a descriptor before it. So: not just “Silvio Berlusconi” as the AFP dispatch from Rome might have it, but “Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi.” Likewise, “California Governor Jerry Brown,” “New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg,” “Apple C-E-O Steve Jobs,” and so on.

I’m a little tense about that lede

Because the lede to a broadcast story (or any news story, for that matter) must hook the audience immediately, it needs immediacy.

In print and sometimes in broadcast feature stories, it’s possible to, as we say, ‘delay the lede,’ putting a grabby bit of character or narrative right up front. In that case, the what’s-new, who-what-when-where-why-how part of the story (called the ‘nut graf’ — really!) comes later in the prose.

But on my side of the street, where we do only spot news, the ‘nut’ must always come first. That is, spot news always ledes with the most interesting, compelling way of expressing what’s new-new-new about this story.

One tool for conveying immediacy that says to the audience, “This is new! Pay attention!” is the choice of verb tense. In general, you want to lede with the tense that gives the strongest feeling of immediacy consistent with what makes logical sense given the facts.

So here is my rough-and-ready guide to lede tenses, in descending order of preference. As previously noted, these are rules of thumb; your mileage may vary.

  1. Present progressive tense: “Police are rounding up twenty-five members of an alleged gang…”
    This tense says the news event is happening right now; that’s as current as it gets. Notice that we rarely use the simple present tense (“Police round up twenty-five members…”); that would sound too much like a newspaper headline — telegraphic and just plain weird. Note also that the future tense is rarely used in a news lede (“Police will round up twenty-five members…”), because spot news is not much in the prognostication business. We leave that to tarot card readers and psychics.
  2. Present perfect tense: “Police have rounded up twenty-five members of an alleged gang…”
    This is appropriate for something that happened in the recent past, and whose momentum, if you will, extends into the present. In the example, police just ’rounded up’ these alleged (always ‘alleged’) criminals, and still have them in custody.
  3. Simple past tense: “Police rounded up twenty-five members of an alleged gang last week.”
    Use this tense when the event you’re describing happened at some point in the somewhat more distant past, and is over and done with. This is not the tense you really want to use, as it conveys a feeling of stale, old news. If a week has gone by and most of those gang members have already bailed out of jail, it’s probably the safe choice. But in many cases, so long as the event is in the recent-ish past and the situation thereafter has been more-or-less static, you can use the present perfect tense in your lede, then specifically name the day the event happened (using the simple past tense) further down in your script.

I’ve seen newswriters use all kind of other weird tenses in their ledes (e.g. the past perfect: “Police had rounded up twenty five members…”; or past progressive: “Police were rounding up…”), but as a rule, you want to stick to these three unless you have a good reason and understand what you’re doing.

One final note: I called this specifically a guide to lede tenses for a reason. Tense choice within the main body of the story is likely to differ depending on the narrative needs of the story. Do not feel that because your lede is in a particular tense, the rest of the story must follow.