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lead (lede)

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lead (lede)

Essayist John McPhee, quoted by Donald Murray in Read to Write: A Writing Process Reader, 2nd ed. (1990)

Definition:

The opening sentences of a brief composition, or the first paragraph or two of a longer article or essay. Also spelled lede.

See also:

Observations and Examples:

  • "[T]he foremost purpose of a lead is to hook the reader's attention. The style and tone of a lead depend on what you are writing."
    (Elizabeth Lyon, A Writer's Guide to Nonfiction. Perigee, 2003)


  • "Newspaper reporters have varied the form of their work, including writing more creative story leads. These leads are often less direct and less 'formulaic' than the traditional news summary lead. Some journalists call these soft or indirect news leads.

    "The most obvious way to modify a news summary lead is to use only the feature fact or perhaps two of the what, who, where, when, why and how in the lead. By delaying some of the answers to these essential reader questions, the sentences can be short, and the writer can create a 'hook' to catch or entice the reader to continue into the body of the story."
    (Thomas Rolnicki, C. Dow Tate, and Sherri Taylor, Scholastic Journalism. Blackwell, 2007)


  • The Arresting Detail
    "There are editors . . . who will try to take an interesting detail out of the story simply because the detail happens to horrify or appall them. 'One of them kept saying that people read this paper at breakfast,' I was told by Edna [Buchanan], whose own idea of a successful lead is one that might cause a reader who is having breakfast with his wife to 'spit out his coffee, clutch his chest, and say, "My God, Martha! Did you read this!"'"
    (Calvin Trillin, "Covering the Cops (Edna Buchanan)." Life Stories: Profiles from The New Yorker, ed. by David Remnick. Random House, 2000)


  • Joan Didion's Leads
    "What's so hard about the first sentence is that you're stuck with it. Everything else is going to flow out of that sentence. And by the time you've laid down the first TWO sentences, your options are all gone."
    (Joan Didion, quoted in The Writer, 1985)

    "It occurred to me, in California in June and in Atlanta in July and in New Orleans in August, in the course of watching first the California primary and then the Democratic and Republican national conventions, that it had not been by accident that the people with whom I had preferred to spend time in high school had, on the whole, hung out in gas stations. They had not run for student body office. They had not gone on to Yale or Swarthmore or DePauw, nor had they even applied. They had gotten drafted, gone through basic at Fort Ord. They had knocked up girls, and married them, had begun what they called the first night of the rest of their lives with a midnight drive to Carson City and a five-dollar ceremony performed by a justice still in his pajamas. They got jobs at the places that had laid off their uncles. They paid their bills or did not pay their bills, made down payments on tract houses, led lives on that social and economic edge referred to, in Washington and among those whose preferred locus is Washington, as 'out there.' They were never destined to be, in other words, communicants in what we have come to call, when we want to indicate the traditional ways in which power is exchanged and the status quo maintained in the United States, 'the process.'"
    (Joan Didion, "Insider Baseball." The New York Review of Books, Oct. 27, 1988. Rpt. in We Tell Ourselves Stories in Order to Live: Collected Nonfiction. Everyman's Library, 2006)


  • Ron Rosenbaum's Leads
    "For me, the lead is the most important element. A good lead embodies much of what the story is about--its tone, its focus, its mood. Once I sense that this is a great lead I can really start writing. It is a heuristic: a great lead really leads you toward something."
    (Ron Rosenbaum in The New New Journalism: Conversations With America's Best Nonfiction Writers on Their Craft, by Robert S. Boynton. Vintage Books, 2005)

    "Take a look at that hulking sepulcher over there. Small wonder they call it a tomb. It's the citadel of Skull and Bones, the most powerful of all secret societies in the strange Yale secret-society system. For nearly a century and a half, Skull and Bones has been the most influential secret society in the nation, and now it is one of the last."
    (Ron Rosenbaum, opening paragraph of "The Last Secrets of Skull and Bones." Esquire, September 1977. Rpt. in The Secret Parts of Fortune. Random House, 2000)


  • Donald Murray's Leads
    "Some of the leads in my toolbox are:
    • News. Tells the reader what the reader needs to know in the order the reader needs to know it: who, what, when, where, why.

    • Anecdote. A brief story that revels the essence of your subject.

    • Quotation. A quote lead can give additional authority and a fresh voice to the story.

    • Descriptive. Sets the scene for a story.

    • Voice. Voice establishes the tone of the story.

    • Announcement. Tells the reader what you’re going to say.

    • Tension. Reveals the forces in the story and sets them in motion.

    • Problem. Establishes the problem that will be solved in the article.

    • Background. Provides the background so that the reader will understand the importance of the story.

    • Historical. Places the story in a historical context.

    • Narrative. Establishes the story as the form of the article.

    • Question. Involves the reader in the fundamental issue of the story.

    • Point of View. Establishes the position from which the reader will be shown the subject.

    • Reader Identification. Show readers how the story relates to them.

    • Face. Gives the reader a person with whom to identify during the reading of the story.

    • Scene. Sets up an action between participants in the story that reveals the central meaning of the article.

    • Dialogue. Allows the story’s meaning to come from the interaction of principal people in the story.

    • Process. Involves the reader in a process central to the meaning of the story.
    These are only a few of the ways to write leads."
    (Donald Murray, Writing to Deadline. Heinemann, 2000)

    "The students are back in school but not I. I came to teaching late and I'm leaving early, well, slightly early. First the no-necks return, the football players in cut-off t-shirts and cut-off shorts, walking with rehearsed menace, their arms hung away from their sculptured torsos. How few mirrors they must pass without posing."
    (Donald Murray, opening paragraph of "Victims of the Age of Prosperity." The Boston Globe, Sep. 15, 1987. Rpt. in Read to Write, 2nd ed. Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1990)


  • The Myth of the Perfect First Line
    "It's a newsroom article of faith that you should begin by struggling for the perfect lead. Once that opening finally comes to you--according to the legend--the rest of the story will flow like lava.

    "Not likely. . . .

    "Starting with the lead is like starting medical school with brain surgery. We've all been taught that the first sentence is the most important; so it's also the scariest. Instead of writing it, we fuss and fume and procrastinate. Or we waste hours writing and rewriting the first few lines, rather than getting on with the body of the piece. . . .

    "The first sentence points the way for everything that follows. But writing it before you've sorted out your material, thought about your focus, or stimulated your thinking with some actual writing is a recipe for getting lost. When you're ready to write, what you need is not a finely polished opening sentence, but a clear statement of your theme."
    (Jack R. Hart, A Writer's Coach: An Editor's Guide to Words That Work. Random House, 2006)
Pronunciation: LEED
Alternate Spellings: lede
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