Do Not Bury the Lead

8 April 2013 by Matt Shipman, posted in Uncategorized

Photo credit: vertige/stock.xchng

The opening lines of any written work are essential. This is true of news stories, blog posts and novels, and I’ve written about it before. But I forgot to mention an important point that all news writers (including bloggers) should bear in mind: you need to tell the reader right away why they should bother reading what you wrote. In other words, do not “bury the lead.”

The lead (rhymes with greed) is the news hook of the story: What’s new about this? Why is it interesting? Why are you telling me about this now? Burying the lead means making the reader go through several paragraphs (or more) before getting to the point of the article/story/post. A writer who buries the lead usually does so by laying out exposition, setting up a framework to support an argument before the argument is made. This is completely normal at an early stage of a writer’s career. Many, maybe even most, reporters start out writing this way — until their editors teach them the error of their ways.

The lead should not be confused with the “lede” (also rhymes with greed), which is the first paragraph of a news story. These two things should be more or less synonymous, because you should probably have your news hook in the first paragraph of the story (or possibly the second). But I want to distinguish between a lead and a lede because when you bury your lead, it’s nowhere near your lede.

I was reminded of this by a recent conversation with a promising science writer whose background and training are as a scientist. The science writer, whom I will call Writer X, sent me something they had written and asked me to look it over. It was an interesting piece that contained all the relevant information a reader would need, but the material needed some reorganization.

Here’s how that conversation went:

Me: Ah, I see. You buried the lead. You don’t get to the thrust of the post until the second half of the fourth paragraph. No worries. Now that you’ll be on the lookout for that, you won’t do it again. Everyone makes this mistake when they're getting started.

Writer X: Thanks! I appreciate the feedback. I want to get this right. I had an epiphany that I do this even in grant and article writing — I write it like a mystery novel, springing the main point on the reader at the end.

Me: But mystery novels don’t spring the main point on the reader at the end. The murder happens in the beginning! That's what gets you hooked. But there’s always just a little more information pulling the reader along.

Writer X: Good call! I’ve been putting the lead in the big reveal of the killer at the end and forgetting the murder.

We also discussed ways to re-craft the lede to reflect the lead, and Writer X clearly understood what I was getting at.

Remember this: with the possible exception of your parents, readers are under no obligation to read anything you’ve written. If you want them to read what you wrote, you need to tell them what you are writing about — and why — before they lose interest.


5 Responses to “Do Not Bury the Lead”

  1. Khalil A. Cassimally Reply | Permalink

    One strategy that numerous publications are adopting is having a one-line lede which basically hooks the reader in (or at least attempts to do so). This then allows for a more natural narrative to follow.

  2. Alex Reply | Permalink

    While I agree with your main idea here (ie never waste a word), I'm not sure the reasons for "hooking" a reader are the same across genres. People decide to read (and to keep reading) different types of material for different reasons. Sure, in the case of News Consumer Hulk ("HULK WANT 5 W AND 1 H NOW") the first sentence needs to contain the whole story, and then you want an inverted pyramid of detail. But feature-style articles need a different kind of hook, like you alluded to in the case of the murder-mystery: a reason for people to keep going. I think the "read on to find out more" is fundamentally different between these two.

    Within blogs the diversity is all the greater. A news-style post will follow (some of) the rules of "traditional" news writing, whereas as more "feature-y" posts might be different. Many longform posts do not get to "The point" until hundreds of words in. In the case of books it can be even longer. I think writers can get away with this kind of thing because their expositions and introductions are good enough in the first place, though I suppose an interesting title might help, too.

  3. Jacquelyn Reply | Permalink

    I love this post! This metaphor is so useful. It's also such a nice illustration of how blogging can actually really help out with in other kinds of writing, too!

  4. Tara Haelle Reply | Permalink

    While I agree with the main point of the post -- never to bury the lede -- you'll notice that I spelled it differently. In fact, there is no difference between "lead" and "lede" in use. The original use of the expression was "bury the lede," not "bury the lead." Over time, they've become interchangeable. Initially, the lead/lede was the first paragraph, usually a summary lede of the 5Ws. (From here on, I'll spell it "lede" for simplicity, but it can be spelled either way.) A person kept reading because they wanted to know more about those 5Ws (ie, the murder). Over time, the expression "bury the lede" came to mean burying the main thing that grabs the reader (ie, the murder) even if it wasn't necessarily the 5Ws in a standard news summary lede. With the advent of non-summary news ledes (such as delayed identification and more feature-y ledes), the possibility of burying the main "thing that grabs you" became greater because journalists were playing around with that first paragraph. So then lede *within the expression* of "burying the lede" came to mean something broader. But the lede is still the first paragraph, which can also be spelled "lead," and "burying the lede" can still, as an expression, refer to the bigger idea of basically burying the nut graf.

    A couple links:
    http://grammarist.com/usage/lead-lede/
    http://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/bury_the_lede
    http://www.avwrites.com/?p=15
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lead_paragraph

    • Matt Shipman Reply | Permalink

      Point taken (and I don't disagree). However, I find it useful to break the two concepts apart using different spelling when discussing this subject. Because sometimes the main idea (lead) isn't in the first paragraph (lede), and I think it would be confusing for readers to write that the "lead should be in the lead." :)

Leave a Reply


− 8 = one