Digital Marketing

How To Write A Lede

I have a tough time putting aside my editor’s brain.

Editors and good writers know what I’m talking about. It’s the hazard of the job.

Sometimes, I marvel at an article’s great intro, packed with an interesting narrative and powerful verbs that speak directly to me or my interest.

But more often, I get sad, struggling to read ledes that get bogged down with so many words, forget they need to make a point, or fail to remember their goal is to entice people to consume the rest of the content.

That’s not just sad; it’s a waste of content (and the resources that went into producing it.)

Next to the headline, the lede is everything. It determines whether someone will read the article. It has many tasks to complete — hook the reader, indicate the subject matter, set the tone, etc.

For the good of better ledes that can live up to those weighty responsibilities, let’s examine five intros. I picked ones that possess positive attributes but left room for a constructive critique.

Note: I use the journalistic form “lede,” which is “the introductory section of a news story to entice the reader to read the full story.” Technically, “lead” is also correct.

1. Set the scene

GE Lighting serves up a lot of content around its products. This article, How To Beat the Winter Blues and Boost Your Mood With Lighting, attracted my attention because it tackles a common non-lighting topic (winter blues) with a lighting solution (GE products).

How the lede reads

With longer nights, cloud-covered skies, and colder (dare we say, less enjoyable) weather, it’s no wonder why this time of year has a major impact on people’s moods. The absence of sun and light causes individuals to feel sadder and less motivated than their usual selves. For many, it may just be a case of the winter blues. But for a smaller percentage of people, it’s a more serious annual struggle called seasonal affective disorder (SAD).

Even though the symptoms of the winter blues are less severe, they’re not something to ignore. Fortunately, there are lighting solutions that help. That’s why today, we’re going to show you how to beat the winter blues with the help of a few of our products.

What works

It paints a picture for the reader (longer nights, cloud-covered skies, and colder weather). You can feel and likely relate to the scene.

What doesn’t work

  • The first paragraph could work for any article about winter blues or seasonal affective disorder.
  • “It’s no wonder this time of year has a major impact …” is just wrong. The article went live on Sept. 19, 2023 — fall hadn’t even officially arrived.
  • It’s a lot of words (122 in the first two paragraphs) that make the same point over and over. Readers probably understood it in the second (wordy) sentence: “The absence of sun and light causes individuals to feel sadder and less motivated than their usual selves.”
  • The tie to the brand’s products (lighting solutions) seems generic to the winter blues point.

What would be a better lede

Longer nights, cloud-covered skies, and colder weather can darken people’s moods and even prompt a more serious struggle known as seasonal affective disorder.

While you can’t change the weather, you can change the environment at home and work with better lighting. Get ahead of the game by beating the winter blues with the help of these products.

The revised lede is 57 words. The second paragraph ties the scene to the brand’s message. It also acknowledges the article goes live in September and not in the winter.

2. Get to the point

The Official Microsoft Blog tackles a lot of topics. In the article, Sustainable by Design: Advancing the Sustainability of AI, they explore the natural and utility resources involved in making artificial intelligence possible.

An example of a poorly written lede from an article in the Official Microsoft Blog: Sustainable by Design: Advancing the Sustainability of AI.

During the past year, the pace of AI adoption has accelerated significantly, ushering in groundbreaking advances, discoveries and solutions with the potential to help address humanity’s biggest problems. We see this as a massive platform shift, akin to the printing press, which was not just an invention, but a technology that shaped a new economy. Alongside the incredible promise and benefits of AI, we recognize the resource intensity of these applications and the need to address the environmental impact from every angle.

In line with our commitment to responsible AI and our ambitious sustainability commitments, we’re determined to tackle this challenge so the world can harness the full benefits of AI. There are three areas where we’re deeply invested and increasing our focus. The first is optimizing datacenter energy and water efficiency. The second is advancing low-carbon materials, creating global markets to help advance sustainability across industries. And the third is improving the energy efficiency of AI and cloud services, empowering our customers and partners with tools for collective progress.

What works

It uses a helpful analogy (akin to the printing press). It clearly introduces the article’s three topics using the words first, second, and third. Readers will know what to expect in the article.

What doesn’t work

  • With so many words (82 in the first graph, 88 in the second) explaining what most readers know, only the most committed will consume the rest of the article. (I liken it to “medicine content” — even though you don’t like the taste, you need to consume it.)
  • There are too many 50-cent words that say little (advances, discoveries, solutions, etc.)
  • First-person pronouns are overused (eight).

What would be a better lede

The modern adoption of AI is akin to the debut of the printing press. It is not about new inventions; it’s shaping a new economy. But ushering in groundbreaking advances with the potential to help address humanity’s biggest problems also impacts the environment from every angle.

Our commitment to responsible AI and sustainability crosses three areas of investment. The first is optimizing datacenter energy and water efficiency. The second is advancing low-carbon materials. And the third is improving the energy efficiency of AI and cloud services.

The revised introduction runs 85 words because it spends less time explaining the AI impact on the world. Readers interested in the niche topic of natural resources related to AI already know it’s a big deal.

The second paragraph retains the “first,” “second,” and “third” references, but it focuses solely on the what, not the how or why. That can be done in the rest of the article.

It also uses a single first-person pronoun because readers are visiting the brand’s blog (reinforced by the site’s URL and visual identity), so they know who’s making the commitment.

3. Speak to reader

Subaru sells cars. Yet, the Reliable Subaru dealership published this article, Tips To Keep Your Used Car Running Longer. The topic may sound counterintuitive. After all, if people don’t follow these tips, they’ll need a car sooner. But Reliable recognizes the value of building a long-term relationship.

An example of a poorly written lede from Reliable Subaru's blog article: Tips To Keep Your Used Car Running Longer.

Opting for a car can be a pragmatic and cost-effective choice, especially when paired with diligent maintenance practices to secure its long-term performance. With the appropriate level of care and attention, you can significantly extend the life of your pre-owned vehicle, all while enjoying dependable transportation without straining your finances. Here are some recommendations to help enhance the longevity of your used car.

What works

The lede quickly explains why the audience should be interested in the topic (“extend the life of your pre-owned vehicle,” “enjoying dependable transportation,” “without straining your finances.”) It also clearly explains what they will get from the article (recommendations to help enhance the longevity of your used car). In most cases, it also uses language that the reader would use (used car vs. pre-owned car).

What would make it better

  • A proofreader would have helped because the first sentence is missing a word. (It should have read, “Opting for a used car …,” but it forgot the word “used.”)
  • The Flesch-Kincaid reading score puts the text at a college-graduate reading level. Given the wide, general audience, it should be written at a grade-school level.

What would be a better lede

A used car is a good choice if you maintain it. Follow these tips. Your vehicle will be more reliable. Your bank account won’t take an unexpected hit.

The revised lede keeps the reliability and financial benefits in a more simplified explanation. It scores at a sixth-grade reading level. (Even college graduates don’t want to have to work to read a lede for a car maintenance article.)

4. Make it compelling

The American Lung Association knows the power of first-person stories. That’s why it told the story of Donna in its Breathe blog article, “It’s So Important To Never Miss a Scan.”

An example of a poorly written lede from The American Lung Association blog article: It's So Important to Never Miss a Scan.

In 2015, Donna decided she needed to visit the emergency room after experiencing chest pains for a few days. About a year prior, Donna had been diagnosed with type two diabetes. She had still been learning how to manage this disease when her blood sugar spike to 300, which told Donna these were not symptoms she could ignore. At the hospital, they immediately gave her fluids to address her blood sugar problems. But the doctor also ordered a chest X-ray, which showed a mass on her lungs.

“Flash forward to 2022, it is a different world. This second diagnosis has given me the courage I needed to find my purpose in life and to grow. I am able to share my story with others. I am now a part of a group of Black women with lung cancer who began communicating online and formed a support group. It’s like a sisterhood,” Donna explained.

What works

A narrative telling the story of a real person connects with readers. It humanizes the point you want to make, allowing readers to identify shared characteristics or relatable scenarios. Even if they don’t have a similar story, readers will continue because they want to know what happens. They’re invested in the story.

What would make it better

  • Abbreviate the person’s story to focus on why you’ve included it in this article. As it reads now, so many details are included that readers may get lost quickly. If this story was about managing diabetes or the risks of that disease, the details in the ER scenario about her blood sugar level and “still learning to manage the disease” would make sense. But it’s a story about getting screened for lung cancer.
  • Limit the direct quote to what only the story’s subject can say better than the writer.
  • Match the headline to the intro. “It’s Important To Never Miss a Scan” is the headline, but the intro seems to indicate the story is about a woman whose multiple diagnoses of lung cancer have helped her find purpose and community.

What would be a better lede

The rewritten lede is based on the original intro rather than the headline.

In 2015, Donna went to the emergency room after experiencing chest pains. The doctor found a mass on her lungs.

In 2022, lung cancer returned. “This second diagnosis has given me the courage I needed to find my purpose in life and to grow,” she said. “I am now part of a group of Black women with lung cancer who began communicating online and formed a support group. It’s like a sisterhood.”

This lede could work with the original headline (“It’s Important To Never Miss a Scan”). Some of the details are culled from the full article.

In 2015, Donna had surgery to remove a tumor from her lung. Diagnosed with stage 2A lung cancer, doctors ordered chemotherapy as a precaution. But Donna’s body couldn’t tolerate chemo, so doctors advised her to stop and have follow-up scans every four to six months.

In 2022, one of those follow ups revealed the cancer had returned.

Both revised ledes focus directly on her lung cancer diagnoses rather than her other medical conditions. They also demonstrate how different a lede can be depending on the headline. If you write the intro, write a draft headline to indicate the focus of the piece. (Generative AI tools can help ensure you get this right. Add your lede to the prompt and ask it to write a headline. Ask a couple of times. If it doesn’t pick up the point, reconsider your lede.)

5. Help the reader

One more thing. Johnson & Johnson’s innovation blog publishes profiles, such as this SSF JLABS Company Spotlight. Unfortunately, the page design and generic headline make the content less attractive at first view.

An example from Johnson & Johnson's innovation blog that shows an unfortunate page design and generic headline.

SSF JLABS Company Spotlight

Tell us the story behind your company. What is the personal and scientific inspiration behind the founding of this company?

After talking to a J&J executive and watching the CNBC report on “The Da Vinci Debate” in 2014, I, Jay Kim, decided to investigate technical solutions to replace monopolar electrosurgical (ES) devices, which can cause tissue burn injuries. When I found out there has not been a technology developed to replace monopolar ES devices for more than 100 years after Dr. Bovie’s invention, I decided to develop a surgical laser system with our team of laser experts. We believe we have a conceptual solution with a prototype developed for this problem, but we need sufficient investment resources to develop the system.

I personally believe that the time is now for someone to introduce a safe surgical laser to replace monopolar ES devices in minimally invasive/robotic surgeries. If we don’t do it now, there may be no one to attempt it for another 100 years, and our laser technology knowledge will be lost. My team and I are determined to continue pursuing the development of this novel technology for humanity and the next generation. Our ultimate goal is to integrate Sharp Arrow’s surgical laser onto a surgical robot for telesurgery medical applications.

What works

Since the lede is nonexistent in this question-and-answer format, there’s nothing to work.

What would make it better

An intro. Even a Q-and-A format requires an intro to let the reader know what they can expect from the interview. Otherwise, they have to dig in to figure out the point, and if they have to work that hard, they’re not likely to consume it.

What would be a better lede

In 2014, Jay Kim discovered it had been more than 100 years since Dr. Bovie invented monopolar electrosurgical (ES) devices, which can cause tissue burn injuries. That’s when he and the Sharp Arrow team began investigating how to solve the burning problem. Now, he tells the story of their work and innovative solution.

A lede now exists and allows the reader to know what they’ll get if they read the Q-and-A.

Never forget the end

While ledes do their Herculean work at the beginning of the content, they also play a role at the end. When I read an article, I usually don’t remember the intro by time I reach the conclusion. (I can’t blame my editor’s brain, though; it’s the mind of a forgetful reader.)

However, the best writers remind me what the article was all about by tying the conclusion back to the beginning. That cohesive technique reminds the reader why they were interested in the content in the first place and delivers a more satisfying ending. And that’s worth everybody’s time.

Updated from a December 2018 article.

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Cover image by Joseph Kalinowski/Content Marketing Institute

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