The Lede

The first paragraph of a new story is called the lede (that’s how journalists spell it). It’s also the most important because a reader either is pulled in by wanting to know more or pushed away in disinterest.

In my days as an Associated Press editor, we liked to see ledes of 25 words or less. Having so few words available brings great clarity to the mind. What is the essential point of the story? What lede can make this a compelling story worth reading?

Professor Melvin Mencher of Columbia recently noted how The New York Times lede on J.D. Salinger’s obituary was more than 60 words, reflecting Salinger’s own writing style. Read the comparison yourself.

Salinger’s opening sentence in his best-seller novel The Catcher in the Rye reflects the rhythmic speech pattern given to the central character, teenager Holden Caulfield:  “If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth.”

And now the rhythmic lede to his recent obituary in The New York Times: “J.D. Salinger, who was thought at one time to be the most important American writer to emerge since World War II but who then turned his back on success and adulation, becoming the Garbo of letters, famous for not wanting to be famous, died on Wednesday at his home in Cornish, N.H., where he had lived in seclusion for more than 50 years. He was 91.”

The shorter the better, usually. But Mencher notes that another journalistic axiom is applicable: The lede should fit the nature of the event.

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Explore posts in the same categories: Books, Writing

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