What makes a great lede great?
You want pressure? Try to write a lede for a piece about writing a great lede.
My resident critic swats away every phrase I think of. It’s like Federer vs. Nadal in my head, like Navratilova vs. Graf at the 1985 U.S. Open (still the best tennis match I’ve ever seen). Steffi seemed on the cusp of beating the then-best player the women’s game had ever seen. And Martina’s superhuman ability threatened to become merely human. I remember screaming at the television, almost with each point.
Ah…nothing like a good digression to take the pressure off. Okay, ledes.
I found this lede in an article by Chris Smith on VanityFair.com:
The lede paragraph is supposed to summarize the key points of the article. But is this piece really about Robert Mueller’s melanin? Or his work schedule?
No, it’s about Robert Mueller’s inexhaustible pursuit of Donald Trump. But I love the laid-back opening; it mirrors Mueller’s image. Cool. Indefatiguable. The exact opposite of the central figure he’s investigating.
Break the rules to make a great lede
“Robert Mueller is not ending the summer with a tan.” It’s not a classic lede—it breaks the all the rules of a lede for a news story—and that’s exactly what makes it a great lede.
It pulls you up short. Say what? It’s like walking past a person in a business suit wearing a gorilla head. You can’t help but notice the incongruity. You want to know why it’s there. And so you keep reading.
In a newspaper article, the lede paragraph needs to sum up the story for readers who don’t have time to keep reading. But in a profile or a magazine article, the lede needs to capture the readers’ attention and draw them deeper into the story. We may think about Robert Mueller’s work, but who thinks about his skin? It’s an incongruous detail.
Now, incongruity is great, but only in small doses. You don’t want to become the writer who starts every piece from an odd angle. Or an outright digression (see above).
Well, I didn’t actually begin with the digression, did I? That might alienate the reader. You start reading an article about the best tennis matches of all time and you end up with an instructional piece about ledes. Tennis fans would be pissed off and the writers—well, they might have skipped this post altogether. And see what you would have missed?