Which comes first, the lede or the story? — Frequent questions

Q: Which comes first, the lede or the story?

A: That depends on what you’re writing.

The invaluable Josh Bernoff took on a linguistic chicken-or-egg debate in his Without Bullshit blog last week. Should you start with a story or a lede?

After I used some of his material in my Writing Unbound curriculum, several of my writers followed my, um, lead in subscribing to Bernoff’s blog. One of them asked for my opinion on his lede vs. story piece. 

So, should you start with a story or a lede? Yes.

And thanks to Josh Bernoff for bringing it up.

Lede or Story? 

Bernoff says:

“The best way to hook an audience is to start with a descriptive story. The best way to get people to read what you write is with a descriptive title and a few summary sentences…”

My writers glommed onto the concept of the lede the minute I introduced it. They immediately wanted to know all there is to know. (I love my writers; they’re a lot like me in that respect.) Story they understand. But the idea of starting with a story—well, that’s often hard to wrap your head around when you come from an academic or business background. 

I had defined lede as the first sentence of a piece of writing. Of course, that’s both incomplete and inaccurate; Bernoff offers a much more accurate description. Ledes mostly occur in journalism—when you need a start that’s crisp, engaging, and fact-filled. Blogs require ledes too, especially if you worship the Gods of SEO. And if you care about getting noticed in the free-for-all that is the internet, you need to consider SEO when you’re writing.

But the rules of SEO (mostly) help you create and sustain interest in your message. Your reading audience can disappear in an instant by turning the page or, more likely these days, swiping on to the next story. You need to grab their attention as quickly as you can—with a memorable lede—and reward them by giving them whatever else it is they’re looking for. If that’s analysis, then analyze. If it’s facts, then make with the facts. You can tell a story too, but it will have to be a short one in a short piece or it might overwhelm the rest of your content.

If you have the luxury of writing a longer piece—a feature story in a magazine, perhaps, or a speech—then by all means, open with a story. But you still have to grab the audience’s attention from the outset. And that requires—well, if not a lede then a sentence as catchy as one.

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