With Lousy Ledes, No One Reads

The inverted pyramid technique

All writers are in the business of selling.

We are selling the reader on going on to the next word, next sentence, next paragraph and next page—all the way to the end of whatever is being written.

This is true of every literary form—email, letter, résumé, memo, blog, white paper, business plan, article, advertisement, nonfiction book or novel.

The Place to Start Selling Is the Lede
Many writers start off by clearing their throats, rolling up their sleeves and rubbing their hands together. By then the reader is on Page 2, with nothing to show for the time spent.

Create a boring or obtuse lede and chances are the reader will go no further.

In a Capitol Weekly column, titled, “Please just give us the news and spare us the anecdotal lead,” Will Shuck wrote:

I am sick to death of the anecdotal lead, that annoying habit of news writers to start a straightforward story by painting a quaint little picture of everyday life.

If the story is about a bill requiring pet owners to spay or neuter their dogs (just to pick an imaginary example), the anecdotal lead first tells us how much Janey Johnson loves Missy, her cocker spaniel.

No doubt Janey and Missy are a lovely pair, but a lot of us have jobs and kids and commutes and precious little time to muse about Missy’s reproductive potential.

Two Lousy Ledes
Metropolitan Section front page of The New York Times on Sunday, June 22, 2014 featured three stories. Here are the heds and lede paragraphs of two of them:

‘After the Storm, 20 Months in Limbo’
By Liz Robbins

One after another, caseworkers entered the small, stuffy Downtown Brooklyn conference room—the court of last resort.

Denny Hatch is the author of six books on marketing and four novels, and is a direct marketing writer, designer and consultant. His latest book is “Write Everything Right!” Visit him at dennyhatch.com.

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  • Denny Hatch

    Dear Etoain Shrdlu.

    Many thanks for taking the time to write and share your thoughts with other readers.

    The rule of thumb on sentence length and comprehension: 8 Words—Very Easy; 11 Words—Easy; 14 Words—Fairly Easy; 17 Words—Standard; 21 Words—Fairly Difficult; 25 Words—Difficult; 29 or More—Very Difficult.

    Your lede paragraph (“A 10 year old boy who had “borrowed”. . . ) is a single sentence. It runs 85 words, and therefore, I’m sorry to say, is totally unreadable.

    In my book—Write Everything Right!—I counted the words in every sentence, and no sentence runs longer than 29 words. Anything longer was split into more than one sentence.

    Regarding the word lede. This odd spelling makes good sense. “Lead” (when pronounced “led”) is also the heavy metal used to make plumbing pipes and fishing sinkers. A lead paragraph would indicate heavy going.

    News people also refer to a paragraph as a “graf.”

    Thanks again for writing. Do keep in touch.


  • Rik Shafer


    I have been guilty of overwriting in the past.

    Shame on me.

    Love your new column, am putting it up next to my desk for constant inspiration.

    Maybe I won’t write so much.

    Uh Oh, I think I already have.

    Nice job.


    Rik Shafer

    *Rik Shafer
    Creative At Large, Inc.
    :: Creative at Large ::

  • judy colbert

    Amen — this was in today’s email: Sorry, I read the first graf and stopped.

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  • David Cowen

    Hey Denny – Absolutely great advice. Thanks for reminding me. David

  • Etoain Shrdlu

    All true, Denny, but let me also remind your readers that writing a good lede is an art that involves more exposing the topic of the article. Sometimes using an inverted pyramid is the least artful way to tell a story. Example:

    Many (very many) decades ago, I was a young newspaper reporter in Ohio, and reported on a 10 year old who stole his father’s Oldsmobile, lost control, and eventually drove the car through the wall of a farmhouse. The who-what-why-when-where lede read something like this:

    “A 10 year old boy who had “borrowed” his father’s Oldsmobile last night fell off the seat while driving along Route 40, and lost control, causing the car to jump a ditch, tear through a barbed wire fence, careen across 50 yards of muddy corn field, and then crash through the wall of a farmhouse and into the bedroom of James and Joanna Smith, who had fortuitously just left the room during a break in the Jack Paar show to fetch some milk and cookies.”

    My editor read the lede and frowned.”Kid, that’s not how you write a story like this,” he said. He rolled a piece of paper into his own typewriter, pounded out a sentence, and passed it across his desk to me. “Now you finish the story” he said.

    His lede? “A ten year old boy was all shook up but unhurt last night after a wild ride that would have made the late Barney Oldfield look like a piker.”

    P.S. I have never figured out what it’s spelled “lede” when what it’s actually the lead sentence of a story. Go figure.

  • Imre Homer

    By the way your pic is a textbook example of using graphics that reinforce your story… and versi vica