Writing advice that pays: Don’t bury the lede

Aug 8, 2014

"A huge vocabulary is not always an advantage. Simple language...can be more effective than complex language, which can lead to stiltedness or suggest dishonesty."
- John Gardner, The Art of Fiction

I’ll never forget the first (and probably most formative) feedback I ever got on my professional non-fiction writing work. I was all of 23 years old, and convinced that I was Terribly Grown-Up and Clever. Wayyyy overconfident about my abilities, I turned in my piece after one pass (no spell-check for me, thankssomuch) and waited for the plaudits to roll in.

The piece came winging back to me in twenty minutes. On it, were a considerable amount of glaring red edits – and one comment:

“Don’t bury the lede.”

(In retrospect, I also should have used spell check.)

That first comment – “don’t bury the lede” – has become valuable advice for almost any non-fiction bit of writing I do. While I don’t work in journalism, I often find myself following the principles of good lede construction for blog posts, essays, copy, and even some fiction. If you know what your lede is, you know what the spine of your work is – and that’s well worth uncovering.

What the heck is a lede?

A term most often used by journalists, the lede is the first paragraph of any news story. “Burying the lede” means that a journalist is neglecting to include the most interesting (or newsworthy) information within the introductory paragraph.

Now (as you can see from my posts’ tendency to meander philosophically) I’m not a strict adherent to this journalistic standard. Ledes are meant to capture a news reader’s very limited attention quickly, allowing you to skim. But I think the principles involved in constructing a good lede are helpful for writers working in almost any non-fiction medium.

Good ledes 1.) effectively communicate the main idea of a story and 2.) capture readers’ attention– and most importantly, they accomplish both objectives in as few words as possible.

When my work begins to get too ornate, I try to return to the principles of lede construction. As I write, I try to ask myself:

What’s the most important thing I want to say?
Who do I want to say it to?
Why am I saying it (or: why does anyone care? Why do I care?)
How can I say it more clearly? What can I cut?

Using the principles of good lede construction to pare down my writing helps me to become simpler and more direct. If I lose some would-be cleverness along the way, it’s probably for the best. It’s easy for me to hide in elaborate metaphors or tricks; zeroing in on solid, plain language almost always improves my work!

The principles of creating a good lede aren’t perfect (and heaven knows I don’t always follow them perfectly), but they’re helpful when trying to find the core of your piece. Dig that lede up, dust it off, bring it back to life – your work liiiiiives!

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