“Your Lede Goes Here” and Other Mostly Irreverent Advice for Editors and Writers

By Jack Limpert

A light-hearted 1994 note about how to edit a newspaper story by Ralph Blumenthal of the New York Times (posted today on Facebook by Melinda Henneberger):

1) Your lede goes here. Write what you think you know about the subject, what you feel happened, what your gut tells you.

2) Move reporter’s second graf down to the bottom, where it can be bitten off in the composing room.

3) Fashion new second graf from material deep down in story, preferably with a mysterious second reference to someone not introduced yet.

4) For a quote, get the reporter to put into someone’s mouth what you believe or suspect happened.

5) Write and complete this sentence: At stake is… (Something must be at stake. Or unfolding against a backdrop. Be sweeping. Use the word ‘sweeping.’ Take a step back. What’s really happening here? Even if it isn’t. Especially if it isn’t.

6) Move a lot of stuff around.

7) Order up a mountain of new reporting. Could something unlikely possibly happen? Why? Why not? Who hasn’t commented on this?

8) Now cut all this out for space.

9) Cut the kicker. If the reporter left it for the end, it couldn’t be that important.

10) Sked the story.

11) Hold the story.
Blumenthal was having fun with how newspaper space limitations cause all kinds of editing slight-of-hand. But as a magazine editor, my first challenge often echoed Blumenthal’s first rule: “Your lede goes here.” Plenty of times I cut the first 100 or more words of a story to find something—usually an anecdote—to use as a lede that would entice the reader to want to know more and to read on.

And that often meant cutting what the writer was thinking to get to the writer’s reporting.

Years ago an editor at the Wall Street Journal described the formula for its page one stories as D.E.E.—Description, Explanation, Evaluation. Start with an anecdote or description before telling the reader what it means.

For many magazine writers, “Telling the reader what it means” seemed an irresistible temptation. I had several writers who were good at explanatory pieces—their problem was they always wanted to scatter topic sentences throughout their stories. A high school or college English teacher had drummed into them the need for topic sentences to help the reader understand what he’s reading,

In an explanatory magazine story, the writer often would get a good quote from someone knowledgeable and then add a sentence or two in front of the quote telling the reader what the quote meant. They couldn’t break the English class habit.
Blumenthal’s ninth rule was “Cut the kicker. If the reporter left it for the end, it couldn’t be that important.”

In a magazine story the ending was the second big editing challenge. Figure out how to open the story, then figure out how to end it. Again it often meant cutting 100 or more words at the end to find a place—again, often a quote—that ended the story with some emotional impact.

Advice for writers: To tell a great story, resist telling the reader what you think. As much as possible, let the reporting tell the story.

Let the reader think.
The Times called Blumenthal’s note “a step-by-step guide for backfield editors.”

A backfield editor? The Times says it “is basically an assignment editor who supervises reporters. This person talks the story through with a reporter, helps with the lede, and does a first read on the story. Backfield editors also pitch stories for the front page and home page and plan many types of coverage.”









Speak Your Mind