23 November 2011

Who needs a lede?

Copyblogger founder Brian Clark has a classic piece on how to open your article with a bang. Those tips in his blog are basic strategies that belong in every writer's toolkit. (Or at least, we should all know them so that we can avoid the cliches).

They can be summarised as follows:
  • the Question Opener ("What's a good way to start articles?")
  • the Anecdote Opener ("'I'm really tired of this,' said Robert Scoble as this interview started.")
  • the "Picture this" Opener ("Imagine: Wouldn't it be grand if all your readers paid you a dollar?")
  • the Shocking Statistic Opener ("Study: 95% of your readers are bored")
  • the Analogy Opener: ("What does your dog and my fruit basket have in common? Answer: Nothing.")
I happen to hold a somewhat contrarian view on the subject of ledes. I don't think blog content needs to have ledes at all.
(Yes, I call these things "ledes" what most people would call openings or introductions. An artifact of my newsroom days.)

Ledes don't serve a purpose that can't be fulfilled elsewhere in the body

The purpose of a good lede is to sustain reader interest. But because blog entries are not that long, (not as long as newspaper articles, at least) readers were never going to stay long in the first place. If the purpose is to draw audiences to read the content in the first place, that's the job of a title (hed), not the lede.

If the intent is to frame the situation or context of the article--it's that most traditional lede of all, aka the introduction, I'd argue that a well-written article should paint the complete picture for the reader by the time it's done.

Here's three reasons why I feel we should think out of the box, and avoid ledes as much as possible in blogs:

1) Readers want you to get on with it. The best examples of lede-less content I know comes from The Economist. Stories dive right into the central issue, and readers don't have to go through lengthy, Wolfe-sian stories like in many American newspapers. It doesn't even bother to give the background--editors at The Economist know that its main audience are paying subscribers and avid news readers who's probably already up-to-date with the news, and hungry for deep analysis from the word go.

2) Ledes tend to be cliched and tiring. Popular lede styles are exactly that: overused. Unique ledes take time to craft. Why not spend that time honing the logic of your story, or getting a better anecdote? Also, body content tend to be more different from article to article than ledes are. If you lede with the body, it's the most straightforward way to craft a unique lede.

3) in media res is one of the best ways to capture reader interest. Starting in the middle of the action is  a popular narrative device in movies and long-form fiction. It gets readers curious and excited quickly. It works in non-fiction as well.

It even works in the realm of pictures and photographs.

When I started used Facebook in 2007, it did something to profile photos I hadn't seen elsewhere before: it cropped thumbnails instead of resizing them. Despite that users couldn't crop their photos as they wished (at that time)--the crops actually looked good. I found that I didn't need to have whole portraits of people before I got curious. In fact, those square, awkward crops actually created visual interest, and encouraged me to check out strangers' profiles.

I think the same goes for content--no one really insists that every article must be like the three-act Aristotelian drama, with a beginning, a body, and an end. It's the key message that counts.

Someday, I should write a separate entry to argue why you shouldn't have to close your article.