The Renegade Writer

“Lede” the way to more article sales

By Diana Burrell

When I’m speaking at conferences, teaching, or chatting with other writers, I’m often asked how long I spend writing a query letter. The answer’s a little embarrassing: anywhere from five minutes to five+ years! It’s usually my lede giving me all the trouble, the first few sentences of my query letter. If my lede isn’t just right, I’m physically unable to hit send, thus why some of my pitches spend years percolating on my hard drive.

Last week Melissa Breau blogged about the importance of a great kicker — also known as the ending — in a magazine article. A great lede, however, is not only necessary for an article, but a query, too. I just released a short eBook, the first I’ve written for the new Renegade Writer Press, called Rock-Solid Queries: The 10 Surprising Reasons Why Magazine Editors Reject Your Ideas … and How to Write Queries That Get More Acceptances Today. My ebook excerpt below tells you why a great lede is so important to making a sale and shows you how to craft a lede that will entice an editor — and eventually your readers.

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Freelancers spend way too much time worrying what to say about their clips when they should be worrying about the first paragraph of their queries, or in journalism-speak, their ledes. If your letter doesn’t grab your editor’s interest in under 2.2 seconds, she’s going to click to the next letter in her inbox and never even make it to your bio! Many a good story is sunk by a bad lede.

Sometimes my students will develop a great idea in my class, and if time allows, I’ll review the query they’ve written for it. It’s unfortunate, but beginning and experienced freelancers usually make one of these mistakes:

  • They bury their ledes. I have to read two or three (boring) explanatory paragraphs before I get to that “a-ha” sentence, the one that should come before everything else.
  • Their ledes put readers to sleep. The writer will start by asking the editor a question, then go on for a couple sentences answering it for them. Or they’ll start with an anecdote that goes on for what-feels-like forever or present research, with lots of numbers, that knocks editors out faster than Ambien.

What’s sad is that these letters contain good ideas – I know because I urged my students to write them up! So if I can’t spot the lede or I’m drifting back to sleep at 11 a.m., I know these are problems less informed editors will have, too.

Many, many freelancers bury their ledes, even those of us who’ve been writing for publication for years. I do it all the time! Writing is a lot like running: it can take a couple miles (or paragraphs) to hit your stride. But here’s where less experienced writers trip and fall. Freelancers who’ve been around the block know that once you’ve written a draft, your lede is often lurking somewhere in that second or third paragraph. It can be as easy as cutting and pasting; most of the time, however, it takes additional thought and tinkering to get your lede over the finish line.

When I write queries, I can spend hours crafting my ledes, especially on an important story I’m keen to sell. It’s a worthwhile investment of my time because I know editors often scan first paragraphs, and if the writing doesn’t grab them, rejections ensue. My goal is to write an opening paragraph that teases editors into reading my whole pitch, so I do everything I can to make my initial words irresistible. Here’s how I accomplish this goal:

  • When I’m writing a first draft of my pitch, I just write. I get everything in my head on paper and don’t worry about the lede, or anything else really. The real work comes during editing, or “tinkering,” as I call it. Sometimes I’ll spot my lede in the second or third paragraph, so I cut and paste it to the top … but my lede still needs a ton of work.
  • I study the first paragraphs of articles in my target magazine and rewrite my lede in the same format. If stories tend to open with a personal anecdote, my query will open with one. If stories open with a startling fact, I’ll open my query with a startling fact. I mimic the style so closely and craft my lede with such care that I often use the lede from my query in the story I write on assignment.
  • I avoid asking questions in the first line of my query. Any query that begins, “Have you ever wondered …” or “Do you wish that …” should be deleted by the writer and put out of its misery. The answers to questions like these tend to be “No,” which leads to a rejection.
  • I spend a lot of time crafting the last sentence in my lede. If I’m going to ask a question of my reader/editor, I put it here. This sentence needs to be interesting enough to move my reader to the second paragraph, where I explain (concisely) what my proposed story is about now that I’ve got them hooked. (In journalism this is called the nut graf.)
  • I open my query with a “hed” and “dek” that matches the magazine’s style. (“Hed” is shorthand for “headline” and “dek” stands for “subhead.”) I want the editor to imagine what my story will look like on her pages, and the hed and dek can help. If you’re not good at writing headlines/subheads, just skip it. I put the hed and dek right after my salutation and before I launch into my query.
  • I let my query rest before I hit send. Rarely do I dash off a pitch, unless I know the editor very, very well. Instead, I let it sit for a day or two, then give it another read with fresh eyes. My critical faculties improve and I’m less emotional about making changes to my lede. It’s almost as if I’m editing someone else’s work.

Editors will forgive a lot in a query – an idea that’s interesting but needs more development, a misspelled name, minimal credits, even a typo – but few, if any, will forgive boring writing. Don’t derail a great idea by hitting your editor’s snooze button. Study how other writers write first paragraphs. What kind of writing draws you in to a story? Write down first sentences that feel particularly effective, especially in articles similar to ones you write and see if you can do something similar in your next query.

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Do you spend a lot of time perfecting your ledes? How long does it take you to craft a lede you’re happy with? Any other tips you can share with readers? Add your comments below. — Diana Burrell

Feb 28, 2013 Advice, Query letters, Writing

17 Responses

  1. Mark D. Haase says:

    Thank you very much Diana for the excellent post. Just last night I was reading one of your earlier posts where you talked about generating ideas. In the post you speak about the topic of how much do we know about those who watch our children. I went to the article and remember the lead (or lede) quickly drawing me in.

    Also, how can I buy your e-book?

    This is a great site. It should have been called, “Everything You Wanted to Know About Freelance Writing, But Was Afraid to Ask?”

    Thanks,

    Mark

    • Thanks, Mark! I don’t know what happened, but the link was wrong on the book title. You should be able to clink on it — or the image — and get Amazon.com’s site.

      Now I have to go back and read that other post — maybe I’ll be inspired for the lede I’m trying to write right now. ;)

  2. This makes sense, and it explains why the pitches and queries I’ve sent in the past were unsuccessful.

    When I’m writing an article, the lede is also the part I spend the most time on. Now I feel okay know that I’m supposed to spend lots of time on it.

    I’m excited about writing my first real query soon!

    • Sarah, one of the benefits (I find) to spending so much time writing a query is that I often don’t have to spend as much time writing the article. Like I said, sometimes I just use the lede I wrote for my query as my article’s lede, then everything is so well mapped out in my query, it almost feels like “filling in the blanks.” So yeah, take as much time as you need to get that letter right. You only get one chance … best to make the most of it. Good luck! :)

  3. Diana,

    These are some great tips. The lede has always given me the most trouble. I used to spend what seemed like hours trying to get it to flow. Then I learned to just write my middle and conclusion — this worked for me especially when I was in college and had to write long boring political science papers. :-)

  4. Thanks for the great post, Diana. In my writing career so far, I’ve been lucky/unlucky? enough to have stories assigned to me. The tides are turning and I find myself venturing into the need for querying. You have helped already by helping me “re-frame” my perspective of the process, which feels very daunting, to seeing it as a way to map out the article with total clarity, making the writing process that much easier! Ahhhh. Now- off to get your ebook! Thanks again! xo

  5. Cheryl says:

    Wow! I can relate. Sometimes I spend days getting a query just right and other times I’ll get one off in under 10 minutes. I think the higher paying the publication is the more I want to get the query just right and that’s what causes me to spend more time than I should on a query.

    • Interesting, Cheryl. I guess I’m kind of philosophical about the whole writing thing … if I need to spend a lot of time on my letter, then I need to spend time. If I don’t, I don’t. And if I don’t sell the query that I spent a long time writing, well at least I got some practice putting words together nicely. ;)

  6. Thank you Diana for this incredible article. I have been struggling with my query letters and your article answered some questions for me. I really appreciate that you shared your experience.

  7. Nancy Worley says:

    I would like to write some letters of introduction to several consumer mags. Do you
    have in archives what this letter might contain? Thanks.

  8. Nancy Worley says:

    Make that trade journals, not consumer magazines!

  9. Thank you Carole, for your comments AND for buying my eBook. I hope it helps you move forward in your writing career. :)

    I was thinking about the “never start a query with a question” advice, and of course, I see I tripped on “never.” What I should have said is that rarely does it work to start a query with a question. I still think asking a question where you give editor an option to answer “no” is the K.O.D., or in Mafia parlance, the kiss of death.

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