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Great ledes are a necessary if insufficient condition

by Shari Graydon

Is it possible to write a brilliant op ed if you can’t write a grab ’em by the throat lede? (“lede” being journalism jargon for your first sentence or paragraph, the origins of which were designed to distinguish “leading sentence” from the “lead” — as in metallic chemical element — letters that used to be used in the printing process. Now you know.)

Yes, it’s possible. But if your lede sucks, and nobody reads past it to get to your brilliance, what was the point?

In the past couple of weeks, in aid of generating profile for some Informed Opinions activity in London, Ontario, I’ve written two op eds about the project for two local newspapers. Even though the general focus was the same, the two pieces had to be different,  starting with the opening paragraphs. For Western News, the University of Western Ontario’s campus paper, I told an anecdote about trying to recruit expert women to be listed in a resource guide for journalists. This is how I began:

I’m standing in front of a room full of CBC radio producers and researchers in Toronto, and they’re all nodding their heads, agreeing with the words I’ve just spoken. You’d think this would make me happy. Instead, I’m furious.

For the London Free Press piece, I wrote the following:

There’s a great moment in the recent British film, Made in Dagenham, that I’m guessing will resonate with many women, not just those who’ve worked in the macho car manufacturing industry.

I hoped to engage readers with both ledes, and selected the first because I thought it would resonate with a university audience. The second one made a deliberate connection with the auto industry, which has a presence in London, albeit declining. (To read the entire version of either piece, just click on the live link provided in the publication title.)

There’s no way of knowing how many readers of either paper were intrigued enough by my ledes to keep reading, but I know for sure that if I’d started either piece by writing something along the lines of:

Next week I will be visiting London to deliver a guest lecture and two workshops to local women, encouraging them to write op eds and say “yes” to media interviews…

(blah, blah, blah…)

Readers are engaged by stories, and given that writers in almost every newspaper now have to compete with celebrity tales involving the rich and famous, drugged and divorcing, a little drama is required! And although the upfront drama doesn’t make the op ed itself a brilliant piece of work, it increases the piece’s chance of having an impact.