Don’t Bury the LedeBy Erika Suffern
A lede is the most newsworthy part of a news story. Journalists are taught to keep it front and center: a story should lead with the lede. A writer “buries the lede” when the newsworthy part of a story fails to appear at the beginning, where it’s expected. Say, for example, that two people die in a house fire. The lede is buried if the reporting mentions the location, time, or cause of the fire before the deaths.
The idea of leading with a lede can be extended to types of writing other than journalism. Putting your main point at the end of a long sentence asks readers to hold on to the other ideas in the sentence until they reach the lede. If you habitually bury the lede in your sentences, you may eventually test the patience of your readers. Here’s one example of a buried lede:
Known for her unmatched skills as a hostess—after all, she had been a debutante who became a socialite whose husband sat on the boards of half a dozen of the city’s most prestigious cultural organizations—Mary felt right at home discussing her plan for the summer fund-raising luncheon with the museum director.
The main subject, “Mary,” is hinted at with “her” in the first clause, but readers don’t connect Mary’s hostessing prowess to the museum’s fund-raiser until reaching the end of the sentence. Take a look at what happens when we lead with Mary and the fund-raiser:
Mary felt right at home discussing her plan for the summer fund-raising luncheon with the museum director; after all, as a debutante who became a socialite whose husband sat on the boards of half a dozen of the city’s most prestigious cultural organizations, she was known for her unmatched skills as a hostess.
Mary and the fund-raiser are introduced first, and Mary’s social qualifications follow to contextualize her role with the museum and its fund-raiser.
You don’t have to slavishly avoid burying the lede. Variety in your sentences keeps you and your readers from becoming bored. And sometimes you may want to bury the lede for a rhetorical effect. In this example, the lede is dramatically delayed until the end of the sentence:
To her chagrin, Mary realized her worst nightmare coming to pass: after she had spent months drawing up lists, meeting with caterers, choosing stationery and flowers, calling donors, and planning the most elaborate garden cocktail party the museum had ever imagined, the forecast called for rain.
So be on the lookout for buried ledes, especially in long sentences.
Erika Suffern is an associate editor at the MLA. She received a BA from Bard College and an MA from the University of Delaware and has ten years of editorial experience. Before joining the MLA staff in 2016, she was associate director of the Renaissance Society of America and managing editor of its journal, Renaissance Quarterly.
Published 23 March 2017