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How long should your lede be?
Jun 10, 2019
3 minutes read

One of the hardest parts about writing is figuring out how to start off your piece.

Your beginning — called the “lede” in journalism — is crucial because it gets your reader hooked into reading the rest of your work. So you can’t screw this bit up.

One of the questions you may be asking yourself when devising a lede is whether yours is too long or even too short.

The quick answer is that it does not necessarily make a difference. All that matters is that it doesn’t feel to the reader like it’s dragging on. If you need a long lede, there should be a good reason for it. As with anything you write, economy is a must. (Thus there is no such thing as a lede that’s “too short”.)

But it can never be that simple with you people eh? All right FINE.

My theory is that, generally, your lede (WITHOUT the nut) should be no more than 10 to 15 per cent the total length of the piece.

(What’s the nut? It’s a distinctive part of the lede that explains directly or indirectly to the reader why the piece you’ve written exists and why they should care. It’s a journalism term but many forms of non-news writing can have a nut.)

I picked this figure after looking at some articles I consider to have good ledes, where the lede fell around the 10 per cent mark. The main idea is to give writers a guideline that scales along with the length of the piece they’re writing. This helps you make sure the maximum length of your lede is proportional to the length of your piece.

Here’s a few examples.

Wired had a really well-written piece in April about a man who used bitcoin to hire a phony assassin to kill his wife. It was about 5,854 words long and the lede, sans nut, was 460, by my count. That’s 7.85 per cent.

I looked at one of my pieces. This profile on Rideau Hall is a favourite from my portfolio, in part because of the lede. The article is 877 words and the lede comes out at 88 — 10 per cent.

This article from 2017 is nothing special — it isn’t even a feature — however the lede is particularly tidy, at 8.3 per cent.

As you can see, it’s entirely possible to have a lede perform well within this length range.

But rules are made to be broken! What’s really important is to make sure you don’t bore the reader, or cause them to wonder when you’re going to get to the point. People have short attention spans and a lede that drags on risks losing them for good.

If you have a really engaging lede that pulls people in, and an article that goes on for some length (thousands of words), then you could theoretically have a 30–40 per cent lede and still keep the reader. If you’re keeping the reader, then you’re doing your job.

It’s also important to look at what you’re accomplishing in your lede, beyond just focusing on raw length. Again, if it’s doing the work, it may not matter how long it runs.


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