Death to the Anecdotal Lede

Like many of us, I was thrilled to move from newspapers to magazines because now I could unspool anecdotal ledes. No longer was I bound by the inverted pyramid. I could begin every story by setting a scene, usually in the present tense. Here are a couple of examples:

 No Pulse which I wrote for Popular Scienceand my Rolling Stone piece about the  Ruckus Society, both with anecdotal ledes.

I relied on the anecdotal lede for years. It felt like the thing that made me a writer as opposed to a mere reporter.

The anecdotal lede can be a fine thing. I still use it occasionally. More and more though, I find myself — as a reader — skipping over other people’s anecdotal ledes. Yeah, yeah, I think. Very nice. But what’s this story about?

 What I started using more in the past few years is the conceptual lede, in which the story begins with an idea rather than a little literary moment. Here are a couple of examples:

 Gloria Trevi for Rolling Stone

The Lost Year for The New Yorker.

See the difference? Somehow, I’m more enamored with the conceptual lede lately. It seems less self-indulgent, more modern and streamlined. This might seem odd, since I inveighed against the nut graf here. A conceptual lede, though, is subtly different from a nut graf. For one thing, it’s at the very top, so obviously isn’t an escape hatch for the reader. But also, it usually isn’t a summary of the article’s entire point. It’s merely the idea that begins the piece and sets its intellectual tone.

Here’s a good example of how lopping off the anecdote to get straight to the point can really improve a story. When covering the Asian tsunami for The New Yorker, I originally wrote the piece like this: Relief.8.

 Margaret, in her wisdom, drew big red X’s over the first seven pages of the story! I almost had a heart attack. What she was doing, though, was digging down through a useless anecdote to get to the concept around which the story was built. Her edit looked like this: Relief.9.  And Mission to Sumatra pdf is how the story ran in The New Yorker. If you’ll notice, it isn’t much changed from the way Margaret edited it. 

 This is not a jeremiad against the anecdotal lede. Anecdotal ledes still have their place. But as I read magazines, it seems like writers are using them too often. They can be a bit of a crutch, actually; they can put off, for the writer, the moment at which you have to decide what it is you’re trying to say. They also can be rather flowery and somewhat useless.

So all I’m arguing here is, as you begin an article with an anecdotal lede, ask yourself: Is this really necessary? Or would I be better off grasping the nettle with a conceptual lede?


3 thoughts on “Death to the Anecdotal Lede

  1. When I was a rookie on the once great Providence Journal they occasionally allowed an anecdotal lede, if it was exquisite. The Evening Bulletin, typical of other evening papers at the time, encouraged anecdotal ledes. Gannett was quite tolerant of deviations from the AP pyramad style as long as they worked. Most of the great papers had their own stylebook in addition to A P’s. Some, like The Sun’s, bordered on the eccentric. For example, The Sun—perhaps under the influence of H.L. Mencken—would never use the word rapist, presuming it conveyed a degree of craft if not artistry. They used the word raper, which of course strikes the ear oddly. Lately I notice among digiterati a resort to rather spondaic and sometimes utterly trivial ledes that serve little purpose except to encourage smart-assery.


  2. Not to the point, but when I was growing up in Providence (that would be 60 years ago), I thought the Providence Journal and the Providence Evening Bulletin were owned and managed by the same people.


  3. That’s not such a dumb mistake. I used to work for the Atlanta Journal and the Atlanta Constitution, evening and morning papers owned and managed by the same people.

    I was once sent to the store to get a New York Times for my father, and came home with the Newark Evening News. Similar old English title, similar incomprehensible gray smear of small words. How different could they be? And the Newark Evening News was fifteen cents cheaper, which left a surplus for a box of Good n’ Plenty. My father was furious.


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