Writing exercise ledes to stress

Instructors wait to critique ledes. Photo by Mary Lou Song

Lauren Balser of South Riding, Virginia, recalls racing to the printer, grabbing her lede and sprinting toward the hallway. She also remembers tripping over a backpack and carpet, burning both knees and one arm.

Still, she said she jumped up, shoved past the person who asked if she was OK and ran her next lede to her instructor.

“I don’t think I grasped that it wasn’t a competition,” she said.

Balser’s experience embodies the exercise in which cherubs write ledes until they are deemed acceptable. Instructors ensure that the exercise also provides aerobic activity for the cherubs.

The stressful environment is cherub-created. Balser said she was “uber-competitive” the first time and ran to the hallway with every lede she printed.

Didi Jin of New York said it was stressful because no one wanted to be the last to finish.

Maxine Giller of Bexley, Ohio, was stressed by a different reason: her instructor.

“It was terror of disappointing Mary Lou,” she said. “I wanted her to think I was a good writer. I thought, ‘This has to be perfect.’ I was convinced I had gotten it the first time, and she drew a big X through it. I felt an intense need to be better.”

It took Giller 10 drafts to get Song’s approval. Jin, who was in the same instructor group, said it took half an hour for the entire group to move on to the second lede, when some students were finishing their third.

But Giller liked the exercise because the students in her group supported each other.

“We would stand in line together,” she said. “We’d cheer each other on. If somebody was close, we’d help each other out. It was a chance for us to bond through our shared pain.”

Jin liked the exercise the second time.

“By the second, we all knew each other a lot better than the first night,” he said. “We were making jokes about who might finish first, or ‘Oh, I finished the second one, but you’re still on No. 1,’ but in a fun, competitive way.”

A lot of cherubs disliked the lede exercise then, but they said they are grateful for the experience. Balser said it helped her figure what to include in a news lede.

Jin said it helped him learn news judgment.

“Even though there was no prize for first or being in the top half, it would be nice to know that I can write a lede well,” he said. “Unfortunately, that wasn’t the case for me. But I don’t have any shame in that, knowing I came out of it as a better writer.”

Scroll over the graphic to see how cherubs improved from the first lede for the first exercise to the last lede of the second exercise. Their improvement is measured by the decline in the number of tries it took to write an acceptable lede. Graphic by Alex Perry