The hed, the dek, the lede and the nut graf

Every profession has its own idiosyncratic terminology, and journalism has some brilliant ones. Some of these aren’t used much beyond “subs’ desks“, and therefore not used much at all, as the newspaper sub-editor is a vanishing breed. However, it occurred to me that an understanding of these traditional terms can still help everyone’s writing, especially in a low-attention-span age.

Why such strange spelling? They say it came about to ensure anyone seeing the terms didn’t get confused with anything else. That would be typical sub-editor efficiency.

You’ll guess what a hed is. Writing a headline which gets noticed has come under more scrutiny in the digital age than ever before. Our job is to use the tricks of clickbait while still appearing professional and credible.

Under this we may have a dek or subhed – a sentence summarising the story and enticing the reader in further. On the web, there’s more opportunity to have one of these than in print, and indeed it’s ideal as the ‘description’ meta tag, so it’s back with a vengeance. I write one of these for every blog article, and I’ve been considering adding this field (normally only used as the ‘description’ meta tag) under the headline on the page, rather than just hiding it away for Google.

The lede is the leading paragraph, which should encapsulate the entire story: I was always taught this should include the who, what, when and where (if not the why and how too). Take a look at the main stories on quality newspapers and you’ll see how they do it. Then there may be the nut graf (nutshell paragraph), which expands on what’s gone above but still encapsulates the story. This is followed by the main copy, and finally – especially in magazine articles – there may be a kicker, which is a closing anecdote to lift the ending.

You can see most of these in this short news story from The Times last week. Of course this formula won’t be appropriate to everything you write, but it’s a very good starting point, especially for news releases. I like to start with the headline, while being prepared to ditch it later, then work out the main message of the story. Once this is decided, work on the lede and nut-graf, followed by the copy. While writing this, bear in mind anything which could be extracted for a kicker.

1 thought on “The hed, the dek, the lede and the nut graf”

  1. Interesting point about writing headlines. When I was doing the CAM Course in PR they were very much of the Frank Jefkins school that you should write the article first and then think about the headline. But I agree with you that having the headline in mind does help shape what you are writing about. Although you do have to be careful about fixating on the headline (as some clients do) and making the story fit it.

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