burying the lede in technical writing

“Burying the lede” is a common stylistic error in journalism. To bury a lede (rhymes with “bead”) is to hide the most important information within a news story instead of putting it up front where readers can find it immediately.

Technical writers can bury the lede too, and with the same results — the audience leaves, never to return, without ever reading the crucial message you wanted to convey.

Learn how to spot these four common style errors before they cost you your audience — and their business.

Passive Voice. The number one audience killer, passive voice buries the actor under the action. Saying that “The company introduced three new products this year” is always stronger than saying “Three new products were introduced by the company this year”especially when you’re trying to shine the spotlight on the three new products.

Sound paradoxical? It’s not. First, from the readability standpoint, the first part (“The company introduced . . . “) acts like a drumroll, making the second part (” . . . three new products”) land on your reader’s ear like a cymbal crash.

Second, from the informational standpoint, it’s essential for the reader to associate the company with the products. If the products come first, the impact of the company’s role in introducing them is lost in the wake of the products. Concentrating on the products, readers’ eyes will skip right over the part about the company while they assimilate the first clause.

Don’t say “the valve handle must be turned counterclockwise.” Tell the reader in no uncertain terms what to do. “Turn the valve handle counterclockwise.”

People hide behind passive voice. “Mistakes were made” is the classic example. Do you want your audience to think that you can’t or won’t own up to your mistakes? The take-away message is pretty clear: What else are they hiding from us?

Expletive Form. No, not curses — but the effect is roughly the same. Writers use the expletive form to sound official, but they usually end up coming across as simply officious. “It is important to remember that . . . ” “There are three steps to achieving our goal . . . ” “There is only one correct way to install . . . “

Think of the expletive form as “soft passive voice.” It’s flabby and absorbs the reader’s energy before he gets to the good stuff. Don’t say “It’s important to remember that the valve must be turned counterclockwise.” (Notice the passive voice in there? The two often operate as a team.) Say “Turn the valve counterclockwise.” The fact that you’re providing the instruction means that it is important.

Or are all the other instructions unimportant?

Gerunds and Participles. One of the easiest — and most damaging — ways to pad out a piece of writing is to turn every sentence into a freight train of phrases strung together with weak verbs that obscure cause and effect. Simple subjects become complex phrases, and the straightforward becomes opaque. “Turning the valve handle counterclockwise is necessary for allowing the line to drain.”

Here, an entire sentence’s worth of subject, verb, and object (“Turning the valve handle counterclockwise . . . “) has been compressed into acting as a subject, while another sentence’s worth (” . . . allowing the line to drain.”) is tacked on as an object. And what’s with “is necessary?” Is that really expressing the relationship between the two?

Make the cause-and-effect relationship stand out by letting the two clauses stand alone as sentences. “Turn the valve handle counterclockwise. This will allow the line to drain.” Your reader will be able to see how each of them affects the other.

Past Subjunctive. People often use the past subjunctive form in marketing and promotional copy to achieve what they think is a dramatic effect. “If ever there were a perfect time to buy our new electric razor, now is it!”

If you’re selling the perfect time, then by all means use the past subjunctive. If you’re selling the electric razor, then don’t sandwich it in between the hype.

Shortening the sentence to “Now is the perfect time to buy our new electric razor” is definitely a step in the right direction, but you’re still telling people about the perfect time, not the razor. Is the “perfect time” important because the razor will be on sale for a limited time? Then by all means say exactly that. Don’t make people guess; they don’t have time for games — and yours isn’t the only electric razor out there.

You don’t have to remember the proper names for these four styles. But you do need to be able to recognize them so you can rid your training manuals, instructional textbooks, product documentation, and technical reports of them. Don’t bury your lede, and you won’t lose your audience.

Author: Paul Lagasse

Paul Lagasse provides expert-to-expert communications services to nonprofit, business, and government clients in the metro Baltimore-DC area. Specialties include science and medical writing, technical report editing, and content marketing.

13 thoughts on “burying the lede in technical writing”

  1. I’ve always encountered this as a reminder not to bury the “lead”. I’m now curious as to the origin of it since, I admit, I’ve never before seen the word lede.

    Solid breakdown, though.

  2. Hi, Rob —

    I’m glad you liked the piece. I appreciate the feedback! (Or rather, “If ever there was a time to say that it was important to note that receiving the feedback is appreciated by me, now is it.”)

    The most popular version of the etymology of “lede” is that it’s used to avoid confusion with lead-metal type. And almost every account of that story is usually accompanied by the qualifier, “I don’t know if this is true, but . . .”

    Apparently it is true, at least in part. Here’s a nice account:

    The Mavens’ Word of the Day
    November 28, 2000

    The big surprise for me was that “lede” is actually the older of the two spellings.
    So you can almost imagine 16th century writers scratching their heads and asking “what is this word ‘lead’ I keep seeing?” 😀


  3. This article provides great value and I am passing it on to people who write in their jobs, but don’t necessarily know their ablative from their absolute.

    I think that most people who participate in this type of discussion will appreciate Ken Smith’s Junk English books and website:


    It’ll transform the way you listen to news, advertisements, politicians, and anyone who uses any kind of jargon.

    Paul, you are probably quite familiar with the concepts if not Smith’s actual work. Enjoy!

  4. Hi, Shirl —

    Thanks for the link! I haven’t heard about Junk English before this, but I am definitely going to buy the book now.

    This was my favorite quote from the website —

    “From Peggy B. — Peggy confesses that she is driven insane by people who manufacture “-ize” verbs. “I heard,” she says, “a man on PBS say something about distributionalizing something….” Peggy recalls that her husband was brought running from another room by her screams.”

    I often have a similar reaction, but with an inverse effect — usually my shouting drives the cat and my wife *out of* the room! 😀


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