The Freelancer’s Phrase Book: Anatomy of an Article

By Abigail Green

To continue a theme from last month, sometimes the “editorialese” that freelance writers encounter can seem like a foreign Abby Greenlanguage. Terms like “head,” “deck,” and “lead” — not to mention their alternate spellings, “hed,” “dek” and “lede” — can leave you scratching your head. So let’s break it down, shall we?
First off, I’ll tackle the spelling. Editorial lore posits that the odd spelling “lede” was adopted when newspaper type was set in lead, to keep from confusing the word for the metal with the word for the beginning sentence of an article. Similarly, “hed” and “dek” jump out at spellcheckers and proofreaders.
Now that we’ve cleared that up, let’s talk about what some of the most common terms mean. I’ll use the traditional spellings.
Lead: The first few lines of an article that introduce the story. Traditional leads use the five W’s: who, what, where, when, why (and how). Study your target market to see what types of leads are used. If articles usually start with anecdotes, use an anecdotal lead in your query or submission.
Head or header: Short for headline–a title or description of a story. Again, study your target market: Are headers short or long? Clever or straightforward? Try to match their style.
Deck: A sentence or few sentences below a headline that summarizes the article.
Subhead: Titles or descriptions that break up different sections of longer features.
Graph: Short for paragraph. A “nut graph” comes after the lead and clearly lays out the point of the article. Think of it like the thesis statement of a term paper.
Call-out or pull-quote: A small selection of text from a longer article pulled out and quoted in a larger typeface.
Sidebar: A shorter, secondary story related to a major one and run at the same time.
Wondering why you should care? Editors regularly use these terms and will assume you know what they mean. Also, freelancers are increasingly expected to supply their own heads and decks. Even if they’re not required, including them in your articles makes editors’ jobs easier–and you look better.

Abigail Green has published more than 150 articles and essays in regional and national publications including American Baby, Baltimore Magazine, Bride’s, Cooking Light, and Health. Her work also appears in the new book, “A Cup of Comfort for New Mothers.” (Adams Media, 2009). Abby holds a B.A. from Vassar College and an M.A. in publishing from the University of Baltimore. She writes the “Crib Notes” column for The Writer Mama e-zine and the “Understanding Personal Essays” column for Writers on the Rise. A mother of two boys, she blogs about parenting, publishing and more at She also teaches the six-week e-course Personal Essays that Get Published.


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