Making a Lead

Making a Lead

What is a “lead” in writing? The lead is the hook that draws you into a story. The lead should convey the essence of who, what and where — without divulging the whole story.

Funny thing about this blog article: As I was writing it, I realized that I was trying write a lead for a post on how to write good leads. I was sure to fall down this rabbit hole. It was then that I became very stressed about it. I mean, this Dear Megan post could have had a better lead. I was then compelled to buy a bag of mini donuts powdered from the gas station, clean my desk and poll my coworkers about their preferred shower time (morning or evening). I also watched several clips from ‘America’s Got Talent’. Now I am on deadline and here we go.

Jack Cappon, an old-school reporter ace and author of The Word: An Associated Press Guide for Good News Writing’, has rightly described lead-writing as “the agony at square one.” Your lead is crucial because readers will make decisions about whether to invest their time and brain power in your content, or if they want to leave. Dare I say that a compelling lead is more important today in the digitalized world of rapid-fire communication. We have a notoriously short attention span and much less patience. Your content will not grab readers’ attention if it doesn’t catch their attention immediately. You only need to thumb-tap the “back” button.

Good leads are enticing. It is inviting. It promises readers their time will be well spent and sets the tone for the piece. A great lead is the foundation of all great content.

Good leads are enticing. It is inviting. It promises readers their time will be well spent and sets the tone for the piece. A great lead is the foundation of all great content.

Two types leads

There are two types of leads, and many variations. These are:

Summary lead

This lead is most often used in news reports. Journalism 101 taught us about the inverted-pyramid. This lead summarizes the situation quickly and gives the reader the most important information first. This type of lead will help you determine the most important aspect of your story, such as who, what and where and why, and then present these facts.

A barn outside Bethlehem was the birthplace of an alleged virgin who gave birth to a boy last night. According to magi who attended the birth, the boy was guided by a celestial body. 

A creative lead

Anecdotes, observations, funny stories, and so on can all be included. These leads work well in blog posts and feature stories. They are meant to spark readers’ curiosity and get them involved in the story. This route is best if you provide more detail and context in the few sentences that follow your lead. It’s great to have a creative lead, but don’t make the reader search for the story’s content too often.

Mary did not want to pay taxes.

The question lead. The question lead, a variation on the creative lead is exactly what it sounds like: it’s a way to lead with a question. This type of lead is not liked by most editors, including me. It’s lazy writing. Your content is being read by people to find answers and not to be asked questions. It feels like a sham, as if the writer couldn’t find a compelling way of starting the piece. Want to know more about the virgin birth? Duh! That’s why I clicked here in the first instance.

It is possible to make your question provocative. This woman just gave birth in a barn. It’s not often.

What type of lead should I write?

Ask yourself these questions:

Who are my audiences?

Your witty repartee on the IRS is not what tax attorneys are looking for. Millennials seeking craft beer recipes also don’t want technical discussions about the fermentation process. Your words should be tailored to the readers of this post.

Where will this article appear?

Be consistent with the tone and language of the site. Vice.com allows you to do certain things that will not result in your death on the Chronicle of Higher Education.

What is it that I am writing about?

Some topics lend themselves to creativity while others call for “Just the facts ma’am” presentations. You have more freedom to write about aromatherapy on a yoga blog than you do when writing about retirement tips.

How do you write a paragraph or lead sentence? Top 10

Choose your hook.

Take a look at the 5 Ws, 1 H. What is it that makes readers click on this content? What is new or different? The most important and relevant aspects of your life are the ones you should be focusing on.

Clear and concise

Simple language is the best. Mark Twain put it best: “Don’t use a five-dollar term when a fifty cent word will do.”

Use the active voice.

Use strong verbs and a clear language. Comparing “Dog bites man” with “A man was bit by a dog”, the passive voice is timid, bland and irritable (Stephen King felt the same).

Represent the reader as “you.”

This is the writer’s equivalent of breaking the fourth wall in theatre. While some editors may disagree with me, I stand behind it. It’s obvious that you are writing to them. I believe it creates a personal connection.

Give credit where credit is due.

The little treasure you want to share? First, put that information in your head and then find out who it was. It is almost always secondary to the actual words that he/she actually said.

Keep it short and punchy.

Let’s take my lead from Marketing Land: “Freelancers like working with me.” 

To help you get out of a rut, search for a relevant stat

You can be brilliant, clever, punchy or innovative if you don’t succeed in your attempts to be creative or punchy. Find an interesting statistic related to your topic and use that as your lead. This works best if the stat is unexpected or unusual, such as “A staggering 80 percent of Americans have debt.”

Start with a story.

Try an anecdote to lead if a stat or fact doesn’t work for you. People don’t absorb data. They feel stories. Anecdotal leads are great for crime stories. Here’s one example: “It is just after 11 p.m. and Houston police officer Al Leonard draws his gun as an elderly black man approaches the patrol vehicle. The 9mm pistol is not visible, but Leonard points through the car’s door. Leonard opens his window to greet the man casually. “What can you do for me?” “I want to know what the next step is, don’t ya?

Use this literary technique.

These three elements are essential to any story: a hero that we can relate to, a villain we fear and a struggle. These elements can be found in your story and you can lead by one of them.

If you stare at a blank screen.

Start. Write anything. Your story should start in the middle. You will find your lead hidden in the “get-going copy” once you have started. You can find your lead in the copy, you just have to get rid of all the rest.

Top 10 do’s

Do not make your readers work too hard.

This is also known as “burying your lead”, which refers to when it takes too long for you to get your point across. While it’s okay to be creative, if your readers are unable to understand what your article is about quickly, they will bounce.

Do not try to add too many.

Are you using too many of the 5 Ws or H in your lead? Do not try to stuff everything into your lead. You’ll overwhelm the reader.

Do not start sentences with “there’s” or “there are”.

Although it isn’t wrong, it’s similar to the question lead. It’s boring, lazy writing.

Don’t be cliche.

I beg you.

No errors

You’re done.

Do not say that anything is “right around”

My editors and I used keep track of the number of these we received each week. We weren’t very kind about it either. “Valentine’s Day” is just around the corner, “The first day at school is right around,” Mother’s Day sales will be right around corner,”… Zzzzz. Boring.

Do not make puns.

A Huffington Post article about a large swastika that was found on the bottom of a Brazilian swimming pool says: “Authorities did Nazi this.” Boo. Do not make the reader grumble.

Do not state the obvious.

Do not tell readers what you already know. A real-life example came across my desk recently: “The internet is an enormous source of useful information.” What can you say?

Do not cite the dictionary.

“Merriam-Webster defines marketing as…” Oh, shoot me. This tactic works best for middle-school essay-writing students. This is a dangerous tactic.

Do not imagine anything. You’re not John Lennon.

Imagine a world where everyone recycles,” “Imagine saving a life with a $1,000 tip,” “Imagine that you get a $1,000 tip on Christmas Eve from your favorite customer.” “Imagine we got rid of this old, clumsy lead.”

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By Tom Smith

Tom Smith is Content Manager at Amir Articles, Answer Diary and Mods Diary from Australia, studied BSC in 2010, Love to write content in general categories, Play hardcore strategy games all the time.

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