Writing is murder.
Who says? None other than Stephen King in On Writing, paraphrasing authors before him:
Kill your darlings, kill your darlings, even when it breaks your egocentric little scribbler’s heart, kill your darlings.
He means that, too often, writers fall in love with their words and refuse to delete their “darlings,” even when doing so makes a piece better. Just because you can say something doesn’t mean you should. Writing rarely comes out right the first time, including the opening words of a piece— the lead—which should hook the reader.
Start strong with your writing by coming up with a beginning that motivates readers to give you their time (Pro Tip 26).
In journalism, a “lede” or “lead” (as in, “The president leads the United States,” not the metal that sounds like “led”) is simply the beginning of an article—a strong paragraph (or a very few) that captures the audience’s attention and sets up what's to come.
It often features the main point—the big news that the creator has to offer. At its simplest, that means stating who, what, when, where, why—and how. More complex leads can also intrigue readers and guide them into the piece.
The lead is the toughest part of a piece. Once you get it, even if it isn’t perfect, you set a direction for your writing. As the late nonfiction book author and contributor to The New Yorker John McPhee explains in Draft No. 4: On the Writing Process:
I have often heard writers say that if you have written your lead you have in a sense written half of your story… The lead—like the title—should be a flashlight that shines down into the story. A lead is a promise. It promises that the piece of writing is going to be like this. If it is not going to be so, don’t use the lead.
An article from Inc. features a lead that tells the reader exactly what’s coming:
'No ad agency would have done this ad.’
That's what Coinbase CEO Brian Armstrong said on Twitter when he shared the backstory for how the company's famous [2022’s] Super Bowl commercial, which pictured a floating QR code and not much else, came to be.
Except, it appears that an ad agency did do this ad.
This is a story about the most famous commercial from Super Bowl, the creative process, and what to do when you make a mistake.
Most often, if you can nail the headline/title, deck/subtitle, and lead/ beginning—the first things the reader sees—you have created your concept (Pro Tip 3). Then, the rest of the draft flows more easily.
BURYING THE LEAD
Too many times, though, writers bury the lead. That means they fail to put the most compelling point at the beginning of a piece, instead hiding it later in the work.
Writer Nora Ephron in her book I Feel Bad about My Neck: And Other Thoughts on Being a Woman tells how she learned not to bury the lead. Her journalism teacher assigned the class to write the opening sentence of a news story. It was about Beverly Hills High School’s faculty traveling to the state capital for a colloquium on teaching methods the following Thursday.
The students dutifully wrote the who, what, when, and where of the event. Ephron’s teacher looked at the leads, then threw them into the trash, complaining that the students had missed the big news.
As he said, the lead should have been instead: “No school Thursday.”
FINDING THE LEAD
Sometimes a terrific lead gets buried in a draft because it takes time to get writing up and running. Your true beginning may lie later in the piece. If your lead isn’t quite right, cut the first paragraph or section and see whether the piece works better. This gets rid of all the hemming and hawing you might have done by getting to the action sooner. By the time you’ve gotten to the second paragraph or section, you may be humming along.
That could be your real lead. This doesn’t always work, but it’s one strategy for tightening (Pro Tip 13).
A related point: Avoid weak “question” and “if” leads. For example, a story in The Sunday Times begins with this:
Why do some people fall victim to cults and their bizarre belief systems while others can resist them? It’s a question that has interested me over the past year as wild conspiracy theories have simmered and thrived under the pressure of lockdown. And it’s a question that has brought me to Katy Morgan-Davies, who was born into a cult and managed to escape it at the age of 30.
A question lead is an uninspired way of starting a piece. In this case, the first sentence should be about the big news: a woman escaped a cult started by her father, a much more compelling angle.
Similarly, a lead in USA Today reads:
If your iPhone screen is so shattered it leaves cat-scratch-like marks on your cheek when you answer it or the battery dies before lunchtime every day, you have a great excuse to upgrade.…
That “if” lead automatically cuts readership by eliminating those who say, “No, I don’t have an iPhone that leaves scratches on my face or one that dies by lunchtime.” Sure, it may be okay to limit your lead to readers with damaged iPhones, but further cutting that down to a small subset of the audience isn't smart.
In marketing communications, says keynote speaker and author Carmine Gallo for Inc., the lead answers the question “So what?” this way:
I learned the powerful effect of the So What? test when I met with a team of executives preparing to launch a revolutionary medical device.
‘Tell me about the product,’ I asked the group.
‘It's the first dynamic volume CT-scan with 320 ultra high-resolution rows,’ one executive excitedly responded.
‘So what?’ I asked.
‘Well, that means it can image an entire organ in a single gantry rotation.’
‘So what?’ I asked again.
‘Put this way, if you suffer a stroke or heart attack, it will make the difference between life and death.’
‘Now I get it!’ I exclaimed.
When writing effectively, start strong. Don’t bury the most salient information: Put it up front.
The word “lede” (a good Scrabble word for the desperate) was coined by publishers who wanted to separate the term for the beginning of a story from the metal (lead pronounced “led”) used to make type.
On ClearVoice, self-described “mom, writer, editor and all-around swell gal” Megan Krause gives an excellent rundown of the “dos” and don’ts” of the writer’s lead. She says:
A good lead is enticing. It beckons. It promises the reader their time will be well-spent and sets the tone and direction of the piece. All great content starts with a great lead.
Here are some of Krause’s “do” suggestions for a nonfiction lead: