Award-winning writer Kathy Widenhouse has helped hundreds of nonprofits and writers produce successful content and has gained 600K+ views for her writing tutorials. She is the author of 9 books. See more of Kathy’s content here.
Oh, the angst of writing that first sentence … the first paragraph … the first section: your lead.
But along with those nerves, there’s good news: certain types of leads work really well. The best have earned their rep for a simple reason. They get results. That is, they move readers into your content.
And you needn’t master an infinite number of types of leads in order to pull in engage a reader. Just a handful will do it. Whether you’re writing an article, a piece of copywriting, a blog post, a book’s back cover blurb – when you write an engaging lead, you draw in the reader so she keeps reading. Here are eight kinds of leads that work consistently well. Use them to save time as you write and to pull in readers over and over again.
One of the most traditional types of leads, reporters use this option in news reports because it provides a quick summary of what to expect in the rest of the article. It uses as few words as possible while answering the six essential questions of journalism: who, what, where, when, why, and how.
This format, often called an “Inverted Pyramid,” offers a synopsis of the story at the top with details to follow. In fact, this kind of lead is so common that it’s also called a Summary News Lead Style or referred to as Bottom Line Up Front (BLUF). A summary lead pulls in readers because it provides a quick and dirty abstract of the rest of the piece of content.
Example: When it comes to writing a lead, there’s good news: all different types of leads work, but here are eight that work consistently well. Use them to save time as you write and to pull in readers over and over again.
An anecdote is an itty-bitty story that makes a point. That means your anecdotal lead has a main character with a problem or conflict and an outcome – and the outcome connects to the main idea of your subsequent content. Like other short stories, an anecdotal lead is big on specifics, details, and sensory images. Anecdotes pull in readers because people like reading stories about other people.
Example: As a new freelancer, I understood right away the importance of the first few words of a piece. But everybody called it different things. My writing instructor (a former journalist) called it a lede. The copywriting gurus called it a hook. The writing manuals called it a lead and college professors called it an introduction. Out of all the possibilities and different types of leads, I simply wanted to know how to write the thing.
Setting the scene: a descriptive lead paints a picture of a person, place, or event. Open your content with vivid details that tap into the five senses to capture your reader’s attention.
Example: My fingers were frozen at the keyboard. Tick, tick, tick … the minutes clicked by, but my screen remained empty. I was assigned an article about writing an effective lead, but I had no idea where to begin.
Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Edna Buchanan once explained that a good lead should make a reader sitting at breakfast with his wife, “spit out his coffee, clutch his chest and say, ‘My god, Martha. Did you read this?’” She was referring to a zinger -- a single word, phrase, punch statement, enticing fact, teaser, or intriguing detail that is so irresistible that the reader simply MUST know more.
Example: Just 50% of users keep reading beyond an article’s halfway point, according to a study by Chartbeat. Will yours be one of them? Choose a lead that makes it so.
You can open with an example of an issue, event, or object that is familiar to your target reader – one that has a clear similarity to your content’s main point. A comparison makes your main idea relatable. It provides a point of reference to your reader in a recognizable or comfortable form. It's a good idea to present the comparison but then also spell out the connection for your reader.
On the other hand, avoid using a contrast – a comparison that is in direct opposition to your point. Doing so confuses your reader.
Example: Just as different platforms can share your content in different forms – in an image on Pinterest or in a tight, pithy snippet on Twitter, for example – different types of leads can pull in different readers, depending upon your target audience.
Let an expert grab your reader’s attention for you. Write a lead using a quote from an authority, celebrity, historical figure, or specialist.
Example: “Your opening has to be good,” said prolific suspense writer Lawrence Block in POP! Stand Out In Any Crowd. “Or the rest of the story won’t have a chance because nobody’ll stick around to read it.” And there are a handful of openings – types of leads – you can use that compel readers to keep reading.
How do you respond when you read a question? Mentally, you answer. Or you want more information. An effective question lead raises curiosity about a problem and implies there’s a solution.
For this type of lead to work, two things must happen:
Example: How do you respond when a piece of content opens with a question? With an answer in your mind. Which is why question leads can be so effective.
If you think second person writing is consigned solely to direct mail, ads, and other copywriting content, think again. A direct appeal using “you” language engages readers from the get-go. It’s like talking one-on-one with your reader so that your lead becomes a conversation, giving the reader a feeling of back-and-forth. It’s a persuasive writing technique that makes blog posts, web copy, social media, email campaigns, books, and articles more accessible – and more desirable to read.
Example: You needn’t to master an infinite number of types of leads in order to write well. Whether you’re writing an article, a piece of copywriting, a blog post, a book’s back cover blurb – when you write an engaging lead, you draw in the reader so she keeps reading.
“A large number of other approaches exist,” say our friends at Purdue University’s Online Writing Lab (OWL). “Writers should not feel boxed in by formulas.”
Among those are the ...
Whether it is the first sentence, first paragraph, or first section, the lead ushers your reader into the rest of your content. More than one lead can work for your piece. Experiment. You can even write a couple … and then choose the one that works best for your work.
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