Tips for writing more effective leads

Writer John McPhee has said the lead is a “flashlight” that shines down into the darkness of the story, giving us a glimpse of what is yet to come.

In journalism, and in many other forms of writing, the first words are crucial. Consider the first line of Herman Melville’s “Moby Dick”: “Call me Ishmael.” The lead, though short, holds weight — especially given the length of the novel.

Most arguments about leads focus on the distinction between the hard-news lead and the anecdotal lead. There is a kind of cultural stake in the debate, which raises questions about whether the higher purposes of the craft should be informational (as expressed in the inverted pyramid) or experiential (as expressed in narrative).

While this is not, I would argue, a false dichotomy, it is a distracting one that blocks out other useful choices for the writer and reader. In addition to the straight lead and the anecdotal lead, there is the explainer, the question, the summary and, one of my favorites, “the grabber.”

During this week’s writing chat, I talked about these various leads and why/when they work. You can replay the chat here:

We have made it easy to comment on posts, however we require civility and encourage full names to that end (first initial, last name is OK). Please read our guidelines here before commenting.