Writing & Storytelling

3 Ways to Write Better Leads: Make Them Concrete, Creative and Provocative

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You’re not still packing all the Ws into the first paragraph, are you? Cranking out “XYZ Company today announced…” leads? If so, your Writing 101 class called and wants its lead back!

To win today’s fierce competition for your readers’ attention, you need more sophisticated, nuanced leads.

Feature leads have been proven in the lab again and again to outperform traditional news leads in research by the Poynter Institute, the American Society of Newspaper Editors, the Newspaper Association of America and Reuters Institute.

To write leads that draw readers in and compel them to keep reading, make that essential first paragraph:

  1. Concrete

Show instead of tell. Illustrate your key idea; don’t just explain it.

Instead of:

Are you saving enough for retirement, no matter how young you are?

Make it:

The average 35-year-old couple making $160,000 a year today may need as much as $4 million at retirement to live comfortably through their lifetimes.

To make your lead concrete, make sure that it includes elements that readers can absorb through one or more of their five senses.

The late Broadway composer Stephen Sondheim, said, “If you told me to write a love song tonight, I have a little trouble. But if you told me to write a love song about a girl in a red dress who goes into a bar and is on her fifth martini and is falling off her chair, that’s a lot easier.”

I can see the red dress, smell the alcohol, feel her falling off her chair. That’s a lot easier for readers to absorb, too.

“No ideas but in things,” counseled the great poet William Carlos Williams.

So turn ideas into things: Drop the abstractions. Find the examples.

  1. Creative

To make your lead creative, choose a technique that fiction writers might use for your nonfiction writing. Consider:

  • Anecdote
  • Description
  • Human interest
  • Metaphor
  • Wordplay

Instead of:

The Canada 55+ Games are coming to Strathcona County, Alberta this summer from August 27 to 30. The Canada 55+ Games is a nationwide program that promotes spiritual, mental and physical wellness among Canadians 55 years of age and older. Not just your average sporting event, the Canada 55+ Games features competition in 24 different sports and events ranging from swimming and hockey to scrabble and bocce.

Make it:

Florence Storch is a 101-year-old Alberta woman with a unique hobby and a lofty goal. A javelin thrower, Florence has her sights set on winning a gold medal at the Canada 55+ Games.

  1. Provocative

Write a lead that provokes a question in readers’ minds that they can only answer by reading the rest of the piece.

I need to save $4 million for retirement?!

There’s a 101-year-old competitive female javelin thrower on the loose in Canada?!

Because the job of the first paragraph isn’t to tell the whole story. The job of the first paragraph is to get people to read the second paragraph.

(And guess what the job of the second paragraph is …)

Ann Wylie works with communicators who want to reach more readers and with organizations that want to get the word out. Don’t miss a single tip: Sign up for Ann’s email newsletter here.

Copyright © 2024 Ann Wylie. All rights reserved.

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Ann Wylie

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