Writing Article Leads

[Excerpt from Fundamentals of Writing: How to Write Articles, Media Releases, Case Studies, Blog Posts and Social Media Content – http://www.paullima.com/books/fundamentals.html]

Why is the lead important? If you don’t capture your reader’s attention in the lead, chances are your article will remain unread. Freelance writers must capture the editor’s attention in the lead of a query letter (the letter or email used to pitch a story idea) or chances are the article idea will not be read, let alone accepted. In addition, if you produce strong, dynamic leads, you will write in a more structured manner.

Many writers bury their leads. They try to build suspense—as one might with the opening of a novel. What you want to do, in fact, is set the stage for the article in your lead. I am not saying there cannot be suspense, but you have to build suspense sparingly and appropriately, generally in features. You would not try to build suspense in a hard-news lead or for a breaking-news story. If your lead is cute or witty but does not set the stage, establish important themes, and/or introduce significant characters or issues, it will fail.

Only the Beginning
Some editors will tell you that you have one or two paragraphs to capture the reader’s attention. Some will tell you that you have one sentence. If the first sentence doesn’t capture the reader’s attention, the reader will not read on. Mind you, if the first sentence works, but the second doesn’t, the reader may not continue reading so, as important as the lead is, what comes after it is vital too.
Having said that, the importance of the lead is sometimes—not always, but sometimes—exaggerated. I have read many articles from start to finish that have had dull leads. I have even read poorly written articles. Most of us have because the publication, type of article, subject matter, and/or the purpose of the article resonated with us or fulfilled a need. That doesn’t mean you should try to get away with dull, poorly written leads. It just means some articles are read even if the leads are nothing special.

Let’s take a closer look at the factors that affect your lead (and, in fact, the entire article):

Publication: Is it staid, conservative, liberal, sensational, radical, flip, satirical, commercial, non-profit, local, national or regional? Is it a newspaper, magazine, newsletter or annual report?

Subject matter: The topic you are writing about.

Type of article: Investigative, news, profile, column, obituary, filler, how-to…

Purpose of article: To inform, entertain, warn, solve problems, create controversy …

Reader: Readers are not a homogeneous mass. They have a wide variety of needs and a wide variety of opinions. They read primarily because they want to be informed or entertained. Even then, they are not always consistent. Many readers want information presented in an entertaining manner. Others want it presented in a no-nonsense manner. A lot of what the reader expects depends on the overall tone and style of the publication they are reading.

What’s entertaining to one reader may be dull to another. What’s no-nonsense to one is a complex quagmire to another. Still, readers often share common values or interests. People who want information on computer monitors would probably pick up a copy of a computer publication if, on the cover, were the words: “Special Computer Monitor Issue.” And they would likely read an article that started:

There are many different types of monitors you can buy for your computer. What you buy depends on what you want to do on your computer, and on what type of computer you have.

A pedestrian lead? Yes, but if the subject matter is of interest to me I’ll read on, looking for information that is of value. Now, before editors kick me, allow me to say that I am not advocating dull, pedestrian leads that make readers snore. I am saying leads should be written in context and context includes the publication, subject matter, purpose of the article and the target readers.
The monitor article could have started:

Have you ever wanted to be Alice, absorbed into mystical colors as you fall through the looking glass? Colors so magical they could only be embraced in dreams—if you dream in rainbow-induced Technicolor. Well, this world, or as close as you will come to it without the use of hallucinogenic drugs, is yours to capture—if you have the right computer monitor.

As a reader, I might enjoy that lead, but if I have no interest in buying a computer monitor, I probably would not have read any farther. Conversely, I might find that lead pretentious but continue to read because I want to know more about computer monitors.
The writer may have had more fun creating the Alice lead, but is it appropriate? If I were the editor, I’d embellish the bland lead and tone down the over-written one. Does it seem subjective? In many ways, it is. But there are hard rules for lead writing too.

In the next blog post, we will try to demystify leads by looking at what you should and should not do. In other words, we will look at the next section from the book: Leads in Greater Detail.

[Excerpt from Fundamentals of Writing: How to Write Articles, Media Releases, Case Studies, Blog Posts and Social Media Content – http://www.paullima.com/books/fundamentals.html]

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