The Do’s & Don’ts of Writing a Good Lead, According to Dear Megan

All great content starts with a great lead. Dear Megan lays down some do's and don'ts for grabbing readers' attention from the get-go.

Funny thing about this blog post: When I sat down to write it, it dawned on me that I was trying to write a good lead for a post about how to write a good lead. That sure sent me down a rabbit hole. Then I got all stressed out about it — I mean, if ANY of my Dear Megan posts had BETTER have a really freakin’ good lead, it’s this one. This, in turn, prompted me to eat an entire bag of mini powdered donuts from the gas station, clean out my desk, poll my co-workers about their shower preferences (morning or night?) and watch several “America’s Got Talent” clips. And now I’m on deadline, and here we are.

Old-school reporting ace and author of “The Word: An Associated Press Guide to Good News Writing,” Jack Cappon, rightly called lead-writing “the agony of square one.” A lot is hinging on your lead, because from it readers will decide to continue investing time and brain power in your content or jump ship. And, dare I say, a compelling lead is even more important in today’s rapid-fire digitalized world, where we have shorter attention spans than goldfish. If your content doesn’t hook ’em up front, they’ll bolt. That “back” button is a thumb tap away.

A good lead is enticing. It beckons. It says, “Come party with us.” It sets the tone and direction of the piece. All great content starts with a great lead.

Two types of leads

There are two main types of leads and many, many variations thereof. These are:

The summary lead. Most often found in straight news reports, this is the trusty inverted-pyramid lead we learned about in Journalism 101. It sums up the situation succinctly, giving the reader the most important facts first. In this type of lead, you want to determine which aspect of the story — who, what, when, where, why and how — is most important to the reader and present those facts.

An alleged virgin gave birth to a son in a barn just outside of Bethlehem last night. Claiming a celestial body guided them to the site, magi attending the birth say the boy will one day be king. Herod has not commented.

A creative or descriptive lead. This can be an anecdote, an observation, a quirky fact or a play on words, among other things. Better suited to feature stories and blog posts, these leads are designed to pique readers’ curiosity and draw them into the story. If you go this route, make sure to provide broader detail and context in the few sentences following your lead. A creative lead is great — just don’t make you reader hunt for what the story’s about much after it.

Mary didn’t want to pay taxes anyway.

A note about the question lead. A variation of the creative lead, the question lead is just what it sounds like: leading with a question. Most editors (myself included) don’t like this type of lead. It’s lazy writing. People are reading your content to get answers, not be asked anything. It feels like a copout, like the writer couldn’t think of a compelling way to start the piece. Do you want to learn more about the recent virgin birth? Well duh, that’s why I clicked in here in the first place.

Is there no exception? Sure there is. If you can make your question lead provocative, go for it — You think you have it bad? This lady just gave birth in a barn — just know that this is accomplished rarely.

How to write a lead

What type of lead should I write?

This depends on a few factors. Ask yourself:

Who is my audience? Tax attorneys looking for recent changes in the law don’t want to wade through your witty repartee about the IRS, just as millennials searching for craft beer recipes don’t want to read a technical discourse on the fermentation process. Tailor your words to those reading the post.

Where will this article be published? Match the site’s tone and language. There are some things you can get away with on that would be your demise on the Chronicle of Higher Education.

What am I writing about? Certain topics naturally lend themselves to creativity, while others beg for a “Just the facts, ma’am” presentation. Writing about aromatherapy for a yoga blog gives you a little more leeway than writing about investment tips for a retirement blog.

How to write a lead: top 5 do’s

  1. Determine your hook. Look at the 5 Ws and 1 H. Why are readers clicking on this content? What problem are they trying to solve? What’s new or different? Determine which aspects are most relevant and important, and lead with that.
  2. Be clear and succinct. Simple language is best. Mark Twain said it best: “Don’t use a five-dollar word when a fifty-cent word will do.”
  3. Write in the active voice. Use strong verbs and decided language. Compare “Dog bites man” to “A man was bitten by a dog” — the passive voice is timid and bland (for the record, Stephen King feels the same way).
  4. Address the reader as “you.” This is the writer’s equivalent to breaking the fourth wall in theatre, and while some editors will disagree with me on this one, I stand by it. People know you’re writing to them. Not only is it OK to address them as such, I think it helps create a personal connection with them.
  5. Put attribution second. What’s the nugget, the little gem you’re trying to impart? Put that information first, and then follow it up with who said it. The “according to” part is almost always secondary to what he or she actually said.

How not to write a lead: top 5 don’ts

  1. Don’t make your readers work too hard. Also known as “burying the lead,” this happens when you take too long to make your point. It’s fine to take a little creative license, but if readers can’t figure out relatively quickly what your article is about, they’ll bounce.
  2. Don’t try to include too much. Does your lead contain too many of the 5 Ws and H? Don’t try to jam everything in there — you’ll overwhelm the reader.
  3. Don’t start sentences with “there is” or “there are” constructions. It’s not wrong, but similar to our question lead, it’s lazy, boring writing.
  4. Don’t be cliche. I beg of you.
  5. And for the love of God, don’t have any errors. Include typos or grammatical errors, and it’s game over — you’ve lost the reader.


What to do when you’re staring at a blank screen

Sometimes the words just flow, and sometimes we intimidate ourselves and try too hard and then get stuck in this seemingly never-ending spiral of OHMYGODICAN’TTHINKOFANYTHING (see the lead for this post). Just start. Start writing anything. Start in the middle of your story. Once you begin, you can usually find your lead buried a few paragraphs down in this “get-going” copy. Your lead is in there — you just need to cut away the other stuff first.

Or go eat donuts. Either way.

Tags: freelancing

Category: Editing
Megan Krause

About Megan

Megan Krause is a mom, writer, editor and all-around swell gal with 15 years' experience in communication and marketing. She served as ClearVoice's managing editor for four of those years, helping brands create great content and managing the company blog. She's passionate about words, language, grammar, style and ice cream. Follow her on Twitter.

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  • Jesse Randall

    I love your use of the story of the birth of Jesus to relate these approaches. Its a story that most people already know so well so it really resonated.

    • Megan Krause

      Thanks Jesse!

  • Mike Shipley

    “Herod orders dead babies; America sends drones”

    • Megan Krause

      lol you should come write headlines for us!

  • Tara Serrano

    Love this article. I totally have problems with leads (and the note about LEDE’s made me laugh out loud). You are so witty…Love it

    • Megan Krause

      Thank you Tara! Glad you enjoyed the post.

  • Great refresher even for those of us who’ve been writing leads (and ledes, according to some of my editors) for a long time. The Edna Buchanan example is my all-time favorite.

    • Megan Krause

      Thank you Rodika! I first learned about that Buchanan lead from one of my college professors (’91? ’92?), and I’ve never forgotten it… power of a good lead. Happy Friday 🙂

      • Me too! Her name wouldn’t happen to be Carole Rich? BTW Edna had that story and many others with great leads in a book that she wrote about her days as a police reporter. It’s a great read.

        • Megan Krause

          No, Rich Hanley was his name… and I’ll have to add that book to the list of books I’m going to read any day now … thanks 🙂

  • Patrick P-Bone Roland

    That was a great lead! The best ones hook the reader in and make them want to read more. I think I learned that from you like 20 years ago.

    • Megan Krause

      Aw, thanks Patrick… one of my proteges, haha 🙂

  • Michael Brewer

    The secret to writing a great lead: “…eat an entire bag of mini powdered donuts from the gas station, clean out my desk, poll my co-workers about their shower preferences (morning or night?) and watch several “America’s Got Talent” clips.”

    • Megan Krause

      Yesss! Good to see someone agrees with me 😉

      • Michael Brewer

        *Walks into the confession box*… Should I feel ashamed for being a Journalism major and not knowing about the origins of the “lede” spelling?

        • Megan Krause

          Yes. Your absolution: chocolate. On my desk. by EOD