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Want to write well? Open with a punch, close with a kick

Posted by Matthew Stibbe
Picture of Matthew Stibbe
on 23 November 2009
Advice How to write Writing copywriter

There are two words that every writer needs to know if they're going to learn how to start a blog: lede and kicker. A ‘lede’ is the punchy opening sentence of an article. A ‘kicker’ is the last. If you can get them right, you can lift your writing to a whole new level.

Five tips for a great lede

  • Open with a quote. As in this article in The Economist: “‘The world’s attention is back on your cause.’ That was Bill Gates talking to agricultural scientists…”

  • Write 50 draft ledes and pick the best one. This is great advice from Writing to Deadline by Donald Murray. (See my earlier summary of this essential book.)

  • Establish a sense of person. For example, in this Wired article: “Adrienne Kish, an astrobiologist at the Université Paris-Sud, is an old hand at hunting life forms in inhospitable environments.” You can also give a sense of place or time if they are more germane to the story.

  • Start by stating a problem. As in this tiny Wired review: “The pictures you get from some waterproof cameras look like they were taken underwater even when they weren’t.”

  • Be witty. This is the great trick of humourists like P.J.O’Rourke or Clive James (both excellent writers). Wit doesn’t mean you can’t cover serious topics. Here’s a great example from P.J. “I looked death in the face. All right, I didn't. I glimpsed him in a crowd. I've been diagnosed with cancer, of a very treatable kind. I'm told I have a 95% chance of survival. Come to think of it -- as a drinking, smoking, saturated-fat hound -- my chance of survival has been improved by cancer.”

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Four tips for a great kicker

  • Encapsulate the emotional message of the piece. For example, in a recent New Yorker article: “But, then, Fitzgerald was not one to give up on dreams; if he had, he could not have written so beautifully, so penetratingly, about their loss.”

  • Turn the story around. If you’ve been formal, go relaxed. If you’re relaxed, become formal. For example (from Wired), “It takes a clean digital signal from your USB port and converts it to a warm analog music. And it looks as badass as it sounds.”

  • Use a snappy metaphor. “Mr. Grubel may be counting on a return to the casino but if regulators have their way, it’s door will soon be shut.” (From the Economist).

  • Deploy a quotation. A snappy quote can encapsulate the theme of an article and give it extra life, as in this example from the New Yorker: “’Last year, in Abu Dhabi, a man spent fourteen million dollars at a public auction for a license plate that had only one digit: ‘1.’ ‘I bought it because it’s the best number,"’ he said.”

A good lede invites you the party, and a good kicker makes you wish you could stay longer.

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See also: how to start a blog

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