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

Posted by Matthew Stibbe
Speed Reading Mode

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.”

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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