There are two words that every writer needs to know: 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.