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

iStock_000008392862XSmall There are two words that every writer needs to know: lede and kicker.

A ‘lede’ is the opening sentence of an article. A ‘kicker’ is the last. If you can get them right, you can lift what you write 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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15 Responses to Want to write well? Open with a punch, close with a kick

  1. Matt says:

    Is the third sentence a test of the observation/grammar skills of your readership?


  2. Matt says:

    Oops, 4th sentence! Please feel free to moderate both my comments away, by the way.

  3. Claudia says:

    Hi Matt,
    I came across this site by chance and I just love it. It’s unpretentious, informative and fun, and I think the content works for any writer, whether established or just starting out.
    With respect to your post on ledes and kickers, I like most of the lede examples you provided although I did have some difficulty with the one about underwater cameras. I’m not sure why. It seems a bit wishy-washy.
    Anyway, good post & great site. Thanks. Take care.


    • @Claudia, thanks for the kind comments and feedback. I picked the examples from copies of the New Yorker, Economist and Wired that were sitting on my desk so they are pretty representative of everyday copy from good magazines but not of the best possible copy! 🙂

  4. Lorraine says:

    This is a terrific post with really helpful suggestions–I especially love the useful kicker tips.

    Ahh, the agony of ledes.

    I rebel at the thought of writing 50 ledes. But the truth? In the time I take to squeeze out one much cut-and-pasted lede, I could probably churn out 50 less massaged versions. Well…maybe 20.

    Some suggest writing the lede last. But I have a hard time with this. I’m just too methodically compulsive. Plus I feel the lede sets tone for the whole piece.

    In any case, I’m putting Writing to Deadline on my Xmas List.


  5. I apologize for my English, i am from Romania. I tried most of the marketing measures wich online marketing guru write an talk about they, including those about writing. I buy and read many books about this subject. Unfortunately none works. I have a 100% original site. Is a full content site, with almost 1000 article, a site about politics, movies and rock music. Is four years old and still barely make 15-20 visits per day. In a “great” day…almost 50… All over, I use Genesis Framework by 2 years. Moreover, my site have PR = 2! Only “2″ after four years?!! … Excuse me but I do not believe in what you write. I think it’s just a matter of chance …


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