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For Nonfiction Writers: How to Write a Direct Lead

The simplest way to start a nonfiction article, especially for inexperienced writers, is to employ a direct lead. Also known as a traditional lead, a direct lead tells who did what and perhaps when and where they did it. Here’s an example:

     George Washington crossed the Delaware River in December 1776.

This lead contains all four elements: George Washington (who) crossed (did what) the Delaware River (where) in December 1776 (when). Not all direct leads do, however. Leads must always include the who and the what, but the decision to include or not include the when and the where is based on sentence length. The first sentence of a lead should be about 15 words. If including the when or the where would bump the word count much past 15 then move them to the next sentence. Here’s a sentence that’s too long if we include all four elements:

     Professor Bill Smith’s Mass Media and Society students (who) took a field trip (what) to the Museum of Science and Industry in Tampa (where) on Oct. 1 (when).

That’s 22 words, so let’s rewrite it like this:

     Professor Bill Smith’s Mass Media and Society students took a field trip on Oct. 1. The class went to the Museum of Science and Industry.

Now the sentences are 10 and 15 words long, which is more effective writing.

Here are a few more tips for writing direct leads:

The who in the lead isn’t necessarily a person. It could be an animal, a group of people, or any other entity, such as a corporation or a sports team.

Write in active voice if possible. Writing “George Washington crossed the Delaware River” (active voice) is superior to “The Delaware River was crossed by George Washington.” (passive voice)

Be sure to attribute disputable facts to a source. In the example above there was no need for me to cite a source because it’s common knowledge that Washington crossed the Delaware. But if your lead says someone robbed a bank you need to tell your readers where you got your information. Otherwise you’re potentially libeling the person who you’re accusing.

Differentiate leads from headlines. A common error my students make is to write leads that look like headlines. For example, “Washington crosses Delaware River” is not an acceptable lead even though it includes the who, what, and where. It’s not a complete sentence.

Make sure your lead is relevant to your story. Don’t promise your readers something your story doesn’t fulfill. Your lead may grab your readers' attention, but if it doesn’t relate to the rest of the story, they will feel cheated.

Don’t make writing direct leads more difficult than it needs to be. You’ve been writing them all your life without even thinking about it. Say you have a younger sibling. When you were four years old you may have told your mother, “Susie put a jellybean in her nose.” That’s a direct lead! You said who (Susie) did what (put a jellybean) where (in her nose). The when is missing, but that’s fine, because your mother understood it happened just now.

There are many more complicated ways to write leads, but most purposes a direct lead works well.

Written by Readers’ Favorite Reviewer Joe Wisinski