I should be up front with you: I have a complicated relationship with leads (also known as an article’s hook or introduction). As a professional writer, I generally don’t wait for inspiration: I sit down and write when it’s time to write. But if there’s one thing that can send me into a work-avoidance spiral faster than you can say, “Uh oh, we’re out of pickles. Better head to the store right away!” it’s lead writing.

For evidence of how difficult it can be to craft a strong lead, I collected a sampling of 10 online articles about lead writing. Seven of the 10 started by explaining how important a good lead is (answer: very). Two others took more creative approaches but overshot clever and landed at wacky. And the last one? It was so good that I wrote the author a thank-you note.

A lead’s purported function is to draw readers in and make them want to read the whole piece. The harsh truth is, the lead may be the only part of the article that your readers actually read.

So how do you write a standout lead for your next article? Although finding the right lead is more of an art than a science, it helps to have a toolbox of strategies at hand for those times when the Muse gets held up in traffic. Or for when you’re out of pickles.

9 ways to write a good lead

  1. Make a surprising statement. For example, you might take a cliché, or a commonly accepted truth in your industry, and turn it on its head. “Content is not king.”
  2. Ask a question. When choosing this option, keep in mind that a certain percentage of readers will answer “no” and may stop reading. That’s okay. Remember, when you think you’re writing to everyone, you’re really writing to no one.
  3. Start with some fascinating information. While you don’t want to bog your lead down in research studies, a relevant fact or statistic can intrigue the reader.
  4. Provide key context. Does your reader need to understand an ongoing situation before getting into your article? Is your article part of a larger conversation going on right now? It only takes a sentence (with a helpful link or two) to provide important background information that can make your reader more receptive to your article – that’s real estate well spent.
  5. Tell a story. A brief anecdote, from your own life or someone else’s, can make for a great lead. The secret is to revise the story down to its essential elements to give it maximum impact.
  6. Describe a problem. The problem/solution format sets up a specific expectation and will capture those readers who identify with that problem. If your article offers a solid solution or range of solutions, you’ve held up your end of the bargain and built credibility with your reader in the process.
  7. Set the scene. Like a long shot at the beginning of a movie, a vivid description of a person, a place, or even an object can draw the reader into the world you’ve created.
  8. Start with a well-integrated quote. Opening an article with a vague aphorism, or one that doesn’t clearly relate to your message, can come across as lazy. But when a quote really works, it’s magic. Keep a file of valuable quotes you come across in your online or offline reading (with attributions, of course). When interviewing sources, keep an ear out for lead-worthy statements.
  9. Channel your inner journalist and write a “hard lead.” Answer as many of the fundamental news questions – who, what, when, where, why, and how – as you can in the first two sentences. This technique may sound dry, but give it a try on your next story: the hard lead is a classic for a reason.

But whatever you do…

I tend to shy away from giving prescriptive, one-size-fits-all advice, but if you want a great lead for your story, do not write it first. Write the body, then take a breather: go for a walk, take a shower, check Twitter, head to the office break room to see if there’s cake.

And when you come back, don’t think about trying to write a great lead. Instead, think about your readers, and try your best to be of service to them. Focus on that, and the lead will come to you.

What’s your favorite technique for writing a good lead? Share it in the comments.