How Writing a Lead is Like a Striptease

Don’t start by tearing off all your clothes!

Susan Orlean

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Photo by Solen Feyissa on Unsplash

I spend an inordinate amount of time writing the leads of my stories. If I were to clock it, I’d guess that I spend 25 or 30 percent of my time on a piece working on the first few sentences, and the remainder on the rest of it. This seems out of whack, since the real estate devoted to the first sentence or two is so small compared to the body of the story. But I think it’s the right proportion, considering the importance of the lead.

(I will interrupt myself here to say I refuse to spell “lead” the other way, “lede”. I know, I know: the other spelling is genuine newsroom jargon, to differentiate the beginning of a story from the strip of metal (lead) used in the typesetting equipment. But to my ear, the lead of the story is what leads you into the story, so it makes perfect, non-jargon-y sense to spell it that way, and the other spelling just makes the hairs on my neck stand up and seems pretentious if you aren’t toiling in a newsroom. That said, do as you please.)

Back to my point: I think time invested in writing your first few sentences, even if that time seems vast, is time well spent. I see it as my opening gambit, my best move. A reader is an impatient, fickle creature, easy to snare for a moment but hard to keep in your grip. Your story has to come out swinging or you have no hope of locking in the reader. Think of your own reading habits. I will start countless stories and abandon them almost immediately if the lead doesn’t engage me. And I don’t even think I have an unusually short attention span! I just believe that we’re constantly traveling through a meteor shower of information and narratives, and it takes almost more effort to zero in on one than to just keep traveling through and letting it all bounce off of you. The lead is where that happens.

I write my stories from start to finish rather than writing chunks that I assemble later on. That means that I start with my lead. And that means that I will often sit for a long, long time with nothing on my screen while I sift through the bits of the story and try to figure out where to begin. That results in having a blank screen for an uncomfortably long period of time. And it sure is uncomfortable. I’ve spent days sitting and hoping the lead would…

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Susan Orlean

Staff writer, The New Yorker. Author of The Library Book, The Orchid Thief, and more…Head of my very own Literati.com book club (join me!)