How to write a lead sentence

Writing lead sentences doesn’t have to be hard. The lead sentence (aka “topic sentence”) is the sentence that leads the rest of the paragraph. Whether it is the first sentence in the paragraph or it’s found somewhere in the middle, the lead sentence summarizes or states the point of the paragraph. There are thousands of different kinds of lead sentences: the paper-leader, the biographical sketch, the “given” statement, the transition, the teaser, and I could go on and on with my fake names for general lead sentence types.

Note: If you’re not a writing student, I suggest you keep your lead sentences at the beginning of the paragraph. It seems most non-writing teachers prefer solidarity to creativity. When you’re writing for someone else (read: for a grade), you have to cater to them.

For simplicity, we’ll say that there are two basic lead sentences with a few flavors for each: the paper-leader and the transition.

The Paper-Leader

Every paper has a beginning sentence, a lead sentence. This is the most crucial sentence in the whole paper. Can you guess the 2nd most crucial sentence, by the way? It’s the last. More on that elsewhere.

Your first sentence is so important that you really should write several (I have written almost 100 at times!) and choose the best. The average reader will only read the rest of your paper if the first sentence (and title!) interests him. Unfortunately for your teacher, he has to read the whole thing even if your first sentence is uninteresting. In a speech, the first sentence is called the attention getter. Your first sentence should be and do just that.

Because lists are easier to retain (and to use for re-checking facts), here’s a list of tips for writing a “Paper-Leader” lead sentence:

  • If writing a review or biographical sketch, consider listing the who, what, when, where, why, and/or how. Give the reader the quick facts so that he knows what you’re talking about up front. Example: In his book, On Writing Well: the Classic Guide to Writing Nonfiction (New York, NY: HarperCollins, 2001), William Zinsser gives an overview of the components of good writing. (Book Review of On Writing Well)
  • If writing a personal essay, consider what is the most interesting aspect of your topic and pique the reader’s curiosity with a question or statement. Example: I was the only kindergartner without a grandparent. (Adoption of Grandparents)
  • Avoid cliche, general or blanket statements. Example: Everybody loves a good movie. [BORING! How about something more like "Kung Fu Panda destroys expectations and restyles the unique humor found in Dreamworks movies"? It's at least more interesting!]
  • Be specific, be descriptive, be certain. Which North American country is soccer most popular in? How hard is it to be part of a national soccer team? Is the US women’s soccer team the best in the world, or isn’t it? We need to know that you know what you’re talking about. Example: Kopi Luwak is the most expensive coffee in the world: it costs on average $50 per cup to drink the coffee harvested from luwak feces.
  • If you can’t think of how to start, try writing the point of your paper in one sentence. Just one! If you can find a way to phrase your point so that it is informative and interesting, you can use that as your lead sentence. Example: Writing lead sentences doesn’t have to be hard.

The Transition

The most common lead sentence is the transition. This is the humble little sentence at the beginning of every paragraph following the first in a standard paper. Though the Paper-Leader can be a bit dramatic, the Transition lead sentence tends to be completely utilitarian. It’s the link between the last paragraph and the next. Here’s the list of tips for the Transition lead sentence:

  • Don’t summarize the previous paragraph. The last sentence of each paragraph is usually a summary, so you won’t need to re-summarize.
  • The lead sentence MUST relate to the rest of the paragraph.
  • You can refer to the previous paragraph to compare it to the point of the next paragraph. Example: Although some may be repulsed by the origin of Kopi Luwak, many coffee connoisseurs praise its flavor.
  • See the list for The Paper Leader for more tips.

If this article has helped you, or if you have other questions about this topic, please let me know. Thanks!

    9 Responses to How to write a lead sentence

    1. Jim Bessey says:

      Well done! Good advice from start to finish. What’s next? :) ~Jim

    2. Michael Miller says:

      Great advice. Thank you so much. I had the rest of my paper written and my professor said i lacked a good lead in sentence. That is the hardest part of writing a paper in my opinion. Thank you again.

    3. graphoniac says:

      Jim- Thanks. What’s next? Whatever I can find! :)

      Michael- Glad I could help!

    4. bob says:

      It was good advice but it did not help me

    5. graphoniac says:

      How can I help you?

    6. rosie says:

      can a question ever be a lead for a news story?

      example:
      What are the MCAs and what do you need to know about them?

    7. Kimberly Ivens says:

      I began looking on the internet for ideas on a lead sentence for my essay when I found this site. I noticed under the services tab that I could get a basic edit or a deep edit. My essay was relatively complete already and was worth 1/5 of my grade, so it was worth it to me to invest a little money into keeping the ‘A’ I had in the class. What a deal! My essay was returned to me the very next day with tons of useful ideas, suggestions, grammatical tips, word choice input, and questions that I had never considered. After reviewing the edits and correcting my paper, I took advantage of the second free edit and there was still more suggestions on the return. The process of refining my paper really helped turn a so-so paper into a winning essay. Well worth the money and even more because I kept my ‘A’ in the class due to the improvements made to one essay. If your grade means anything to you, use this service. It’s well worth the small investment.

    8. graphoniac says:

      It can be used, but it has to be an outstanding question to be strong.

      example:
      What do you do when you find a man living in your attic?

    9. graphoniac says:

      Thank you for the kind words, Kimberly! It was a joy to work with you.

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