The first few lines of an article need to grab the reader’s attention. Here, for example, we’ll promise to furnish you with tips and tricks to hook your readers from the start. Ready? Let’s go.

Should an intro be a reflection of the article? Should it be a summary of all the facts, or is it more like a teaser? While these are interesting questions, we’d argue that the most important thing to consider is this: how can you ensure people will keep reading your story past the introduction?

It’s not only about the intro of course. “The story needs to live up to the promise of the headline and intro”, Gerbert van Loenen says. He’s head of The Campus, the Training & Innovation department of Belgium-Dutch publisher DPG Media, and (helpfully for us) he also trains journalists in writing better introductions.

“The articles with the worst performance are usually the articles with a diffuse intro. What can your readers expect? Is it a political analysis, or is it a review of a restaurant? When people don’t know, they drop out.”

Gerbert van Loenen’s top tips for writing better intros

  1. Choose your user need carefully
    Our previous Smartoctober blog talked more about the user needs for news model. Van Loenen thinks it’s also important in the context of an intro. “You need to know how you want to satisfy your readers’ needs. You don’t necessarily need to explicitly tell them what the user need is, but you should clarify by pointing out what answer readers can find in the story.”
  2. Don’t tell the facts, tell the story
    If you’ve done the research, you’ll probably feel every fact in your story is equally important. Why else would you share them? But take a breath: “Readers should have time to comprehend the story before absorbing the factual information. Don’t empty a bucket full of facts on them. Make the story natural. Tell it as you would to your friends.”
  3. Leave something to guess
    Don’t give away the whole story. Why would anyone read an article if they think they already know everything? “I share this example in my course: ‘Police went from one surprise to another.’ That’s a good one because it’s building up suspense. Of course, you must give some context, but these kinds of formulations will help you get more readers or even people who decide that now is the time to subscribe. Again, I’d like to reiterate that you need to live up to the promise in the article.”
  4. Get your audience involved
    "Has the atrocious smell coming from the farm next to Highway 55 been annoying you? Local government officials want to buy out the owner, but he refuses to leave."
    That’s a good intro, right? Here’s Gerbert van Loenen’s analysis: “You have to address the visual aspects of your story. Or in this case, the smelly aspects. Will the readers be touched? How? Make sure people understand why it’s important to them.”

Pop Quiz

Here's an intro from The New York Times. Which of Gerbert van Loenen's tip(s) aren't executed particularly well?

Nearly 500 square kilometers of territory, or almost 200 square miles, have been retaken from Moscow’s forces in Ukraine’s southern Kherson region in less than a week, President Volodymyr Zelensky said, as an official in a major hub for evacuees from the south warned that Russia was ratcheting up shelling in the face of its rapid losses.

Join us in our Smartoctober webinar on 24 October (14:00 Central European Time) to discuss this, and much more besides.

The Explanation: why less is more in writing intros

Are shorter intros better? “We think so”, Gerbert van Loenen says. “But we don’t have concrete evidence to back that up. We don’t measure the length of the introductions.”

It’s hard to say shorter intros are better. Partly this is because (of course) it depends on the quality of the intro. More than that, though, it’s about choosing value over volume.

Three of the four tips given by Gerbert van Loenen emphasise this ‘less is more’ perspective. By picking the right user need to drive the article as a whole, the author prevents themself from freewheeling. One clear angle is always better than two or three at the same time.

Leaving facts out of the introduction is another way to streamline. The data DPG Media have on this tells us that people will read more of an article when the author helps them focus on the story - not the facts.

If you build up suspense from the start, you’ll ensure you have something left for the first paragraph of the text after the intro.

“The editor-in-chief of one of our newspapers calls that paragraph the motor of the text”, Van Loenen says. At the American news site axios.com, this essential paragraph after the introduction starts with the words 'why this matters'. "There, you need to be able to make clear why this story is so important for your audience. Why are they reading this now? Sometimes you read stories in newspapers or online and you think: so what?! I think you need to do everything you can to avoid that feeling. A good journalist translates the facts to a story their readers are eager to read about.”