Wikipedia:How to create and manage a good lead section

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Jump to navigation Jump to search

Here are some tips that can help editors create and manage a good lead section. This method has produced some very nice leads, and is especially useful when dealing with long and controversial articles which are hard to scrutinize, especially if there are many references. It also prevents one from omitting significant content found in the article and/or including content which is missing in the article.

The primary purpose of a Wikipedia lead is not to summarize the topic, but to summarize the content of the article. It should prepare the reader for whatever is in the body of the article, get them interested in the content, and inspire them to read the whole article.# The lead should be one to four paragraphs in length, and should answer most or all of the 5 Ws.# If a topic deserves a heading, then it deserves short mention in the lead. There should not be anything in the lead that does not refer to specific content in the article and is not backed up by specific references found in the article. Avoid too much detail. Awaken the reader's interest without satisfying their hunger.#

Just as with an article, a lead must adhere to neutral point of view (NPOV), which does not mean "neutral", or that there should be a false balance between opposing POV. All opinions are not equal.# Use extreme caution when revamping or updating an existing lead. Any changes to the lead should be based on content in the body. Always seek a consensus version.# Think about what types of definitions to include, and don't hesitate to create a uniquely comprehensive definition based on all the content.#

Try to keep the number of references to a minimum, if used at all. Use the short "name" format for any references in the lead. There should not be any references in the lead which have not first been used in the body.# The lead in this essay uses clickable "section references". Click them to jump to the relevant section from which wording in the lead is derived.# If an editor leaves a maintenance template on an article, it may be intended to give a heads up to improve the article's lead.# The lead from a spun off child article can be used as a section in the main article.# Give child articles their due weight in the lead of the parent article.# The included table is easy to use and can be tweaked. It ensures that nothing is missed and provides precise documentation.#

Importance and purpose of the lead section[edit]

Many never read more than the lead

The importance of the lead is evident when one sees the statistics for sections opened by mobile phone users (see image). 60% read only the lead. The lead should prepare the reader for whatever is in the body of the article, should get them interested in the content, and inspire them to read the whole article. When they read the article they should not be surprised by encountering any significant information that was not alluded to in the lead. If they are surprised, then that item should probably be mentioned in the lead.

Wikipedia articles should cover all significant aspects of a subject, which is more than typical articles found elsewhere seek to accomplish. That is because such articles are usually written from only one point of view and have some type of agenda. When our readers have read an article and then talk to others about the subject, they should be able to reply to queries with "Of course, I already read about that at Wikipedia. You should read their article." Readers should come away with at least a basic knowledge of all aspects of a subject, enough to discuss it and not be totally surprised by what someone else tells them.

Keep in mind that a Wikipedia "lead" is not exactly the same as an introductory section or paragraph in other documents. It follows strict rules and is based only on the content of the article, regardless of how poorly that might make the lead appear. If a lead reads poorly, then it may not be written properly, or the article may not cover the subject properly. Identify those lacks and fix the article first, then tweak the lead, never the other way around. Each word, phrase, and sentence in a lead should be covered by equivalent content in the body of the article, preferably in the same order they appear in the article. The content in the body of the article will usually be longer and more detailed.

Content and structure[edit]

The length of a lead will depend on the length and complexity of the article, and should usually comprise one to four paragraphs.

A well-written lead (and article) should answer most or all of the 5 Ws and also often how:

  • Who is it about?
  • What happened (what's the story)?
  • When did it take place?
  • Where did it take place?
  • Why did it happen?
  • How did it happen?

This form of structure is sometimes called the "Inverted pyramid", to refer to the decreasing importance of information in subsequent paragraphs (see News style). Note that not all types of subject matter conform to this pattern, but it is still good to keep in mind.

Rule of thumb[edit]

This rule of thumb will ensure the lead covers all significant subject matter in the article:

If a topic deserves a heading, then it deserves short mention in the lead according to its real due weight.

If a subject is worth a whole section, it deserves mention in the lead according to its real due weight. That due weight should also include careful consideration of the real weight of sections which summarize child articles. Those sections have much more weight than their visible size. Their weight is equal to the weight of the child article(s).

If we don't follow that equation, then POV warriors can successfully "hide" negative material away from many readers' notice by spinning it off and leaving a small section which is then viewed as not worthy of mention in the lead. That must not happen. It should still be mentioned in the lead according to its real due weight.

There should not be anything in the lead that does not refer to specific content in the article and is not backed up by specific references found in the article. There should not be any unnecessary elaboration or detail in the lead. Elaboration should be reserved for the body of the article. Remember to awaken the reader's interest without satisfying their hunger.

NPOV, neutrality, and false balance[edit]

Wikipedia scale of justice 2.svg

The same principles which govern content also apply to the lead, and doubly so, since that is the first, and often only, content read by our readers.

Attempts to keep an article "neutral" are usually based on a misunderstanding of NPOV and "due and undue weight". All significant POV must be documented, and all types of reliable sources (RS), including biased ones, should be used. The mainstream view should get the most weight, so the due weight of the article should read in favor of the mainstream view. We must present that balance, because that is the balance found in RS. That should be the impression received by readers. NPOV means that we, as editors, don't insert our own unsourced opinions, or use censorship to hide views we don't like. NPOV does not mean "neutral" or neutered content, nor does it mean that there should be a false balance between opposing POV. All opinions are not equal.

Exercise caution when revamping a lead[edit]

Because articles change and grow, the lead should reflect those changes and be revised accordingly. It is usually a bad idea to totally revise a lead unless changes in the article demand it. This is one of the most common mistakes made by newbies who read the lead and think "that's not good enough" or "that's not true." It is often a very controversial thing to do and usually not worth it. It is better to tweak it according to new content that has been added to the article. If one finds that very significant matter in the article is not mentioned in the lead, then add short mention in the lead.

Fresh eyes should be welcomed because they may see problems which even experienced editors don't see because they are too close to the subject. New editors should therefore be welcomed, but because they usually don't know the history of the article, including the struggles and conflicts which have led to the current content, or understand our policies as well as experienced editors, such attempts often end up creating more heat than light and don't improve the article. Such changes must be done collaboratively with input from all editors who watch the article. This is usually done best in slow increments, taking a sentence or two at a time and getting consensus, installing it, and then proceeding in this manner.

They may also think that the lead "doesn't describe or sum up the topic completely." This observation is valuable, but is not a reason to immediately change the lead. That is because the observation is based on an erroneous understanding of the definition of a "lead" here at Wikipedia. The lead's job is not to sum up the "topic", as understood elsewhere, but to sum up the article, regardless of how incomplete the article might be. If the lead does not sum up the topic, then the article should be improved first so it does sum up the topic. Then the lead can be tweaked so it finally does sum up the topic. Because of our NPOV policy requirement to cover all significant sides of an issue, our articles and leads are more "complete" and comprehensive than articles found elsewhere. This is one of the great advantages of Wikipedia.

Types of definitions to include[edit]

Because the lead is not supposed to sum up or define the topic, but to sum up the content of the article, it should often include a definition that is based on our content, not only definitions found elsewhere. In other words, in addition to definitions found elsewhere, we sometimes create our own definitions here. This is not original research, but proper summation of existing content.

Yes, we should include definitions in the body from other reliable sources (thus justifying using them in the lead), but we often end up with our own definitions that are a combination of other definitions and facts from the article.

On very comprehensive and well-written articles, because of our NPOV policy, our own definitions end up being the best on the internet because they define the subject from all significant angles. Other definitions do not do this. Newbies fail to understand this and often complain about our own definitions, demanding that only definitions found elsewhere be used, but this would be a step backwards. Wikipedia is much more than found elsewhere.

References in the lead?[edit]

There is no rule forbidding references in the lead, but it is nice when they can be left out. Keeping references out of the lead makes it easier to read, and keeps it free of clutter and easier to edit. The explanatory and more detailed text with the references is already found in the article. Since references are used to document specific content, but the lead is a short summation in a generalized and unspecific format, the use of references in the lead is a duplication of effort. If there are any references in the lead, they should be kept to a minimum. If a reference is required in the lead, then that might be a symptom that something is being introduced there that is not in the body of the article, and that would be improper.

While not usually required, we often include a few references with any controversial content in the lead to prevent edit wars. Controversial content often draws fire and demands for references, so we usually oblige.

It is generally a good idea to keep the main references (long versions) in the body and only use the short "name" versions (<ref name="Sun Telegram" />) in the lead. This makes the lead much easier to edit. This also demonstrates the primacy of content in the body, and that the lead is only based on content and references found in the body of the article. Putting quotes around the reference name is a good habit to get into, and quotes are mandatory if the reference name contains spaces. Putting a single space before the forward slash in a named reference is optional, but is a standard practice among many editors.

The same rule which applies to content applies to references; there should not be any references in the lead which have not first been used in the body. Even experienced editors make the mistake of editing the lead and adding new content and references without editing the body. If you see this happening, please fix it. The references section should reveal at least two uses of all the references used in the lead.

Lead "section references"[edit]

The lead in this essay uses clickable "section references", a type of internal referencing making the use of the usual external references totally unnecessary in this lead. They point to the section where regular references would normally be found and show exactly which wordings in the lead are derived from which sections in the body. Click them to jump to the relevant section from which wording in the lead is derived.

If use of "section references" became part of the Manual of style, we could probably eliminate the use of references in most leads, and provide good documentation for where more precise information can be found in the body of the article. The connection between lead content and article content would become very precise. If a heading gets changed, remember to update the lead section reference. Also add more lead content if new sections are added.

Maintenance templates[edit]

Was the article tagged with one of the following maintenance templates? If so, don't panic.

This is a shot across the bow giving a heads up to improve the article lead. The editor placing such tags should discuss their concerns on the article Talk page before or after placing these maintenance templates. Placing maintenance tags without discussion is permitted, but is referred to on Wikipedia as "drive-by tagging". After the lead concerns are addressed, the template tag may be removed by any editor. If the tagger doesn't use the talk page, and the reason for the tag isn't obvious, the tag may be deleted.

Use of the lead from a child article[edit]

The WP:Summary style editing guideline recommends the following:

Whenever an article has a section which grows so much it creates an undue weight problem, a common solution is to spin off a child article, leaving only a summary of the child article in a section of the parent article, as well as a hatnote "main" link ( {{main|child article title}} ) pointing to the child.

This is where the lead of the child article can be handy. Since the official lead of an article should be the best summary available, it can be used as the content in the main article's section which covers that topic.

Here are some examples:

To see how it works, look at the main Bill Cosby article's section Bill Cosby#Sexual assault allegations. Then click the "edit" tab and look at what's written there. That is a section which follows what is described above.

The due weight of child articles in the lead of a parent article[edit]

As a rule of thumb, section length may be taken as a rough guide to the importance of the topic of that section, assuming that an article is written with appropriate attention given to the due weight of its subtopics. But this isn't always the case, especially for long or complex articles. In such articles, some sections may concern subtopics that are so important that they have their own articles written about them. This, and not only section length, should be taken into account when deciding how much to say in the lead about a subtopic covered in an article section.[a]

Major sections of long articles may be spun off into their own articles, called a "child article", with a fuller treatment of the subtopic, leaving a brief summary in the "parent article". This is accompanied by use of a {{Main}} or {{Further}} template in the parent linking the summarized section to the expanded child article. This parent-child article hierarchy is called Wikipedia:Summary style, and is common in long or complex articles.

When one reads a large article of significance, such as World War II, it will have many sections, a number of which are short summaries of child articles spun off and expanded with more details about the subtopic. One could get the mistaken impression (from a cursory comparison of of section sizes in the parent article) that many of those summary sections are of less weight than the importance of the subtopic to the article would imply, simply because they are shorter compared to some other sections which do not link to a child article. That is often the exact opposite of reality. Those "longer sections which do not link to a child article" have so little weight that they don't deserve a child article, and thus only short mention in the lead, whereas the shorter sections in summary style which do have their own child article, are more important and thus deserve greater treatment in the lead.

To properly gauge due weight of sections in an article, one should examine child articles as well, to better assess the relative importance of shorter sections with a child compared to longer sections without one. A shorter section may be so important that it could not be given full coverage in the parent article and was spun off into a new article. So keep that in mind when determining what and how much should be mentioned in the lead. Give those child articles their due weight in the lead of the parent article.

Appendix: Table for development[edit]

Below is a table that can be used to help in creating the lead. One can copy the full article you are working on and this table to a sandbox and tweak the table to add more lines if necessary. Then copy all the major headings to the table and create short summaries of the contents of the various sections in the body of the article. Remember to also use a {{reflist}} code while doing this work. You will find that the code will come in handy when you need to keep some references for potentially controversial wordings. Use only the short "name" reference format.

Each item in the table should contain no more than one to four sentences that sum up the basic idea of each section in the article. If a section is long and complicated, it may need more sentences.

The lead is then created by placing those summaries in one large paragraph in the order they are found in the table. Then divide it into several smaller paragraphs, usually one to four, depending on the size and type of article. Then make appropriate changes so it flows as brilliant prose. Creative writing to make it flow should not accidentally introduce original research or synthesis violations. The result should be a mini version of the article without too much detail, without significant omissions, and with no repetition.

This works well for new articles. For existing articles, remember to submit your product for the approval of other editors before installing it in the article. Changing an existing lead is often controversial work, so reach a consensus version first. This table ensures that nothing is missed and provides precise documentation. Because your sandbox has a version (save often) that can be tweaked, you can easily show from which section each sentence is derived. You can also do this work directly on the talk page or a talk subpage so other editors can make direct changes until everyone is satisfied.

Good luck!

Actual content of section
Very short summary
"Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet, consectetur adipiscing elit,....qui officia deserunt mollit anim id est laborum."
First heading Content 1 Summary 1
Second heading Content 2 Summary 2
Third heading Content 3 Summary 3
Fourth heading Content 4 Summary 4
Fifth heading Content 5 Summary 5

See also[edit]


  1. ^ As User:Skyring explained it in 2019: "I suggest that if material in the body warrants its own specialised article, ... then the topic is worthy of inclusion in the lede; it's not something that is seen as minor."