You may have as little as four seconds to capture a reader’s interest with your first sentence of a non-fiction magazine or newspaper article. Therefore, it needs to have some enticing tidbit to draw someone into the next sentence. While there are several angles to consider for a lead, first let’s figure out what to avoid.
In general, do not lead with a question because the reader’s attention is immediately turned to thinking of the answer. Rather than continue taking in the words on the page before him (or her), he begins to think elsewhere in his brain for a plausible response. You’ve lost his attention.
No flat statements
Likewise, a flat statement like you might find in a report can be a dull lead. About the only way you can get away with a dull lead is a snappy title. I once wrote a home design story titled “Big Men, Wet Dogs and Children.” The lead was okay:
So, a guy named Tom comes to Virginia Tech as a student nearly 50 years ago. He rents a little house. He gets a little job. He falls in love—with the little house.
It’s a good bet at this point that the reader still wants to know about the big men, wet dogs and children. About three-quarters of the way through the article, I quoted Tom’s wife:
“When asked my decorating style, I say it’s for big men, wet dogs and children.” The first refers to her husband’s 6-foot, 7-inch frame. The second to their canine collection that roams freely around the grounds and inside the house. The third is about young visitors. “You better prepare for some children, because they are definitely prepared for you!”
The lead wasn’t overly dull for that story, but you get the idea. The reader continues to find out about the title.
Writing person profiles
About half the time, the lead can come from information you have gathered, and leads are easy when writing person profiles.
Give a kid a coloring book with tracing pages inside, and you just might unleash the artist within. Alex Crookshanks was but a pre-kindergarten toddler when he received a Hot Wheels coloring book… .
Gerri Young found solace, joy and rejuvenation from childhood through adult decades at her grandparents’ farm.
“I visited several times some years—to enjoy the country and lick whatever wound or broken heart life had given me.”
Once you read and re-read your notes and still do not have a lead, consider quotations, statistics, history, weather and current conditions. Go to www.brainyquote.com and type in a search word or pick up a quotations book. While it’s not wise to begin a lead sentence with quotation marks, you can write:
It was Will Rogers (1879-1935) who said: “Everything is changing. People are taking their comedians seriously and the politicians as a joke.”
Use stats and history
Just because you are not issuing a statistical report doesn’t mean you can’t use a few. If you are writing about a distance learning curriculum at your local community college, begin with how many people across the country take classes online or how many courses are offered online, then zero into your local or regional subject. Big numbers get attention.
When neither of those work, dig into a little history. Let’s say you’re writing a story about the Salvation Army. You could begin:
The Salvation Army was founded in 1865.
Dull! What about:
The same year that the U.S. Civil War ended, the first train robbery took place, the first black man was awarded a Ph.D. [in Belgium], and Horace Greeley advised his readers ‘Go west, young man,’ a minister named William Booth started the Salvation Army in London. It was 1865. Lewis Carroll published ‘Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland,” and Booth wanted to reach out to the poor, homeless, hungry and destitute.
That’s a bit long, but you get the idea.
Use current conditions
Weather can set the scene for a restaurant review:
It was a dismal, rainy night when the restaurant on the mountaintop opened for the season. Fog enshrouded the windy, two-lane road, and temperatures dipped into the 40s. The crackling fire and smiling servers were extra warm and bright for the contrast.
A current condition can be social, economic, political or anything else in any combination:
With interest rates at all-time lows, many homeowners wonder if this is the time to refinance.
For a story on a horse rescue organization, any of these leads would work.
- Quotation: According to Reagan Miles, founder of Winterfrost Farm: “Without a doubt, our signature Ride-A-Rescue horseback riding program is the most popular.” She and her amazing staff of volunteers rescue and rehabilitate… .
- Statistics: With some 170,000 unwanted horses abandoned each year and slaughter houses closed by the feds, equine rescue organizations have their hands, barns and pastures full and overflowing trying to care for them.
- History: Horses were instrumental in the settling of America as the main mode of transportation, working the fields and hauling logs and supplies. They carried scouts, explorers, doctors, families, cavalry and cowboys on westward adventures…
- Weather: Just like “the mail must go through” and “the show must go on,” inclement, cold, wet, nasty weather does not deter the Winterfrost Farm volunteers from caring for some four dozen neglected and abused horses which now live peacefully on the rolling hills and valleys outside Radford.
- Current conditions: In an economic downturn, horses are often one of the first expenses to be eliminated. There are way more horses on the market today, at dramatically reduced prices, than in decades past. With rising healthcare costs on the horizon, many more beautiful equines will be riding into the sunset with no rider, no where to go, no one to care for them.
- The published lead: Reagan Miles was 9 years old when her family rescued two horses from a neighboring county. There’s no need to describe their condition—the main point is that it had a huge impact on her young mind and heart. Precisely 20 years hence, Reagan manages two leased farms, overseeing 42 rescued horses.
Just as the lead—and a title if you include one—capture the reader’s attention, it first needs to get noticed by an editor. With a little thought and maybe a few minutes of research, you can start any article with information that intrigues a reader to keep going, to learn more, to absorb the information in your story. In this day of split-second speeds, four seconds might be a long time. With a good lead, it’s long enough.
About the author:
Joanne M. Anderson is a long-time magazine and newspaper managing editor, as well as author of four books and hundreds of articles on myriad topics. She writes from her Noble Spirit Farm in SW Virginia. Visit her website at www.jmawriter.com