Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Leads, Part Three

If you want your memoir to accomplish more than merely gathering dust on your kids’ and grandkids’ bookshelves, craft top-notch leads for your vignettes (chapters).

To review from Leads, Parts One and Two,* the lead is the first thing your reader reads—your opening sentences.

Your job: Create a lead that grabs your reader and thrusts him into your story.

Lead-writing can be challenging:

“Master copywriter Gene Schwartz often spent an entire week on the first 50 words … — the headline [or title] and the opening paragraph. Those 50 words are the most important part of any persuasive writing, and writing them well takes time. Even for the masters.”  (

For some of you, lead-writing might be the hardest part of composing each of your vignettes, but it's doable and can even be fun.

Learn the difference between effective and weak leads by noting them in everything you read: articles, blog posts, sermons, essays, fiction, and creative nonfiction. Ask yourself, “Why do some entice me to read on—or not?”

Then, with what you’re learning from them and from this blog, fashion leads for your chapters.

So far we’ve examined the following types of leads: quote, scene-setting, action (or narrative), anecdote, and statistics.

Below you’ll find more options:

Startling assertion: A shocking statement surprises readers and builds suspense. Example: “Not all enemies carry arrows. My grandfather just carried a six pack and a pitiful hangover. Julie Redbook, she carried a grudge so heavy it crushed a few bones of my childhood. And there’s this woman I know who carries around the shame of slapping her son. And tearing into her good man with a tongue blade sharper than any scalpel.” Ann Voskamp, When You’ve Been Wounded, Cheated, Disappointed, and Heartbroken, at’t-been-wounded-cheated-disappointed-heartbroken.html

Question: “Have you ever noticed that kids who grow up in small towns usually are ______?” If you draw your reader in and get him to think how he’d answer, he’ll probably keep reading. Avoid using a question lead too frequently.

A “You” Message: Address the reader, using the word “you,” to help him identify with the person(s) in your story. Example: “You recognize shapes as written words and can spell them out letter by letter. You write down lists so you won’t forget. You read a book for leisure. You enjoy crossword puzzles. You get news from the Internet or a daily paper. And as you study God’s Word, He speaks to you. For millions of people [however], these skills do not exist….” (from “Eyes to See, Ears to Hear,” Rev.7, Fall 2006)

News article: In the first two sentences, answer the Five W’s – who, what, where, when, why. This is the “pyramid” style that used to be the most standard style of lead. “Thirteen high school students and a teacher from Coeur d’Alene were sent to the hospital Wednesday evening with injuries after their bus tipped over on U.S. Highway 95 in Hayden.” (The Spokesman- Review, January 11, 2007)

Many writers craft their lead last. I recommend that you write the body of your piece and set it aside. Come back later, re-read it, and probably the subject of your lead will appear to you somewhere within those paragraphs. When you find it, in many cases you can leave it where it is but capture the essence of it by using different words. In other words, “Dig it out, polish it, craft it” (Shel Arensen).

Grab your reader’s attention and make him want to read the rest of your piece.

*Related posts
Leads, Part One
Leads, Part Two

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  1. Thanks for these great tips on writing leads. I especially like the idea about paying attention to the leads in articles, blog posts I read. This is something I want to work on, so thanks for the help.

  2. Hi Linda! What a blessing to have you providentially find me - I am glad to meet another writer seeking to give God the glory in word and story. Your story about Africa sounds amazing and challenging! Best to you with your distribution activities. I am looking forward to growing more as a writer and joyful to be finally blogging to give me a writing vehicle to exercise my creativity and skills - just for me! I write a lot - but for the past seven years it has all been writing for work. Creating for work. Little wrung out in this season as God is changing my ministry furniture and I have big challenges ahead. Not what I had thought I'd be doing - but so thankful for the mission and hungry for personal growth and skill building. Do stay in touch!
    Miss Kathy

  3. Olive Tree, I hope you enjoy pondering leads in various written pieces. If you find some good ones, be sure to share them with the rest of us. :)

    Miss Kathy, thanks for stopping by. I'm so pleased to have found you and your blog and look forward to getting better acquainted. Yes, you are I are kindred spirits when it comes to desiring to give God the glory through all we write. He is so worthy of our praise! Bless you as you face those big challenges. Stay in touch.