The tongue-in-cheek Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest recently announced its results for the worst writer of 2008: Garrison Spik, a 41-year-old communications director and writer from the state of Washington wrote:
“Theirs was a New York love, a checkered taxi ride burning rubber, and like the city their passion was open 24/7, steam rising from their bodies like slick streets exhaling warm, moist, white breath through manhole covers stamped ‘Forged by DeLaney Bros., Piscataway, N.J.’”
The contest asks writers to submit their best attempts at a bad opening line to a novel and while this contest celebrates a bad opening, in most situations, a bad opening can kill a piece.
While almost everything you write will begin with a lead – articles, blogs, sales letters, web content, press releases, cover letters, etc., many writers don’t embrace the importance of their opening lines. The main goal of a lead is to peak the reader’s interest and encourage them to continue reading.
One key to a great lead is to match the lead style with the tone of article. Some of the more popular types of leads are: direct leads, indirect leads, anecdotal, narrative and quote leads.
A direct lead gives you the core information up front and is used in many different types of writing including press releases, news and feature articles, blogs, etc. “Thursday morning, Thomas Thompson wrote his last blog for On Scene.Com titled “Chick Flicks Suck.” The movie critic giant shocked his readers and riled parent company “Chick Flicks ‘R Us” with his long-winded diatribe sent via iPhone.
Indirect leads tease you. “A famous media personality sends a parting shot to a major media conglomerate and fans are outraged.” But remember, you only have so long to tease before the reader gets bored.
Anecdotal leads, a favorite of feature writers, can be fun, but they can also be a nightmare. Some writers go too far with an anecdote and leave readers wondering what it means and what it has to do with the rest of the article. If you have to explain the anecdote too much, just take it out.
Narrative and question leads are used all the time in blogs; features and sales lead always starts with a question. A narrative lead is a more personal and introduces the reader to the circumstances of the subject. “Sam sat surrounded by third graders, grinning with expectant smiles…” When using a question lead, writers need to pose an interesting question that cannot be answered by yes or no. Instead of “Have you ever wondered…” try, “Why is it…”
Other lead no no’s:
- Too long. If halfway through the piece you are still introducing the information you’re sunk.
- Too complex. If the reader struggles to make it through your first paragraph it stinks.
- Too emotional. Three exclamations in the first three sentences = cheesy.
- Controversial for controversy’s sake. People can spot a fake.
Today’s writer is like a vendor at a street fair. They are doing everything they can to stand out among the other publications, Web sites, emails, Tweets, feed readers, etc, and have only seconds to hook a reader before they move on to the next stall.
All right FWJ community, your turn: write a great lead for the following: the Coast Guard rescues a dog and a magician stranded on an island. It can be any style, can include any additional info you want to add and can be used for any type of piece, i.e. press release, feature, news, blog, sales letter, etc. The catch – don’t spend any more than three minutes on your lead. I don’t want to be blamed for any productivity issues!