In marketing circles, it’s well-known that an ad has about nine seconds to grab a reader’s attention. Nine seconds. That’s not much time. Unfortunately, it’s probably the same amount of time your story or article has to draw your reader in. That’s why an effective lead is a must-have for every piece of writing.
In case you don’t have a journalism background, when I say lead, I mean the opening paragraph or two. That small bit of text is what has to grab your reader and keep them reading—in just nine seconds. I also want to start with a warning. Not every type of lead will fit every type of story. Part of being a savvy writer is knowing when to use a certain technique. I won’t go over all the types of leads here—you can learn them in many journalism classes and books—but I will highlight some general types of leads and how to use them.
First, many leads use description to draw readers in. If your subject has a scene, setting or event that’s especially colorful, description might be the technique for you. You might think descriptive leads only work for fiction, but that’s not the case. A good description can make a feature story come alive. For example, here’s a lead I used in a local business profile:
Picture yourself kayaking through the stillness of the Back Bay waters. You’re in the kayak with a coworker you’ve never talked to before today, and the two of you are paddling in perfect tandem. A river otter swims up next to your kayak. In the distance you see a bald eagle circle over the water.
The idea is to create a mood, or feeling, as the reader pictures the scene in his mind.
Second, many leads start with a quote. This is a great way to jump right into the action. It brings up questions about who’s speaking, whom they’re speaking to, and what they’re talking about. For example, a story about a young boy’s adventures may start with:
“They say Old Man Jenkins still haunts this old graveyard.”
That phrase opens up all kinds of possibilities. A news story, on the other hand, would begin with a powerful quote from a main news source.
Finally, you can sometimes start stories with a question. Use this technique as sparingly as possible; many writers consider it a lazy way out. In a way, it is. It’s usually the easiest method, especially in nonfiction. That’s why you need to avoid it! However, there are times when a question really is the best lead-in to your writing. Also, it’s a great cop-out when you’re beating your head against a wall because you can’t find the right lead for your story.
These are only three of many techniques, but they should help you get started, both in your writing and in stopping your elusive readers in their tracks!