Improving Your Leads
Your lead is the beginning of your magazine article, the opener that draws the reader in and makes her want to continue through the rest of your story. Think of it like the first bite of a sandwich. If it's lacking in flavor, nobody's going to want to finish the thing.
Improving your story leads is a major component of improving your stories on the whole. Not only will a strong lead help you nab the reader's attention, but it will also help you set up the structure of the story that you want to tell. If you know a good place to start, you can usually figure out where you want to end up, and you can bring the reader along on the journey with you.
Learning to craft better story leads will also help you land more story assignments. The beginnings of query letters are often used as the beginnings of actual stories, so the more you can hone your skills for creating a bang-up opening on paper, the more likely you are to get editors' attention and acceptance of your ideas.
There are two longtime tricks that magazine writers use to ensure their leads are stellar. The first involves scene-setting in the opening paragraphs, while the other involves leading up to a shocking or memorable quotation from a source.
The First Five Paragraphs
The “first five paragraphs” method works on the premise that you have five paragraphs to get the reader to the point, or nut graf, of your magazine article. You won't win any friends at
In fact, this technique is ideal for articles in which you need to set a scene — articles where some writers have a tendency to wander off the path of the actual story itself. A good example is personality profiles, in which the reader really wants to get to the part about what the subject has to say, but where the writer spends six or seven paragraphs describing the subject's car or office or wardrobe. Those details may be useful in creating analogies — “the genius CEO's car is cluttered like the laboratory of a madman preparing for a science fair” — but if the colorful descriptions run on for too many paragraphs, you're going to lose the reader (and probably the point of your article).
Do you always have to take five paragraphs to get to your nut graf?
No. Sometimes, such as in straight-news reporting, your first paragraph will be your nut graf. But if you are trying to set a scene, you can typically use as many as five paragraphs to do so before you will lose the reader's attention, along with your point.
If you typically open your articles with descriptive writing instead of straight news, then look for places where you can pare back your leads to five or fewer paragraphs, with the last paragraph being your nut graf. You will find that your openers are much stronger and that your story structures will follow in kind.
Leading to a Killer Quote
Another great trick for writing a terrific lead is isolating the most pertinent, most interesting, or most colorful quote in your notebook, and then writing an opening paragraph (or two) that leads directly to it.
An example might go something like this:
Sean is the kind of golf pro who always seems as perfectly pressed as his pants. Quick with a smile and handshake, he has a social director's easy smile and a salesman's aura of trust. He's the son you always wanted, the brother you never had, the husband of your dreams. He could be lining up his shot on the ninth green when the sky begins to darken, and he'll play right through the sudden downpour without missing a millimeter on his back swing, or even rumpling his shirt.
And yet year after year, in tournament after tournament, this dedicated professional falls just one or two shots short of making the PGA Tour. The reason, he believes, is the same for every would-be Phil Mickelson out there on golf courses across America.
“I have mental problems,” he confides with a chuckle. “One bad shot, and I lose my concentration like a patch of grass that forgets to sprout at springtime.”
Mental focus, experts say, is the key to netting good scores consistently on the golf course. . . .
Now, would a quote like that be good anyplace in your article? Perhaps. But by leading into it with a contrasting paragraph or two, you are setting a scene for the reader that the story's main source then suddenly cranks up to a new volume. You are creating conflict, so to speak, which on many levels can equal drama — the stuff of which many great stories are made. Even better, you're doing it in the first five paragraphs and getting right to your nut graf, which is the next thing you can work on improving.