Lead Techniques When Writing An Article
Part 4 of 6 in a Series on Article Writing
When writing an article, do you plan for success? Or for failure? Silly question? Possibly!
In the past few weeks, we’ve been considering the secrets of article writing through the lens of knowing your market. That has included the personal experience, professional expertise, and specialist knowledge you have to bring to your writing. Today, we’re going to take a look, in broad terms, at the structure of an article; and in particular at the factors that spell success in the opening paragraph. What follows is relevant to all articles, regardless of theme or genre.
HOW TO STRUCTURE AN ARTICLE
No matter whether the article is topical or seasonal, fact or opinion, short or long, the body of your article should follow the same basic, 3-part pattern.
- Tell your readers what you’re going to tell them.
- Tell them
- Tell them what you’ve told them
Sounds daft doesn’t it? But it’s said to have originated with Aristotle, and what that ancient Greek philosopher didn’t know isn’t worth knowing! So what exactly did he mean?
AN ARTICLE SUMMARY
If your title is designed to draw readers to your article, then the first few sentences should hook them. This is the Tell ‘em what you’re gonna tell ‘em bit. A summary of what is to come. Of course, strictly speaking a summary should sum up what has gone before. But it’s best to think of an article summary as a précis of the content. In other words, an outline.
A LEAD PARAGRAPH HAS A JOB TO DO
This first paragraph of your article – what’s known as ‘the lead’ – has a job to do. Don’t think of a lead simply as something which is ahead of something that’s following. Think of it as you would a dog lead: something which arrests, steers and controls what is on the end of it: your reader. (Sorry readers if that sounds crass but that, in effect, is what writing is all about!)
Within the first three to five sentences of your article, your reader is going to decide whether to read on or not. For instance, currently on my Google sidebar, there is a mere half sentence from The Daily Telegraph, which reads: “David Cameron wants to give power away . . .” That acts like a title in a conventional article. And, because it conveys a radical solution by David Cameron – the leader of the UK's Tory party – to the problems currently besetting the UK’s Socialist Government, it’s going to pull me in and make me want to read more.
If I click on the teaser and open up the summary, the first sentence says: “Now this is more like it!” Yeess, I think. Perhaps there’s something in this. It’s a short sentence. It’s punchy. It’s rousing. In the same way that a crowd chanting a Victory Parade slogan does, it invites a response in me. What the writer of the piece is hoping for is my agreement; my collaboration.
But my response to “this is more like it” might, equally, be: “says who?” At this stage, from the writer’s point of view, a negative from me doesn’t much matter. He’s aroused my interest. I’m going to read on to see what “this” is that he’s writing about. Either way, he’s on to a winner. If he can hold onto me to the end of the paragraph, then he’s probably going to be able to hold onto me to the end of the article.
How do I know that? Because of the reader satisfaction factor! The second sentence, you see, begins: “Forget Alan Johnson’s pointless musings . . .” (Alan Johnson, for those who don’t know, is a Minister in the Labour Government. He is also someone who, regardless of political affiliation, I happen to like.)
However, if I’m a Tory, this is going to delight me. This sentence – in particular the words “pointless” and “musings” – is rubbishing something put out by the ruling party; a party I – along with most of the British populace at this moment – would like to see replaced in a general election. I’m going to read on because I want to know how the writer plans to develop his theme. And I’m not disappointed. By the time I get to the fourth sentence, which ends the introductory paragraph, I know that Mr Cameron is calling for a massive redistribution of power from the state to citizens.
This is what gives me, the reader, the pleasure and satisfaction factor. It works both ways, you see. If I agree with what the writer is saying, then I have the pleasure of having received the gift of satisfaction. I’ve been offered the hope of an attractive alternative to the mess we’re having to endure because of Parliamentary expenses. We’re both winners: writer and reader.
A PLAN FOR SUCCESS WORKS BOTH WAYS
But the reader satisfaction factor works even if I deplore what has been written! Watch any pantomime and you’ll see what I mean. Who does the audience applaud? Well, the hero and heroine, obviously. But who do we love to hate? Who brings us to our feet, increases our heart rate, and makes us shout out loud? Why, the baddie. Every time!
So you see why that lead paragraph was such a hook? The writer of The Telegraph article had a plan for success. He knows, from the outset, that those few simple sentences are going to incite excitement in his readers. Love him, or hate him, he’s got them hooked; his lead is fastened to their collars, and – providing he delivers on content – he’s going to guide them down the lanes of his persuasive powers; steer them across the junction of any counter debate; and let them loose in the parkland of his main argument.
Once there, he can let his reader off the lead to seek his own satisfaction; to form his own opinions and perspectives. Be they positive or negative he, the writer, will have done what he set out to do. With his opening sentence he’s got his reader hooked. With his lead paragraph, he’s brought his reader to heel. He’s told him what he has to tell him. He’s planned for success. Now all he has to do – is to tell him.
Next time we’ll see how to hold your reader through the next stage.
Previous articles in this series:
- Part 1 of 6: Ten Tips On Writing An Article
- Part 2 of 6: The Secrets Of Article Writing: Know Your Market, Know Yourself
- Part 3 of 6: Know Your Market, Know Your Reader When Writing An Article
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Author of a number of books, one a No 4 Bestseller, Mel Menzies is also an experienced Speaker at live events, as well as on Radio and TV. Book her here for your event.
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