What’s so hard about the first sentence is that
you’re stuck with it. Everything else is going to
flow out of that sentence. And by the time you’ve
laid down the first two sentences, your options are
all gone.
What is a Lead?
So, what is a lead? You probably call the lead by a different name—the
introduction or the opening, for example. For a variety of reasons that will come
clear as you complete this workshop, we have chosen to call the opening paragraphs
of essays the “lead.” By the time you finish this presentation, you will know
precisely what a lead is, what it does, and what to do to create effective leads. More
importantly, you will created a number of possible leads for a paper or papers you
are currently working on. Fair enough?
Then let’s begin.
Activity 1. Jot down in your GPAW notebook everything that you know about leads
or introductions. Keep that notebook page at the ready. You will be referring back
to this page as the workshop continues.
What isn’t a lead?
Before I define what a lead is, I think it is important to define what it is not.
As I suggested earlier, most of us have learned to call the first paragraph the
introduction. Although there is nothing necessarily wrong with calling the first
paragraph the introduction, the concept of the introduction brings with it a lot of
not-so-useful baggage. For instance, the shape below should be very familiar to a
number of you. (Click to see, please.)
So, what does this shape represent?
That’s right: it’s a visual of the funnel paragraph introduction! As many of you
have learned, the funnel introduction starts broadly, then slowly narrows its focus
until (finally!) a specific thesis emerges in the very last sentence of the paragraph.
Of course, by the time the reader works her way through the lengthy, and often
boring, survey of one million years or so of history—if they even make it to the end
of the paragraph—they really could care less about your topic. They just want you
to cut to the chase and get on with it!
Since the dawn of time, mankind has committed acts of murder.
Beginning with the caveman, simple weapons like sticks and stones
were used. Later, they connected a sharpened rock to a stick to
create a spear. Even later, they figured out how to create a primitive
bow in order to shoot arrows. Much later, the long bow and the
crossbow were invented in order to shoot arrows farther and with
more force.... (And so on until we get the thesis, ten sentences later.)
At long last, mankind invented the nuclear bomb, the ultimate
weapon, a weapon that we must not allow to proliferate.
Okay, enough negativity. Let’s get to the good stuff.
The Elements of Good Leads
[Leads] are flashlights that shine down into the rest of the story. –JOHN MCPHEE
The lead then—what you “used” to call the introduction or the opening—requires
some special thought. Since most readers are only willing to spend a few seconds
on a piece of writing before they turn the page or turn on the TV, writers must
create leads that keep the reader reading. McPhee says, “Some [leads] are much
longer than others. I am not just talking about the first sentence. I am talking
about an integral beginning that sets the scene or implies the dimensions of the
story.” (Later on in this workshop, I have a whole essay on opening sentences by
Connor Freff Cochran for you.)
So, what does a good lead do for the reader? (Remember, we are always writing
for an audience.)
Activity 2. Brainstorm a list of things that good leads should do. You may already
have a pretty complete list if you did Activity 1 carefully. Jot down any new ideas
in your GPAW notebook.
Elements of Good Leads
Most writing experts agree that a good lead should do the following:
•Attract and hold the reader's attention
•Include concrete and specific information
•Make the reader receptive to the writer's ideas
•Make a promise or establish a contract
•Point the reader in the general direction the paper will be heading or create a
specific “road map”
In the next few slides, I will expand a bit on each of these characteristics. You
probably should take notes—or at the very least print this page as a reminder of
what you most remember as you craft a lead for a paper—whether that is a paper
for English or nursing.
As you move through life, what attracts your attention? If you are anything like
most people, the extraordinary is what often captures our attention: an amazingly
proportional human body (we won’t go any further with that example—beauty is a
social construct and changes over time and between cultures); a sunset that could
come right out of a 19th century Luminist painter’s studio; the blood-spattered
body of a bombing victim. In other words, we notice things, people, events that are
not normal, routine, everyday. So, does that translate to writing?
Elements of Good Leads
Well, the answer is, as undoubtedly you knew from the structure of the question,
“yes.” Readers like the extraordinary—something interesting, not already wellknown. Now, I’m not talking about some sort of bad tabloid headline—“Elvis
gives birth to alien quintuplet monkey-men after death”—but something
provocative, challenging, and thoughtful nonetheless. Something shocking may
attract us, but does it hold our attention for long?
Activity 3. For the next few minutes brainstorm a list of strategies that might
attract the reader’s attention. You might come up examples first, which is fine, but
try to categorize the examples. In other words, maybe you came up with a series of
provocative questions like David Quammen did in his lead for the essay, “Humble
is the Prey”: “Is there a place in our world for the great flesh-eating predators that
made no distinction between, goat, deer, and human?” and “Can humanity live
with dragons?” and “Can we live without them? What will we lose from the wild
places on Earth-from our sense of the word wild itself-when we lose all prospect of
being devoured by homicidal beasts?” Those are pretty interesting questions,
aren’t they?
If you came up with examples like the ones above, then the category would be
“provocative or interesting questions.” Obviously, a question that can be answered
with a simple “yes” or “no” isn’t very provocative, right?
Different Leads for
Different Purposes
So, what did you come up with? Undoubtedly, you came up with some of the
different lead strategies detailed below. This is not an exhaustive list—nor are these
lead strategies mutually exclusive; that is, many writers combine strategies to
create a good lead that attracts and holds a reader’s attention. Remember, most
writing teachers agree that whatever works is okay with us—even if you have to
break some of the rules.
Making a claim
Informing detail
Famous person
First person
Surprising Statement
Historical review
Navigation hint: To return to this
page after viewing a lead, click on
“Different Leads for Different
Different Leads for
Different Purposes
Making a claim. Sometimes writers can get away with staking out the whole gist of
their essay—even in the very first sentence. When the strategy works, it is powerful,
but when it does not, the rest of the essay falls flat. Strive for the provocative.
McDonald’s is bad for your kids. I do not mean flat patties and the white-flour buns; I
refer to the jobs teenagers undertake, mass-producing these choice items.
As many as two-thirds of America’s high school juniors and seniors now hold down parttime paying jobs, according to studies. Many of these are in fast-food chains, of which
McDonald’s is the pioneer, trend-setter and symbol.
At first, such jobs may seem right out of the Founding Father’s educational manual for
how to bring up self-reliant, work-ethic-driven, productive youngsters. But, in fact, these
jobs undermine school attendance and involvement, impart few skills that will be useful in
later life, and simultaneously skew the values of teen-agers—especially their ideas about
the worth of a dollar.
From “Working at McDonald’s” by Amitai Etzioni, reprinted in The St. Martin’s Guide to
Writing, Sixth Edition.
This lead works, in part, because once the broad claim has been made, the rest of
the lead slowly unfolds its meaning, sentence-by sentence, creating a sense of
anticipation in us. By the end, we want to hear why the author thinks such
conventional wisdom is faulty, don’t we? Etzioni also provides us with a road map
(or organizing statement or forecasting sentence), so we know where we are headed
in the rest of the essay.
Different Leads for
Different Purposes
Informing detail. The writer gives the reader a specific bit of information that will
interest and intrigue the reader, who will want to read on to find out more. That bit
of information may be a statistic, a fact, a revealing detail, an action, a behavior.
Miss America. For a skin show, she’s been caught in the crossfire of colossal cultural
battles: women’s rights, pornography, changing racial and religious values. Feminist poet
Robin Morgan claimed that the pageant inspired the formal launching of the women’s
movement in 1968, when a crowed of protesters burned their bras, torched Bert Parks in
effigy, stormed the exhibition hall, and accused the contest of being lily-white, racist, and
pro-military. Since then, Miss America has changed with the times: she has been black,
deaf, and social activist with platforms ranging from AIDS prevention to children’s selfesteem and aging with dignity—although she still struts in a bathing suit. [The lead goes
on for another two full paragraphs and concludes with the following lines.]
Whether her contestants flaunt pierced belly buttons or Ph.D.s in veterinary medicine,
wear pants, or ballgowns, Miss America is a mirror of American, even now.
So, what is she really saying about us—and why do we need to know anyway?
from “Why We Need Miss America” by Jill Neimark, in Psychology Today, 1998 and
reprinted in The St. Martins Guide to Writing, sixth edition, pp. 415-419.
Note that she uses a variety of strategies in this lead, including asking questions at
the end of the lead, questions that we really want answers to after this provocative
Different Leads for
Different Purposes
Description. A specific, detailed description is often a good way to attract the
reader. The reader likes to see a place, a process, something that is central to the
subject. That description should be packed with visual details, and will be richer if
it includes details that attract the senses of hearing, tasting, touching and smelling,
as well as seeing.
She stands in maroon bloomers and a pink dress that flares tantalizingly above two
acrylic legs that descend, unvaried in diameter, all the way down to her gout-stricken
ankles crammed in her booties. Her feet, crippled and pigeon-toed, touch at their tips. A
sassy tuft of a synthetic topknot sprays out of a helmet of auburn hair encircled by a
polka-dot bow that sits atop her head like a windmill, dwarfing the rest of her figure. Her
nose is no bigger than a button, and her astonishingly candid eyes are two moist pools
framed by eyebrows penciled like quizzical circumflexes on the vast dome of her
forehead. Emptied of all internal life, these mesmerizing orbs, composing at least 25
percent of a face as wide as her shoulders, stare out directly at us with a reticence
exaggerated by the hectic flush of her complexion. Her name is So Shy Sherri, and she is
one of toy manufacturer Galoob’s nine new “Baby Faces”—a set of “superposin’” dolls
with names like So Sweet Sandi, So Sorry Sarah, and So Delightful Dee Dee, each with
an “adorable” expression and personality of their own.
From “Cuteness” by Daniel Harris, reprinted in The Best American Essays 1993, 1993.
Different Leads for
Different Purposes
Face. One of the most effective leads is to reveal an individual who is central to the
piece of writing. Readers like to meet new and interesting people. It is important,
however, to give that person a strong physical presence. It’s usually good for them
to be seen in action, doing something significant in the article. A reader should have
a dominant impression of that person by the end of the lead.
My father drank. He drank as a gut-punched boxer gasps for breath, as a starving dog
gobbles food—compulsively, secretly, in pain and trembling. I use the past tense not
because he ever quit drinking but because he quit living. That is how the story ends for my
father, age sixty-four, heart bursting, body cooling and forsaken on the linoleum of my
brother’s trailer. The story continues for my brother, my sister, my mother, and me, and will
continue so long as memory holds.
In the perennial present of memory, I slip into the garage or barn to see my father
tipping back the flat green bottles of wine, the brown cylinders of whiskey, the cans of beer
disguised in paper bags. His Adam’s apple bobs, the liquid gurgles, he wipes the sandyhaired back of a hand over his lips, and then, his bloodshot gaze bumping into me, he
stashes the bottle or can inside his jacket, under the workbench, between two bales of
hay, and we both pretend the moment has not occurred.
“What’s up, buddy?” he says, thick-tongued and edgy.
“Sky’s up,” I answer, playing along.
“And don’t forget prices,” he grumbles. “Prices are always up. And taxes.”
From “Under the Influence” by Scott Russell Sanders, in Harper’s Magazine,
November 1989.
Different Leads for
Different Purposes
Famous person. People like to know what celebrities say and do. Dropping the
name of a famous person at the beginning of a paper usually gets the reader's
attention. It may be something that person said or something he or she did that can
be presented as an interest grabber. You may just mention the famous person's
name to get the reader's interest. The famous person may be dead or alive. The
famous person may be a “saint” or a “sinner.” Of course, bringing up this person's
name must be relevant to the topic. Even though the statement or action may not
be readily relevant, a clever writer can convince the reader that it is relevant.
The most widely read writer in America today is not Stephen King, Michael Crichton or
John Grisham. It's Margaret Milner Richardson, the Commissioner of the Internal Revenue
Service, whose name appears on the “1040 Forms and Instructions” booklet. I doubt that
Margaret wrote the entire 1040 pamphlet, but the annual introductory letter, “A Note from
the Commissioner,” bears her signature.
from “Dear Taxpayer” by Will Manley in Booklist, May 1, 1993.
Different Leads for
Different Purposes
First person. Writers are often denied the use of "I" in academic writing and are
forced to hide behind false objectivity and such awkward constructions as "one
observed one’s class doing one’s assignment." Readers, on the other hand, may be
attracted to the first person in the lead when the writer speaks honesty and directly
of the writer’s own ideas from the solid base of the writer’s own authority. (I don’t
know about you, but I hate to read papers that sound like they were written either
by a very politically correct committee or by a badly programmed computer.)
One holds the knife as one holds the bow of a cello or a tulip—by the stem. Not
palmed nor gripped nor grasped, but lightly, with the tips of the fingers. The knife is not for
pressing. It is for drawing across the field of skin. Like a slender fish, it waits, at the ready,
then go! It darts, followed by a fine wake of red. The flesh parts, falling away to yellow
globules of fat. Even now, after so many times, I still marvel at its power—cold, gleaming,
silent. More, I am struck with a kind of dread that it is I in whose hand the blade travels,
that my hand is its vehicle, that yet again this terrible steel-bellied thing and I have
conspired for a most unnatural purpose, the laying open of the body of a human being.
A stillness settles in my heart and is carried to my hand. It is the quietude of resolve
layered over fear. And it is this resolve that lowers us, my knife and me, deeper and
deeper into the person beneath. It is an entry into the body that is nothing like a caress;
still, it is among the gentlest of acts. Then stroke and stroke again, and we are joined by
other instruments, hemostats, and forceps, until the wound blooms with strange flowers
whose looped handles fall to the sides in steely array.
From “The Knife” by Richard Selzer, in The Art of the Personal Essay, 1994, pp. 708714.
Different Leads for
Different Purposes
Scene. A lead that combines a place, a person or persons, and an action, of course,
develops into a scene. In a lead the scene must be short, but it can be very effective
in establishing the texture of the piece to be written. It draws the reader in
immediately and makes the reader an observer, almost a participant in the article.
On the evening of May 10, 1996, a killer blizzard exploded around the upper reaches
of Mount Everest, trapping me and dozens of other climbers high in the Death Zone of the
Earth’s tallest mountain.
The storm began as a slow, distant growl, the rapidly formed into a howling white fog
laced with ice pellets. It hurtled up Mount Everest to engulf us in minutes. We couldn’t see
as far as our feet. A person standing next to you just vanished in the roaring whiteout.
Wind speeds that night would exceed seventy knots. The ambient temperature fell to sixty
below zero.
The blizzard pounced on my group of climbers just as we’d gingerly descended a sheer
pitch known as the Triangle above Camp Four, or High Camp, on Everest’s South Col, a
desolate saddle of rock and ice about three thousand feet below the mountain’s 29, 035foot summit.
Eighteen hours earlier, we had set out from the South Col for the summit, heartened as
we trudged along by a serene and cloudless night sky that beckoned us ever upward until
dawn, when it gave way to a spectacular sunrise over the roof of the world.
Then confusion and calamity struck.
From Left For Dead, by Beck Weathers, Dell Publishing 2000.
Different Leads for
Different Purposes
Surprising Statement. A surprising statement is a favorite introductory technique
of professional writers. There are many ways a statement can surprise a reader.
Sometimes the statement is surprising because it is disgusting. Sometimes it is
joyful. Sometimes it is shocking. Sometimes it is surprising because of who said it.
Sometimes it is surprising because it includes profanity.
Have a minute? Good. Because that may be all it takes to save the life of a child—
your child. Accidents kill nearly 8000 children under age 15 each year. And for every
fatality, 42 more children are admitted to hospitals for treatment. Yet such deaths and
injuries can be avoided through these easy steps parents can take right now. You don't
have a minute to lose.
from “60 Seconds That Could Save Your Child” by Cathy Perlmutter with Maureen
Sangiorgio in Prevention, September, 1993.
Note the question. Does it draw you in? This article begins with a surprising, even
shocking, statistic: 8000 children die each year from accidents. The article then
lists seven easy actions a person can take to help guard a child against accidents.
These range from turning down the water heater to 120 degrees Fahrenheit to
putting firearms under lock and key.
Different Leads for
Different Purposes
Tension. A good way to start many essays is to reveal the forces within the piece of
writing as they collide with each other, or as they pull in opposite directions. The
reader is interested in these forces and how they will work out. The following is the
lead of Joan Didion’s essay, “Slouching Towards Bethlehem.”
The center was not holding. It was a country of bankruptcy notices and public-auction
announcements and commonplace reports of casual killings and misplaced children and
abandoned homes and vandals who misspelled even the four-letter words they scrawled.
It was a country in which families routinely disappeared, trailing bad checks and
repossession papers. Adolescents drifted from city to torn city, sloughing off both the past
and future as snakes shed their skins, children who were never taught and would never
now learn games that had held society together. People were missing. Children were
missing. Parents were missing. Those left behind filed desultory missing-persons reports,
then moved on themselves.
It was not a country in open revolution. It was not a country under enemy siege. It was
the United States of America in the cold late spring of 1967, and the market was steady
and the G.N.P. high and a great many articulate people seemed to have a sense of high
moral purpose and it might have been a spring of brave hopes and national promise, but
it was not, and more and more people had the uneasy apprehension that it was not. All
that seemed clear was that at some point we had aborted ourselves and butchered the
job, and because nothing else seemed so relevant I decided to go to San Francisco. San
Francisco was where the social hemorrhaging was showing up. San Francisco was
where the missing children were gathering and calling themselves “hippies.” When I first
went to San Francisco in that cold late spring of 1967 I did not even know what I wanted
to find out, and so I just stayed around awhile, and made a few friends.
Different Leads for
Different Purposes
Historical review. Some topics are better understood if a brief historical review of
the topic is presented to lead into the discussion of the moment. Such topics might
include “a biographical sketch of a war hero,” “an upcoming execution of a
convicted criminal,” or “drugs and the younger generation.” Obviously there are
many, many more topics that could be introduced by reviewing the history of the
topic before the writer gets down to the nitty-gritty of his paper. It is important
that the historical review be brief so that it does not take over the paper.
The victory brought pure elation and joy. It was May 1954, just days after the Supreme
Court's landmark ruling in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas. At NAACP
headquarters in New York the mood was euphoric. Telegrams of congratulations poured
in from around the world; reporters and well-wishers crowded the halls.
from “Integration Turns 40” by Juan Williams in Modern Maturity, April/May, 1994.
After reaching back forty years ago to bring up the landmark Supreme Court
decision that started school desegregation, this article discusses school segregation
in the present time.
Different Leads for
Different Purposes
Process. Readers like to see a process unfold, and the lead that can plunge the
reader into that process—the winning of the game, the passing of a law, the
discovery of a scientific theory—will attract and hold the reader’s interest.
It starts with a single cell. The first cell splits to become two and the two become four
and so on. After just forty-seven doublings, you have ten thousand trillion
(10,000,000,000,000,000) cells in your body and are ready to spring forth as a human
being. And every one of those cells knows exactly what to do to preserve and nurture you
from the moment of conception to your last breath.
You have no secrets from your cells. They know far more about you than you do. Each
one carries a copy of the complete genetic code—the instructional manual for your entire
body—so it knows not only how to do its job but every other job in the body. Never in your
life will you have to remind a cell to keep an eye on its adenosine triphosphate levels or to
find a place for the extra squirt of folic acid that’s just unexpectedly turned up. It will do
that for you, and millions more things besides.
Every cell in nature is a thing of wonder. Even the simplest are far beyond the limits of
human ingenuity: To build the most basic yeast cell, for example, you would have to
miniaturize about the same number of components as are found in a Boeing 777 jetliner
and fit them into a sphere just five microns across; then somehow you would have to
persuade that sphere to reproduce.
But yeast cells are nothing compared with human cells, which are not just more varied
an complicated, but vastly more fascinating because of their complex interactions.
From “Cells” in A Short History of Nearly Everything, by Bill Bryson, Broadway Books,
Elements of Good Leads
One common element all these leads share is that they contain specific, concrete
information. Often writers wonder how to make their whole essay interesting. As a
general principle, writing that is specific, that contains concrete details, vivid
descriptions, or fully articulated reasons or comments, will keep the interest of
readers far more easily than prose that uses lots of generalities. Readers are not
bored by specifics; they are, however, lulled to sleep by generalities. So, if you
want to attract and hold the reader's interest, write about specific actions, objects,
events, ideas, and people in your lead. Of course, if you write a vivid and
compelling lead, readers will expect vivid descriptions and/or well-supported
arguments in the body as well. The lead sets the tone of the entire paper.
Readers want to trust the writer. We partially develop trust in the lead by offering
the reader interesting details, observations, and claims. We treat the readers
respectfully, recognizing their intelligence, and assuaging their (natural)
skepticism. Generally speaking, we do not shout at them (unless you are writing a
polemic—not that there is, occasionally, anything wrong with that), question their
integrity or morality or intelligence, offer badly reasoned claims, present sloppy
observations, or outright lie to them. We strive for a tone that is authoritative, not
authoritarian, reasonable without seeming obsequious, confident without being
smug. That is sometimes a difficult balancing act. The main thing is this: present
yourself honestly and authoritatively. No one wants to waste time on writing that
appears dishonest or incompetent.
Elements of Good Leads:
Making Promises
Most importantly of all, the lead, whether you like it or not, makes a promise to
the reader or establishes a contract between the writer and the reader. In other
words, the lead establishes the subject of the paper and at very least hints at the
theme of the piece. If you write about weasels in your lead, readers reasonably
expect the rest of the paper will have something to do with weasels or some trait of
weasels. If the rest of paper does not mention weasels, readers feel (rightly) that
you have broken your promise or contract. Depending on the purpose of the essay,
the needs of the audience, and the intention of the writer, the writer will either
indirectly show or directly tell you what the essay is going to be about.
On the next slide, you will read the lead from Annie Dillard’s essay, “Living Like
Weasels.” Pay close attention to how she develops this two-paragraph lead. After
you read the lead you will be asked a series of questions.
If you would like to read the entire essay, go to
from “Living Like Weasels”
A weasel is wild. Who knows what he thinks? He sleeps in his underground den, his tail
draped over his nose. Sometimes he lives in his den for two days without leaving. Outside,
he stalks rabbits, mice, muskrats, and birds, killing more bodies than he can eat warm, and
often dragging the carcasses home. Obedient to instinct, he bites his prey at the neck,
either splitting the jugular vein at the throat or crunching the brain at the base of the skull,
and he does not let go. One naturalist refused to kill a weasel who was socketed into his
hand deeply as a rattlesnake. The man could in no way pry the tiny weasel off, and he had
to walk half a mile to water, the weasel dangling from his palm, and soak him off like a
stubborn label.
And once, says Ernest Thompson Seton—once, a man shot an eagle out of the sky. He
examined the eagle and found the dry skull of a weasel fixed by the jaws to his throat. The
supposition is that the eagle had pounced on the weasel and the weasel swiveled and bit
as instinct taught him, tooth to neck, and nearly won. I would like to have seen that eagle
from the air a few weeks or months before he was shot: was the whole weasel still
attached to his feathered throat, a fur pendant? Or did the eagle eat what he could reach,
gutting the living weasel with his talons before his breast, bending his beak, cleaning the
beautiful airborne bones?
Questions on “Weasels”
Activity 4. Okay, so what aspect or trait of weasels does she focus our
attention on? Spend a couple minutes jotting down your impressions of this
lead and answering these questions:
•Does she use specific/concrete or general/abstract language in this lead?
•Does she include a thesis sentence? If so, what is it? Does she also include a
sentence that acts as an advance organizing, organizing statement, or road
•If there is no thesis, in what direction is she pointing us?
•How are the two examples connected?
•How does the lead relate to the title?
•What do you think the rest of the essay will be about?
“Living Like Weasels”
If you noted that both examples refer to the weasel’s tenacity, then you are on
the right track. Weasels bite and they do not let go—even if, as the second
example demonstrates, this trait kills them.
These paragraphs do not contain a thesis statement. Dillard, then, does not
announce the meaning in the lead, although she has given us abundant clues,
nor does she specifically provide a thesis; instead, she points us in the general
So, without reading the rest of the essay, in what direction has Dillard pointed
us? Well, quite simply, she is intrigued by the weasel’s instinctual response to
prey and danger. Will this be a zoological essay, one that you might find in
Discover or National Geographic? The title, “Living Like Weasels,” gives you
an excellent clue.
A weasel does not live like a weasel. A weasel is a weasel. So, what or who
might live like a weasel? Yep, you guessed it: humans might try to live like a
weasel. In the rest of the essay Dillard explores that possibility; of course, she
is not thinking that we can become weasels. Rather, she is interested in the
more figurative sense of living like a weasel.
Elements of Good Leads:
Fulfilling Promises
Those of you who have been taught that you must have a thesis at the beginning of
all your essays might be wondering where she states the point, shows us the
significance, fulfills her purpose in writing? (Remember, good essays always
reward the readers with meaning. Descriptive writing, no matter how descriptive
it is, without a meaning is not good writing.)
She provides the meaning—at the end of the essay. This is a common strategy of
creative non-fiction writers. Half the fun of reading an creative non-fiction essay
comes from not knowing exactly where the writer is leading us. If they are good,
we willingly go along, as it were, for the ride. If you are working on a personal
narrative such as most ENG 131 teachers require for Paper 1, you too might want
to employ this strategy. Such a strategy rewards us with meaning at the end—
making the middle or body of the essay worth reading—and connects or helps us
circle back to the beginning.
On the next slide is Dillard’s last paragraph, her ending, where she makes the
meaning of her essay and references to weasels clear.
“Living like Weasels” conclusion
I think it would be well, and proper, and obedient, and pure, to grasp your one necessity
and not let it go, to dangle from it limp wherever it takes you. Then even death, where
you're going no matter how you live, cannot you part. Seize it and let it seize you up aloft
even, till your eyes burn out and drop; let your musky flesh fall off in shreds, and let your
very bones unhinge and scatter, loosened over fields, over fields and woods, lightly,
thoughtless, from any height at all, from as high as eagles.
The lead, then, prepares us for this ending. If you compare the two, you will see
that the ending repeats some of the language and images that we saw in the lead—
and throughout the rest of the essay. (Good writers use repetition to hold their
essays together.) Of course, if she merely repeated what she said in the lead, we
would not know any more than we knew at the beginning. Obviously, she goes
much further here, using repetition to remind us of the major theme—not letting
go. She gives us the larger implications of living like a weasel, of not letting go;
that is, if you find your calling and seize it, life will become a transcendent
experience. Of course, the opposite is also true; miss your calling or neglect it and
you will live an earth-bound life.
Elements of Good Leads: Academic
Writing and Road Maps
As I said earlier, Dillard’s lead works best in more informal rhetorical situations.
In most formal, academic writing, a clear thesis and an organizing statement is
generally expected or required. For example, in a short argumentative paper, the
lead might look like this:
Although MTV programmers argue that Beavis and Butthead are nothing more than
cartoon characters, they are actually dangerous role models. They promote cynical
nihilism, violent misogyny, and the bankrupt morality of situational ethics.
This lead, only two sentences long, actually covers a great deal of territory and
does a great deal of work. For instance, the dependent clause which opens the lead
(“although MTV programmers…cartoon characters”) offers a counter-argument
to the thesis which is contained in the second half of the sentence (‘they are
…dangerous role models”). The last sentence provides us with a road map,
advanced organizer, or forecasting statement as your text calls this kind of
sentence. This sentence informs us that we will first read about cynical nihilism,
then misogyny, and so on. If the paper doesn't actually take us to these “places” as
promised, we will be as upset and confused as we are when someone gives us
misleading directions to a home or business. The example by Etzioni about
McDonalds you examined earlier in this presentation is another good example of a
direct lead that contains a clear road map.
Other concerns
“Okay,” you are probably saying, “is there anything else I should be concerned
about?” The short answer is “yes”; the long answer is a bit more complicated. I
tell writers that they can do whatever works—including breaking some of the
“rules” I will give below. So, never say never. Hmmm.
Never apologize. Never suggest that you don't know what you're talking about or
that you're not enough of an expert in this matter that your opinion would matter.
Your reader will quickly turn to something else. Avoid phrases like the following:
•In my [humble] opinion . . .
•I'm not sure about this, but . . .
Never announce your intentions. Do not flatly announce what you are about to
do in an essay.
•The purpose of this essay is to . . .
•In this paper I will argue . . .
Caveat: In some academic circles, you will still see this kind of announcement
lead. Always consider the rhetorical situation, which includes considering the
“publication” requirements of teachers and editors.
Never use a dictionary or encyclopedia definition to begin a paper.
According to Merriam-Webster's Dictionary, a widget is . . .
Although definitions are extremely useful and it might serve your purpose to
devise your own definition(s) later in the essay, you should avoid using this cliched
beginning to an essay.
Never start a long, long, long time before the climax.
The morning of my first deer hunt we began with a huge breakfast. My mother
cooked mounds of hash browns, pancakes, sausages, fried eggs...[Two pages later
and the author has still not put us out in the field with a deer in her sights.]
Cut to the chase. Start in media res (in the middle of things.)
Never write generally. If you want to bore a reader or cause them to almost
immediately disagree with you, you will write generally.
Grandmothers are the nicest people.
Teachers are the most compassionate people I know.
A wise English teacher once wrote, “Don’t write about mankind, write about a
Fixing Bad Leads
It’s now time to apply some of what you have learned so far. On the next three slides, you
will find four different bad leads followed by the writer’s stated purpose. You will be
diagnosing the problem and revising each of these four leads.
Activity 5: Part A. Your job is to first diagnose what is wrong with each lead. This will
require you to think back over all that we have covered thus far. Jot down what the major
problems are with the lead. You will have to pay close attention to not only the strategies the
writer is employing, but also to the stated purpose. Remember, the promise of a lead and the
purpose of the paper are intertwined.
Activity 5: Part B. Once you have diagnosed the major problems, you need to try to “fix”
each lead. That will require you to revise the lead. In some cases, it may require you to start
fresh. Remember, many writers write the lead last—after they know where the paper is
Bad Lead 1
Since the dawn of time, mankind has committed acts of murder. Beginning with the
caveman, simple weapons like sticks and stones were used. Later, they connected a
sharpened rock to a stick to create a spear. Even later, they figured out how to create a
primitive bow in order to shoot arrows. Much later, the long bow and the crossbow were
invented in order to shoot arrow farther and with more force…[and so on].
(Stated purpose: to explain the dangers of nuclear proliferation.)
Fixing Bad Leads
Bad Lead 2
This is a paper about how true friendship lasts forever. When I was assigned this paper, I
tried to think of topics that might satisfy my teacher, and this was one of the first ideas
that I came up with. I don’t know if this will be that great of a topic because I haven’t had
that many friends for a long time because I moved around a lot as a kid, but I can
remember one person who was always there for me.
(Stated Purpose: to describe a significant person.)
Bad Lead 3
Do you like rap music? Everyone I know likes rap music. It is the best music that is
played today because this music is so cool. I listen to rappers all the time even when I am
doing my homework for my college classes. Rap music has made my life different, just as
it has made society different.
(Stated purpose: to explain how rap music changed American culture.)
Fixing Bad Leads
Bad Lead 4
My mother was born in 1955 in Jackson, Michigan. Her mother was a housewife and her
father worked at Consumers. She went to Cascades, then Frost (when it was the middle
school), and finally moved on to Parkside High School. While in junior high she was a
cheerleader and played in the band. When she went to high school she quit
cheerleading, but she continued to play in the band. She was in the marching band for
four years. She was a good student and her teachers liked her. She wanted to go to
college, but instead she got married right out of high school to her high school
sweetheart, the man who would become my father. My father was a football player in
junior high and high school and he was on the track team throughout high school. He was
a year older than my mom and met her when they went to the homecoming dance, but
with different people. After graduating, he got a job and worked full-time. [The next
paragraph is about his father.]
(Stated purpose: To explain how orphans feel.)
Practicing Leads
As I wrote earlier, many writers write the lead last, but almost no writer writes
only one lead. They write many leads for each essay, searching for just the right
way to lead us into the essay. The following four practice leads come from one of
my ENG 132 students. The paper discussed the issue of soft drink and candy
machines in the public schools.
Practice Lead 1
In many of our schools today, a new group of predators are stalking children. No, it is
not the trench coat Mafia or the Bloods and the Crips. And no, it is not the Aryan Nation
or Al Qaida. Give up? It’s the school superintendent and the local soft-drink distributor,
an unholy alliance of need and greed.
Now, before you say, “whoa, how can they be considered predators?” let me remind
you of a few salient health facts. In the last twenty years ……
Practice Lead 2
Do you remember the elementary school lessons on nutrition you received? The
teacher would show you the food pyramid and remind you that you were supposed to eat
lots of fruits and vegetables. No lesson was complete without a reminder to drinks lots of
water and milk. Milk was always a staple at lunch, and if you were got thirsty at recess,
there was the water fountain in the hallway. But, at many [try to have a number or
percentage] schools, soda machines filled with Coke or Pepsi have replaced the water
fountain and the milk carton.
Practice Leads
Practice Lead 3
Everyone knows that the public schools are hurting for money. In many areas of the
country, taxpayers vote down millage and other funding requests. Students are often
required to buy their own text books, arrange for their own transportation to athletic
events, or pay to play. Consequently, school boards and superintendents constantly are
on the look-out for alternative funding sources. The most recent funding source being
explored on school campuses is sharing the profit from soft drink and candy machines.
Practice Lead 4
Do you know what your children are eating at school? Do you know what they are
spending their lunch money on? If you said a well-balanced and nutritious hot lunch, you
would be wrong about half the time. High school students, increasingly middle school
students, and even elementary school children are passing up meats and grains, fruits
and vegetables, and milk and water for Cokes and candy, Pepsi and potato chips. Do you
know why?
Activity 6. Which leads do you like the best? Why? Jot down your reasons in your
GPAW notebook. How do they differ? Are they addressed to different audiences?
Different rhetorical situations? Would any of these serve as a model for one of
your papers? If so, which one? If not, why not?
Now it’s your turn!
So, now is the real test—applying what you have learned to your own writing. In
our composition classes, the real test of mastery is in the doing. If you cannot write
a good lead, knowing all that you might do or should not do is not very helpful.
After all, no one is going to give you a multiple choice test later in life on the
elements of a good lead, are they?
Activity 7: Part A. Take a hard look at the leads you have written for papers this
semester—in both your composition class and in your other classes. Are they filled
with concrete, specific and interesting pieces of information? Do they attract and
hold the reader’s attention? (If you aren’t sure, ask your friends if your lead
makes them want to keep reading.) Do they make a promise that the rest of the
essay fulfills? As we did earlier, diagnose the problems you see in your leads. Jot
down your answers in your GPAW notebook.
Activity 7: Part B. Once you have the problem diagnosed, then write at least three
(3) new leads for each paper you are still working on which address the problems
that you see in your present lead. Try a variety of strategies or a combination of
strategies. Many writers will tell you that they write countless leads trying to get
the right start to their essays, articles, even book length studies. Don’t be satisfied
with the same old introductory strategy you’ve always used in the past. Strive for
an exciting first line, a captivating image, a clear promise. Make sure that you
show these practice leads to your teacher.
Proof of Participation
Take a deep breath. You made it. You are finished. Whew!
To recap, most writing experts agree that a good lead should do the
•Attract and hold the reader's attention
•Include concrete and specific information
•Make the reader receptive to the writer's ideas
•Make a promise or establish a contract
•Point the reader in the general direction the paper will be heading or create
a specific “road map”
Print out this slide. Show it to you teacher, along with all the practice
activities you completed, to earn two hours of GPAW credit.
Comments on this workshop? Send them to [email protected]
Thanks for playing.
Bonus Reading
The following slides contains the essay, “For
Starters” by Connor Freff Cochran and the
long lead by David Quammen referenced
and linked earlier. Enjoy!
“For Starters”
Call me Ishmael (That was a good one.) It was the best
of times, it was the worst of times. Alice was beginning
to get very tired of sitting by her sister on the bank and
of having nothing to do. It has been a quiet week in
Lake Wobegon, my home town. Many years later, as he
faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendia was
to remember that distant afternoon when his father
took him to discover ice. Lately I have come to feel that
the pigeons are spying on me. Christmas Eve, 1955,
Benny Profane, wearing black levis, suede jacket,
sneakers and big cowboy hat, happened to pass through
Norfolk, Virginia. In the beginning God created the
heaven and the earth.
In the beginning. Something happened. To someone. Or
because of someone. Or something. Somewhere.
Somehow. And then the book/song/symphony/oneact/story/movie/play/campaign/show rolled, its audience
either rolling along or not, depending on the skill of the
creator, the strength of the creation, and the power of
that opening hook.
Just above I quoted a few favorite literary volleys from Herman Melville, Charles
Dickens, Lewis Carroll, Garrison Keillor, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Russell H.
Greenan, Thomas Pynchon, and Genesis. All of them different, to be sure, but all of
them proven hooks. (Irreverent thought: given the oft-credited authorship, Genesis
could be read as a lengthy employment resume.) Were you here with me and my CD
player, I could just as easily have made the point by using musical examples: the
bird-riot swell and swing of Yes's Close To The Edge, Beethoven's hammer-blow
Fifth and self-deconstructing Ninth, the teenage mutant organ warble of Prince's “I
Go Crazy”...or any first phrase by J.S.Bach, Johann's body of composed work being
the musical equivalent of the King James Bible. All different again—and yet there is
a common ground among them, a set of shared characteristics that can help us
understand and create our own beginnings that work.
Four of these shared elements strike me as particularly critical in the artist's quest to
avoid false starts, misfires, DOAs, non-ambulatory preambles, and beginnings that
flop and quiver like rancid cafeteria Jell-o cubes. In ascending order of importance
and subjectivity, these elements are:
(1) Clarity. I have a friend with a peculiar speech impediment. He stutters. Not
words, sentences. With him, the normally internal process of deciding how to express
a thought is made public. He begins to speak, stops in mid-sentence, starts again,
stops again, starts...until finally, after several such apparently random sentence
fragments, the listener perceives the single point which all the fragments aim at.
Before that revelation the effect is maddening. And misleading. My friend is one
sharp cookie, but a lot of people will never stick around to learn it. The same goes for
unfocused work in the arts, where no unpaid, unprepared, unprovoked audience
willingly endures a muddle.
Clarity requires that all beginnings be made of simple parts. Break that rule and you
leave the audience nothing to grasp, which means that you leave them behind. This
does not, by the way, rule out complex beginnings. But you must build complexity
out of clean pieces instead of pitching concept casserole at the first five rows. There
are musicologists who have spent their entire lives dissecting the first movement of
the Ninth, but at bottom its complexity reduces to one short phrase.
(2) Certainty. If clarity in a beginning is saying things plainly, then certainty is the
confidence of having plain things to say. It is a bridge to your audience's trust. There
they are, sitting in the concert hall or puttering about their living rooms or crammed
into standing room only, offering you their ears -- “Take 'em and shake 'em,” they
are saying—and all you really have to do is not blow it.
A beginning is no time to be a wimp.
Science Fiction writers refer to this audience phenomenon as “willing suspension of
disbelief.” In effect, it is license to take the time required to make your point, with
only one caveat—the audience has got to believe that a point is actually being made.
Support their belief and they will grant you the benefit of their doubt. Lose their
belief by projecting an uncertain purpose and they will trash you. “Call me Ishmael”
says Melville at the start of Moby Dick, not “You can call me Ishmael” or “My
friends on this boat I was on called me Ishmael” or “This is a whale of a story, hey?”
(3) Implied Complexity. On its own, a bowl of steamed rice is pretty boring. Ditto for
solid blue canvases and johnny one-note drones; good props for meditating on the
path to enlightenment, maybe, but not role models for a work of art. (The audience
can't applaud the play if the first act puts them to sleep.) For all its clarity and
certainty, then, a good beginning must also have spice, contrast, even contradiction.
It must have tension and no release. More than merely establishing a threshold, it
must convince the audience that a larger, wilder, more interesting world exists on
that threshold's other side. In short, good beginnings hint broadly. Re-read those
opening sentences quoted above to see this for yourself. The most laidback of the lot,
the one used week after week by Garrison Keillor in his radio monologs—“It has
been a quiet week in Lake Wobegon, my home town”—is nothing but a hint, being
spoken in an America where Keillor's rural-to-the-point-of- mythic midwestern life
is as alien as anything Isaac Asimov ever wrote.
(4) Clank Factor. At least, that's what I like to call it. More academic (but less
visceral) terms for the same effect might be “Carefully Incomplete Completeness” or
“Applied Curiosity Enhancement.” It's teasing, is what it is: holding out on the
really good stuff.
In one way, Clank Factor is a measurement of artistic boldness. The test for it is to
get through the beginning of something and then make an abrupt stop. Pack up your
instrument. Punch the tape deck's PAUSE button. Put the book down. Turn off the
VCR. A proper beginning will have raised questions, excited your interest. If the
beginning in question has a high Clank Factor, stopping now will be torture; leaving
those questions unanswered and that interest unfulfilled will feel like throwing a rod
five seconds into the first lap of the Indianapolis 500. CLANK. Rattle. Crash.
Conversely, dropping a piece of work that has little or no Clank is as easy as not
dating your sister. Unfortunately for creators, Clank Factor is incredibly subjective.
“Fascinatin' Rhythm” just won't garner the same response in a Tuscaloosa bar and a
Boston cabaret. But you can improve your chances by casting as broad a net as the
focus of your beginning will allow.
Back to old principles—for teasing to work you've got to promise more than you're
delivering (yet). Contrasts can help, as Stravinsky showed in combining a high clear
woodwind and low moody strings at the beginning of Le Sacre du Printemps.
Establishing the endpoints of a big story is also effective, as is bluntly contradicting
accepted belief. Garcia Gabriel Marquez does both of those beautifully in his quoted
sentence, linking idyllic childhood with imminent death by firing squad, and turning
refrigerator ice into something rare and mysterious. There is far more to be said
about beginnings than could ever be covered in this space. That they are radically
different things for artist and audience, for example. That searching for them starts
like prospecting and ends up like Olympic wrestling. That you can always start with
no beginning in mind, then come back to that challenge later. That each medium
(and even each subject) liberates and imprisons beginnings in a different way. That
they often take more time than the rest of the work. That beginnings establish
context instead of benefiting from it. And that they are generally pure murder to
conceive, so when they come easy watch out, because it means that what's ahead will
come hard...
But what I most want to leave you with is this: As important as beginnings are, they
are not as important as endings.
“Humble is the Prey”
By David Quammen
The carcass of a freshly killed goat flies through the air, cartwheeling upward and
outward over the heads of a phalanx of tourists. Ninety pounds of inert protein, it ascends
toward its apogee bearing the weight of a ponderous question: Is there a place in our
world for the great flesh-eating predators that made no distinction between, goat, deer,
and human?
It rises through the hot tropical air above a deep gulley, and my attention, until now
diverted elsewhere, shifts to fix on it "The goat," says a voice in my brain. "I didn't realize
that they'd throw it." Spotlighted by shafts of sunlight penetrating the tamarind trees, it
floats through a backward somersault. For an instant it hangs. We tourists, all 70-some,
gape. On one level, what's being offered is just bait. On another, it's a proxy for
ourselves. And then the goat falls. It lands with a meaty wallop on bare dirt.
Nine giant reptiles pile onto it like NFL linemen.
Nine giant reptiles snarf and gobble. They chomp. They gorge. They thrash, they
scuffle, they tug and twist. They stir up one hellacious ruckus. The goat, or whatever is
left of it after a minute of this is invisible now, and the reptiles have composed themselves
into a neat radial pattern, jaw-locked side by side, tails swinging, like a monstrous ninepointed starfish. Their round-snouted faces, which looked amiable as old work boots until
just a moment ago, have gone smeary with blood.
When the goat rips in half, they split into mobs and the tussling continues. They have
each sized a mouthful, but the mouthfuls are still held together, barely, by a battered
skeleton. They wrestle. They lunge for new jaw-grips and clamp down, straining greedily
against the tensile limits of goat bone and sinew. It all happens fast. The lucky ones
snatch away big gobbets, swallow hastily, and dive back for more. They climb over one
another, foot to face, elbow to eyeball, for second helpings. Their teeth are terrible little
knives, serrated along the cutting edge, perfectly suited for slicing out great whonks of
meat, yet despite the wild scramble they manage somehow to avoid mutilating one
another. They compete madly, but they don't fight. They ignore the five dozen Nikons and
Minoltas that crackle above them like Chinese firecrackers. They polish off the goat-flesh
and offal, skull and backbone, hide and hooves-as thoroughly as if it were a hamburger.
Only about 12 minutes pass, maybe 15, until two of the more tenacious animals are
scuffling over a last slimy bone. The others splay out onto their bellies, relaxing on the
bare cool dirt of the gully in patches of shade. They rest and digest.
These aren't crocodilians. They're something more extraordinary: dry-land reptilian
predators that lurk in savanna forest within one small region of eastern Indonesia, where
they reign at the top of the food chain, eating any and every sort of red-blooded victim
that's reckless enough to give them a chance. They are the largest and most fearsome of
all lizards, cartoonishly notorious, almost legendary, though not well or widely
comprehended in their herpetological actuality. What I mean by that: everybody's heard
of them, but nobody's hear much. Truth is, they're even more astonishing, in the flesh, in
the wild, than their reputation would seem to promise.
It's Sunday on the island of Komodo, and I've come here to ask the ponderous
question: Can humanity live with dragons?
Can we live without them? What will we lose from the wild places on Earth-from our
sense of the word wild itself-when we lose all prospect of being devoured by homicidal
OUTSIDE, copyright October 1992
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Leads - Jackson College