Writers Plain & Simple has largely addressed fiction writing so far, mostly because one of my liveliest clients is engaged in a vast novel, and because on the side I’ve been scribbling my own little future history. So of course I haven’t carried on about details like journalistic leads. Yet.
But not all of us write fiction. Come to think of it, I happen to be primarily a nonfiction writer myself — all my published books are nonfiction, and I spent 15 years writing for and editing national and regional magazines.
So let’s take a look at a genre that can (in some circumstances) represent real, paying work: the magazine feature.
Without going into a lot of detail about what a feature is, let’s allow that to engage a reader in taking on the task of reading an 800- to 3,000-word magazine article, you as the writer must connect with the person very fast — within the first few words you present. You do that in the story’s lead: one to maybe half-a-dozen paragraphs designed to draw the reader into the story and situate her or him in your subject.
Typically a nonfiction article has either a lead followed by body copy or, more often, a lead, a “nut paragraph” summarizing the theme or point of the article, and the body copy.
Let’s consider types of leads. Here’s a baker’s dozen for you:
1. Focus on a Person
Showing a person whose experience underscores what the story is about can humanize an otherwise dry topic or show the reader how the story’s information might effect her or him. Here’s a lead for a Wall Street Journal article that, despite being full of soporific figures such as market shares held by AT&T, MCI, Sprint, GTE, and United Telecommunications, manages to keep the reader’s interest by translating the numbers into human terms:
When Paul C. Seitz was asked to pick a long-distance phone company last year, the 36-year-old accountant from Wilmington, Del., spent “all of about a minute” pondering his options. Then he chose American Telephone and Telegraph Co., the carrier he had always used. With AT&T, he explains, “I knew what I had. The other companies were question marks.”
2. Start with an anecdote.
An anecdote is a mini-story with its own beginning, middle, and end. When it appears as an article’s lead, it should lead into the larger story by making a transition into the capsule statement (nut paragraph) or body of the story. To do this, it should make a strong point that underscores the article’s subject, or it should serve as a capsule statement in itself.
Marcia Stamell opened a service piece for Savvy about negotiating a severance package with this tale:
Late one Friday afternoon in 1982, Ellen G., an advertising account manager with seven years’ experience at a New York agency, was told by her boss that her services would no longer be needed. He gave her a check for two weeks’ severance and asked her to clean out her office. Ellen spent Friday evening commiserating with friends. She spent the weekend planning. On Monday morning, she returned to the company to present to the personnel office, in writing, a request for office space and six months’ pay. “My rationale was that two weeks was nowhere near the time I needed to find a new job,” she says. “I also wrote that after seven years, I deserved a better break.
She got the office space, but it took some negotiation with the personnel officer before arriving at a financial settlement of one week’s pay for each year of service, accrued vacation pay, and a specialized payment schedule of half-time salary over 14 weeks. the package was less than Ellen had hoped for, but it prolonged the steady flow of income and gave her a tax advantage. And it was as good deal more generous than two weeks’ pay.
This anecdote leads into the nut paragraph, which explains that a growing number of nonunion workers are asking for and receiving sweetened severance packages when they are discharged from their jobs. Then the story explains how to get one for yourself.
3. Give an example or a series of briefly stated examples.
Often a short case history can illustrate a problem the story will address. This kind of lead is very popular with women’s magazines and health-care publications. Daniel Holzman, writing for Insight, opened a report on long-term health care costs with this:
“Pop had to be put in a nursing home at a cost to my mother of about $2,400 per month,” a man from Cicero, Ill., wrote to the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare, “and neither Medicare nor Medicaid could help because my parents had a nest egg. The law is without pity. Had my father lived for just two more years in a nursing home, my mother would have had to spend the rest of her life in poverty, but God called Pop to his eternal rest in one year, instead of two. My mother and I can never forget the terrible feeling of relief we had when Pop died. We can only live with it in shame. We loved him.
4. Lead with a quote.
Note that the lead above opens with a quotation. Many editors, particularly those with newspaper training, dislike a lead that opens with dialogue. However, they sometimes will go with it if the lead works exceptionally well.
5. Open with a rhetorical question.
This tactic is also problematic; many editors strongly dislike rhetorical questions, mostly because they can appear patronizing or may lead the reader to talk back with an answer the writer did not intend to elicit. A rhetorical question is one posed so that the writer can provide the answer.
When handled with skill, though, the rhetorical question can work as a lead, as it does in Homer Circle’s “Skamania: Indiana’s Super Steelhead,” which appeared in Sports Afield:
Which freshwater fish weighs an average of between 12 and 20 pounds, slams your lure with a hair-raising jolt, screams line off your reel with alarming speed, splits the air with slashing, leaping runs, and shucks free about three out of five times to leave you with nothing but a memory of it?
The answer is Skamania, a very special steelhead found almost exclusively in Indiana.
6. Launch into a narrative.
The narrative lead (first this happened, then this, then this. . .) opens the story with a chain of events unfolded in chronological order, which carry the reader into the story’s substance. This sort of thing often appears in Reader’s Digest, as in Emily and Per Ola d’Aulaire’s story, “Falling from Mt. Garfield.”
It was 3 a.m. when Florian Ioan Wells arrived at the Parsley house in Seattle, Wash. The 33-year-old aerospace engineer had driven from across town, where his wife and daughter still slept peacefully. Craig Parsley, a 25-year-old environmental technician, had been careful not to disturb his wife when he blinked himself awake.
Over breakfast the two men discussed their plan for that day, May 14, 1983. They were going to climb one of Mt. Garfield’s western peaks, a minor if perilous crag in the Cascade Range east of Seattle. For them it was a routine climb, and neither had bothered to pinpoint for his wife where he would be.
As they headed in Craig’s truck toward the mountains, the two men talked about the importance of physical and mental conditioning. Both had years of climbing experience. Before fleeing to the United States with his family in 1979 to escape the confines of a Communist regime, Florian had been a member of Romania’s Mountain Rescue Team. Craig, a native Californian, had taken up the sport in the ninth grade.
When they reached the mountain, the sky was cloudy and the temperature was 34 degrees Fahrenheit. Conditions weren’t ideal, but the men decided to continue on, hoping the weather would hold. Scrambling over rocks and through gullies, they hiked two miles to the climbing area. it was 8 a.m. when they roped up and started climbing the half-mile-high granite face that led to the 4,896-foot-high summit.
7. Set the scene.
In this approach, the writer establishes the story’s locale or circumstances and then puts the players in place. New York Times Magazine writer Stephen G. Michaud takes us into the office of forensic experts dedicated to recovering the remains of Argentine terrorism victims (“Identifying Argentina’s ‘Disappeared’”).
On a warm November afternoon, four friends gather to talk in a windowless upper room of an old office complex in downtown Buenos Aires. One is a medical student; two have undergraduate degrees in anthropology and another is working toward one. Although they speak with measured dispassion, their subject is death, violent death—the kind only state terrorism can produce.
“Generally, we find the victims’ skulls exploded and the bullets still inside them,” says Mercedes Doretti. As she sips her coffee, Alejandro Inchaurregui elaborates: “They used cheap coffins which quickly rot away. Also, sometimes we find their hands have been chopped of and mixed up with others.”
“At first we were very scared, and this has been a very emotional experience for us all,” Patricia Bernardi says. “We knew as soon as we started, we would be marked. The police are always there, and I remember a day when one of them turned to a police doctor at one grave site and said, ‘If we had done it right 10 years ago, these people wouldn’t be here now.’”
“They asked us all the time, ‘Why are you doing this? What kind of ideology do you have?’” adds Luis Fondebrider.
Note the length of this lead and of the one that precedes it: four paragraphs each. Magazine leads may run longer than the one- or two-paragraph lead you see in newspaper features.
8. Lead with some striking, well written description.
Before me is what looks like a small, serene idol. It is in fact a beautiful child, eyes outlined in black ointments, dark hair gleaming with mustard oil, relieving herself in the street. I try to move left but bump into a businessman’s briefcase. Nudging right, I’m nudged back by a bull wearing a necklace of marigolds. Pressed from behind by a piping flute seller, I step over the child as a bus blares up the narrow brick canyon, missing us all by inches. Within its coils of exhaust a man painted orange, carrying a snake-headed staff, takes form, nods at me, then vanishes behind a jostle of teenagers with stereo headphones working out their rock ’n’ roll moves. Pagodas that writhe with erotic carvings trust roof upon roof above the trees, where big bats hang like fruit. And above the rooftops pure white snow peaks reach upward toward the stratosphere. At the moment all I’m looking for is the local computer club—somewhere in the magic confusion of modern Kathmandu.
With this tapestry-like imagery, National Geographic writer Douglas H. Chadwick introduces us to the sights, sounds, smells, and people of an almost unimaginably exotic locale in “New Forces Challenge the Gods at the Crossroads of Kathmandu.”
9. Flash an odd, unusual, or outrageous statement.
HENDRICKS COUNTY, Ind.—Detective Michael Nelson is walking a beat with one foot in the Twilight Zone.
So Wall Street Journal reporter Alex Kotlowitz launched a story about a cop who covers the witchcraft beat.
10. Or pose a surprising contrast.
Often you can point out that although things may look one way, they’re actually something else. Donna Fenn set an old chestnut against reality to open a story for Inc. on mousetraps through the ages:
“If a man can write a better book, preach a better sermon, or make a better mousetrap than his neighbor, though he builds his house in the woods the world will make a beaten path to his door.” —Ralph Waldo Emerson
Emerson had it all wrong. If you make a better mousetrap, chances are you will be completely ignored by the public at large and destined to labor in obscurity. Such, at least, was the fate of many a hopeful inventor how took the philosopher’s advice literally.
11. Address the reader as “you” in the first few sentences.
This device is common and easy. Diane Hales uses it to open a McCall’s story on “How to Say You’re Sorry.”
You snapped at your husband, kept a friend waiting for an hour, forgot your sister’s birthday, wounded a co-worker’s feelings. Now you’re sorry, but you don’t know how to express your regrets. And you’re wondering why making up is so hard to do.
12. Skip the frou-frou and open with the capsule statement.
Gary Graf’s story in Air & Space., “Putting Mars on the Map,” opens with the nut paragraph: the statement of what the story will be about.
Through the 1960s and ’70s, a series of space probes took off from Cape Canaveral on picture-taking expeditions to Mars. Today the pictures are yielding information that will end up on maps of the planet’s surface. In the 21st century, Earthlings landing on Mars won’t worry about getting lost; they’ll arrive with maps of the sort familiar to legions of Earthbound back-packers, maps with “U.S. Geological Survey” printed at the bottom.
13. State your opinion.
Journalists are rarely asked for their opinions, except when they write a review or op-ed piece. Even in those cases, unless one is a recognized authority on a subject, one should avoid trumpeting one’s bias up front. But in an instance that works, two publishing industry consultants, DeWitt Baker and Jim Hileman, excerpt their report on “College Publishers and Used Books” for Publishers Weekly.
The world of college text publishing is populated by many highly dedicated and talented people. The difficulty is that in important respects the whole does not seem to equal the sum of the parts.