Writing: Finding the Buried Lead

If you’ve studied journalism, you know that a good article depends on catching readers’ attention in the first sentence. The same is true for narrative nonfiction, personal essays, memoir and yes, even scenes.

Writing Tip for Today: When you revise, oftentimes your opening gets buried. Here are some tips for moving your lead to its best location.

Look for the Hook

As we have discussed in recent posts, throat-clearing can take over as we draft. We often write a lot of info the reader doesn’t care about (yet) in order to set-up our piece. Readers care more about action than set-up. Yes, you do need to establish a time and place and let readers know who’s narrating. But more often than not, backing up to describe events that lead up to your purpose or theme only confuse as readers try to figure out where you want them to go.

If you’ve drafted a piece, try to let it sit for a spell before you revise. You’ll need objectivity to be as bold as necessary in revisions. Go draft something new or work on self-editing an older piece or scene. The amount of time to “cool off” varies with individuals and skill levels, but I generally want at least twenty-four hours before I revise.

When you get out the work again, read it in its entirety before you begin to edit. Look for a sentence or paragraph that jumps out. I sometimes think of this as my Interest Meter. When my meter goes off the charts, I will try out that sentence/paragraph as the whole piece’s opening or lead. When you locate the first place that lights up your interest, you have a candidate for your opening.

Keep Purpose in Mind

As you read over your draft, keep the piece/essay/scene purpose in mind. A line that’s funny but that leads readers in a different direction than the work’s purpose will only confuse further. Instead look for a grabbing sentence/paragraph that also hints at the overall purpose or theme.

As you read to find that lead, be aware that you may not have written it yet. Perhaps you got so deep into details that you’ve neglected a hook entirely. If that’s the case, take a step back and ask yourself what your essay/scene is about. What do you want your readers to experience?

A scene/essay without a purpose will frustrate readers.

Keep in mind, too, that a scene/piece without a purpose will likely frustrate readers. If you build tension but there is no goal, stated or unstated, readers will wonder why they’re reading. Every scene or essay part must move your story toward its goal. Goals might be as simple as will she get the guy? Or as complex as whether or not the protagonist will find a way to be happy again.

Moving that Lead

You’ve located a great intro sentence, but it’s halfway down page two. How do you get it to the opening? With your computer program, it’s easy to move bits and pieces around. Just highlight and drag or cut and paste. If you cut and paste to try out a different lead, you might feel more comfortable copying your draft into a new doc where the original can remain the same.

When you move up a paragraph to strengthen your lead, adding or subtracting little bits of info is often necessary. Don’t be afraid to try out this new introduction by adding or subtracting set-up details. If you worry about keeping your original, copy to a new doc and save it with a different file name. Some writers label these by date. Others number their drafts. It doesn’t matter what method you use as long as you label them clearly. I have worked in what I thought was my latest version only to discover I opened an older file.

Don’t be afraid to experiment with the order that your story unfolds.  If you keep your original, you can always revert to it. After you move stuff around and are satisfied, you’ll likely be amazed at the difference. Your essay or scene will sparkle in a way that it didn’t before. Next Time: Transitions to Manage Time.

About Linda S. Clare

I'm an author, speaker, writing coach and mentor. I teach both fiction and nonfiction writing at Lane Community College and in the doctoral program as expert writing advisor for George Fox University. I love helping writers improve their craft and I'm both an avid reader and writer of stories about those with wounded hearts.

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